Better Feedback on Creative Projects

If you have ever made something and presented it to an audience, you’ve probably had the horrible experience afterward of being told how great it was. To some, I’m sure that sounds dumb. Being told that you’re great shouldn’t be horrible. Unless, of course, you were hoping to learn something about how the audience perceives the things you make. As an audience member, I have found the exchange to be equally unsatisfying.[1] As a teacher, I often place myself and my students in these positions hoping that we will all learn something from it. A social media “friend” a while back directed me to a feedback system called Critical Response that I began using in my own sessions; and, it has dramatically improved their value. Remember, we don’t have feedback sessions for fun, even though they can be lots of fun. We have them for their utility: to learn to make stuff better and, in doing so, make better stuff.

Choreographer Liz Lerman developed the Critical Response Process (CRP) to solve the issue I described above. It does an excellent job of separating the personal tastes of the “responders” (audience, in Lerman’s system) from that of the artist. The artist gets to determine how well they[2] achieved their goal without getting into aesthetic disagreements. I’ll describe it here in broad strokes, but if you’re interested in implementing it, I strongly recommend her short book on the topic.

Lerman defines three roles in a CRP session: artist (composer), facilitator, and responder. After presenting the work, the process runs through four phases. What’s particularly interesting is the direction to hold value judgements (positive or negative) to the very end. Again, this allows everyone to focus on the artist’s goals and the audience perception without passing any judgement on those goals directly. As I describe the process, I’m going to assume we’re talking about music. But as Lerman’s subtitle explains, the system is valid for any creation, “from dance to dessert.”

  • Step 1: Statement of Meaning – The facilitator asks responders to explain what they heard as specifically as possible. Lerman suggests “What was stimulating, surprising, evocative, memorable, touching, or meaningful for you?” You may have noticed that these are not all value-neutral adjectives! In my limited experience with CRP, it’s hard to avoid this at this stage; but, I try not to let anybody get too effusive or negative.
  • Step 2: Artist as Questioner – The composer asks questions about specific elements of piece. This is not the time for “Did you like it when…?” or the well-worn “What did you think?” Those are just soliciting general opinions. There’s time for that later. Artist questions can provide insight into what the artist thinks is important about the work. They might ask, “Could you hear the gradual harmonic shift from measures 28 to 40?” Specific questions yield more useful responses.[3] When I first started, I should have done a better job at preparing composers (especially students) for this. Good questions here can really raise the value of subsequent steps. I would encourage composers to take a few moments to write some questions down.
  • Step 3: Neutral Questions from Responders – These questions are tricky for responders who are new to CRP, as it can take some effort to phrase certain questions in neutral ways. So instead of asking why the third movement was so long, the responder might ask how the composer is thinking about the structural proportions of the work. There might be a good reason for the third movement to be long. Maybe the issue isn’t the length, but rather how the third movement is prepared by the previous two, or how it develops, or something else. A neutral question allows everyone to frame issues in the context of the composer’s own goals for the piece. Neutral questions are a great way for the composer to learn how the audience perceives the music.
  • Step 4: Permissioned Opinions – Responders get to offer direct and clear opinions here for the first time in the process. However, they should ask permission first. The script goes something like “I have an opinion about [specific thing]. Do you want to hear it?” This gives the composer the chance to avoid getting bogged down in parts of the work that are still under heavy revision. So if there are certain elements of orchestration that are still being worked out, a composer might not want to waste time in a back-and-forth about what they consider to be a placeholder decision. A nice side-benefit: the time of asking the question allows the artist a quick moment to recall the reasoning that went into whatever the opinion is going to be about. This might allow them to respond more thoughtfully. In my experience as a composer, when I’m not “prepared” for an opinion, it’s much easier for me to get defensive or ignore the feedback entirely.

This process usually takes around 30–35 minutes for my composition students. When you add time for listening to the work, this is approaching our weekly meeting time of 50 minutes. During certain times of the year, I may try to cram two of these into one meeting time, which often means that I have to cut a section short, or cut it entirely. I nearly always eliminate Step 4. Not only can these opinions be expressed and discussed after class, I think that both composers and responders actually get a lot more out of the questioning steps than the opinions. These are people that see each other and discuss music regularly anyway, so they tend to be quite familiar with one another’s musical taste. In the best of all possible worlds, we would always have time for all four steps. In this world. We sometimes live with three-and-a-half steps.

If you’re looking to implement a form of CRP in your feedback sessions, I have a few bits of advice. First, to paraphrase a great American philosopher, you don’t have to take my word for it. Buy the Lerman book. My outline above is a very high-level overview. The book offers a lot of detail on variations, examples, and specific advice for facilitators of the process that can make or break a session. And of course, I would hate to think that somebody read this 300-word summary instead of supporting Lerman’s work. Second, be sure you do a good job of explaining the process before you do the first run. Explain each step; give examples; and most of all, explain why the steps are structured the way they are. For those accustomed to either a critical firing squad or anti-critical Care Bear Stare, this will be a little uncomfortable and may come across as arbitrary at first. In my experience, it is worth getting over that hump, and the efficient way to do that is adequate preparation for the first sessions.

I would be curious to hear from any readers about feedback sessions you use for your creative work. What is your process like? Do you use a form of CRP? Any advice you’d like to share? Drop a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter.

  1. In fact, I know there are times when I’m so concerned about what I’m going to say to a composer or performer at the end of a performance, that I’m distracted from the music they’re making right in front of me. I know. I’m a terrible person.  ↩
  2. Yes. I used a singular “they”. You should too.  ↩
  3. Lerman does warn against questions that are too specific, but that has not be a problem in my sessions so far.  ↩