Four golden rules for giving feedback to students (or any other players for that matter)

There is definitely an art to giving good, constructive, positive and encouraging feedback. Even if well intentioned, providing feedback in a less than desirable manner can leave the recipient feeling less than desired!

As a teacher I’m giving some kind of feedback on pretty much a daily basis, and as a player I’m also receiving feedback from my audience, my peers and my own wonderful mentor. You too may find yourself in one or both of these positions. I’d love to know what your own experience is of giving feedback.

So, when giving feedback, or critiquing, or offering pointers for further improvement for someone in whatever circumstance that may be, I find there are always 4 golden rules to follow for maximum effectiveness in delivery of the message:

(1) What’s the reason for you giving feedback? Giving feedback is ALWAYS about the receiver

If you’re providing your wisdom and opinion to feel superior, to make others feel inferior (and thereby supporting a need to feel significant), to showcase your superb knowledge, to demonstrate how much you know (or think you know), to demonstrate why your opinion counts…..If you’re giving feedback for any of these reasons, it’s probably not a great reason to be giving feedback and being quiet in these circumstances is probably a good course of action!

Now, the vast majority of folks in the classical guitar world most definitely do not fall into this, but just in case you were tempted……. 😉 Giving feedback is and always should be about the receiver of the feedback – about helping them, about assisting their development, about boosting their skills, mindset or approach, about showing them alternatives.

(2) Always ask permission

Now, if you’re in a student-teacher kind of situation the permission to provide feedback is kind of already implied in that situation – the student is usually paying you to provide feedback in some form to help them progress. That’s kinda how it works!!

However, if this is not the situation, or you’re working with others, it’s always courteous to ask the person in question whether you can give them some feedback. It’s just polite really. And if the person is not up for feedback that’s their issue and not yours.

Nine times out of ten, though, if you say something along the lines of “That was great. I really liked X, Y and Z. I was thinking of some things that could make it even more awesome (or some words to that effect) next time, would you like some insights from another perspective?” the answer will be probably be “OK, yes please” or something similar.

If you ask for permission, you immediately set the conversation off on the right foot, sets out your positive intention and the person is fully open and receptive to receiving information that they know is about helping them.

If they say no thanks, then that’s all good. You’ve saved your energy and brain power. If someone is not ready or in the right space for feedback then that’s not your concern.

Always, always ask for permission.

(3) Avoid telling someone that they “need” to do something

No one ever “needs” to anything. OK, sometimes they might do, especially breathing, eating, drinking water, staying alive and that fundamental kind of stuff! What you think they “need” to do is all about you and your perspective and your take on the world. If you think it’s an absolute, no-brainer, blindingly obvious thing, remember that’s coming from your point of view of the world.

Offer it up to them as your opinion instead, something you’d recommend they take a look at. So instead of “you need to do X, Y, Z”  use words along the lines of “I’ve seen X, Y, and Z really work for myself and others and it sounds great/ looks great/ feels fantastic (whatever you want to choose to describe whatever you’re talking about – give evidence), so you may want to think about giving that a go. What do you reckon?” 

How much nicer does that sound instead of saying “you need to do this”?

Think about it like this – “need” is the equivalent of force-feeding something which is undeniably nutritious and delicious – it’s good for you but doesn’t do much for you if it’s forced down your throat, kinda hurts, and an experience you don’t really want to repeat. Compare that with someone plating up the same delicious morsel, with haute cuisine presentation, allowing the aromas to gently work their way into your brain until you’re slavering to gobble it down!

(4) Give them a sandwich

I recommend the sandwich approach when giving feedback to others, and this is a widely recommended model in fact. Here’s a wee example:

So, start off with the positive (which is like the top piece of bread of the sandwich):

I really loved how you played that piece. Lovely phrasing and great tone…..”

Then offer up the developmental stuff (this is the “interesting” stuff in the middle of the sandwich, the jam or the meat):

“You know, I think if you perhaps looked at this particular section in isolation to tighten up those slurs, get those arpeggios really smooth and flowing, like so…. (perhaps demonstrate what you mean), I think it could really add an extra dimension to the piece. What do you think?”

Then round off the feedback with more positive (the bread at the bottom of the sandwich):

“Overall, really great playing and you’ve been making some fantastic progress with this piece. Well done! I’m so proud.