Sunday, February 21, 2010

What kind of feedback do you want?

I’ve been talking quite a lot recently about feedback – from singers and choir leaders and from audiences. But not all feedback is equal.

Feedback can come in many forms: speech, writing, applause, by email, face to face, and so on. Sometimes one form is more useful than another.

gorilla clapping

But will you get the feedback you want? As Dr. Gregory House says in the TV series House: “Everybody lies”. Can you trust people’s responses? And are you even asking the right questions?

types of feedback

  • spoken in the moment – this can be the best kind of feedback as it’s right there, in the moment. But it can be inappropriate for someone to interrupt the proceedings. It might be better to ask people to feedback at the end of what you’re doing so things don’t get too disrupted.
  • spoken after the event – this can be audience members coming up to you in the bar after a concert, or a singer grabbing you at choir at the end of a session. If the gap between the event and the feedback is too long though, it might be harder to respond  properly.
  • overheard conversations – this is the kind of feedback that is not intended for your ears, but might be most valuable because of that! Sometimes people find it hard to be honest to your face, so this might be a way of getting to the truth.
  • second-hand reports – this amounts to gossip and should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s always coloured by the feelings and motivation of the person relaying the feedback. However, it’s sometimes useful to have a ‘friend’ in the choir or audience who can feedback to you what people around them have been saying. This is similar to overheard conversations.
  • written down at your request – you might have a comments book at the end of a workshop or a concert, or you might give out a questionnaire to your choir, or the teacher might hand out a feedback form. This can often be open, but sometimes contains specific questions for you to answer.
  • unsolicited writing – if people feel strongly enough about something (they liked the concert a lot; they loved the workshop; they hate the way you deal with the altos), they might write to you without being asked. In this day and age it’s most often as an email. Try to keep these in perspective as they usually only represent one person’s view, and often come from the most outspoken, confident people as opposed to the silent majority.
  • applause – the most common form of feedback at concerts and sometimes workshops (including whoops and hollers and stamping feet!). This makes everyone feel GREAT! It’s instant, clear and in the moment. You know that you’ve done well.
  • getting it right – another instant form of feedback is when you’ve nailed a song or a tricky passage, either as singer or choir leader. You just know it’s gone well, but you’ll also usually be greeted with grins and smiles.
  • other feedback – I’m sure I’ve missed some out. Do let me know if you have other examples of feedback.

which is the best kind?

You might have a personal preference for certain kinds of feedback.

Personally I’d much rather write to someone than face them if I have a criticism! I’m happy to receive feedback in any form, but as a teacher and choir leader, seeing people happy and enjoying themselves is the best. Frowns and sideways glances is the worst!

You may decide that certain kinds of feedback are better suited to particular circumstances. Asking questions while being taught a song might not be best. Better to leave it until the end. Comments forms are good at the end of workshops, but some people don’t like writing in public or have to rush off, so make sure you’re contactable by other means.

Not every kind of feedback suits everyone, so make sure there are always alternatives available.

Not all feedback is equal. Gossip is probably less accurate than face to face feedback. Although people don’t always tell the truth!

everybody lies!

A cynical view at best, but there is some truth in this.

Often people want to please you or give you the answer that they think you want. Other times people want to be polite and not tell you what they really think. So take all feedback with a little pinch of salt. Unless of course everybody is saying the same thing!

Other times people might not know what they want, or maybe think they want one thing, but really want another.

I give out questionnaires to my choir every couple of years or so. The main questions are about repertoire: what is your favourite song? which songs do you like singing the least?

I used to ask things like: what is your favourite thing in our weekly sessions? Can you think of any interesting challenges for the choir? Are there types of songs that we don’t do that you think should be included? Is the warm up too long?

I quickly discovered that there are as many answers as there are choir members! It is very rare to find consensus on any one thing. It made me realise that a choir is a group of people who all agree to sign up to one person’s vision: the choir leader. It’s rather like a benign dictatorship.

The other thing that I discovered is that people may say one thing, but actually think or feel another. Many times in the questionnaires people asked for more songs in English and more contemporary pop songs. So I included a few in our repertoire.

When the next questionnaire came round, it turned out that the most popular songs were always the foreign language ones, and the songs that were least liked were the pop songs!

asking the right question

To get the right feedback you need to ask the right question.

In Indian culture people often want to please. When I was travelling in India I would sometimes ask people if this was the right road to get where I wanted to go. They would always say “Yes!” because they wanted to please me. It was seldom the right road.

I soon learnt that the better question would be “Which road do I need to take?” and they would point out the correct road.

You might ask the choir if everything is OK when you see them frowning. They might answer “Yes” because the state of being lost and confused is normal, so everything IS OK. Might be better to ask “How can I make it easier for you to learn this tricky bit?”

You might ask the audience if they enjoyed the evening. They might say “Yes” and you think that means the concert was good. But maybe they didn’t like most of the songs, but they had a great time catching up with their friends an admiring the acoustics.

You might ask your choir leader if the second half of the song is the same as the first, and she says “Yes”. She means that the tune is the same, but you were asking about the lyrics and the harmony parts coming in.

to wrap it all up

We all need feedback. In our lives and in our work. But there are many different kinds, many appropriate contexts, and we can’t always believe what we hear.

Many actors say they don’t read their reviews because they get too affected by the bad ones. But they don’t read the good ones either. It’s all subjective and it’s all too easy to be swayed and have our inner negative thoughts or big ego awoken.

So take feedback lightly. Don’t focus on the one negative comment in your choir of 60 singers, but also don’t think you’re wonderful just because you get an encore at your next concert.

Keep it all in balance, but do keep trying to do it better and continue to ask for feedback. Otherwise you will become complacent.

feedback please!

What do you think of this post? Was it of interest? Do you disagree with anything? Do you have anything to add? Drop by and leave a comment. I’ll be very grateful!


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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