This is the text of a presentation I gave at the inaugural Teaching Composition Symposium at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on 21 October 2022. I’m told presentations were video-recorded, so I’ll update this post later with that recording. [conference slides, text PDF]
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of getting feedback on a composition that was well-meaning, but ultimately unhelpful. Even someone telling you how great your music was or how much they loved it is often frustrating because it’s hard to know what they heard that made them love it. Feedback that your music was mind-blowing and that your music was stomach-turning are equally unhelpful, because without more information, it’s impossible to learn something from this feedback.
In this presentation, I’ll talk about some of the common limitations of informal, unstructured feedback like this; and I’ll describe how I have used Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP) to better support and motivate composers in my studio, and how you might implement it in yours.
In my previous experiences with critique sessions in studio classes, I found that the feedback offered usually said a lot more about the person offering it than it did about the music they were nominally responding to. Rather than suggesting how the composer might have written a work differently, this feedback often seems to answer the question “How would this piece have gone if I had written it, rather than you.” While I do think there should be space for composers to respectfully challenge one another’s creative intent, it is worth starting by identifying what that intent was to begin with. A better feedback system should assume that each composer in the room has a different set of musical goals and experiences.
An important secondary benefit of group feedback in a composition studio—at least to me—is developing a sense of creative community. I want the composers in my studio to want to support each other and collaborate with one another. My studio includes first semester undergraduate students, graduate student composers, and everything in between. In unstructured critique sessions, the less experienced students often felt intimidated by the older students, assuming that they had nothing meaningful to say about their work. And graduate students would often unintentionally patronize or belittle the newer composers. Another goal for my feedback sessions is to create space for meaningful responses from anyone in the group, even those who are very new to music and music composition studies.
I think critique sessions are an important way of building a creative community within my studio, giving them more perspectives than only my own or another faculty composer’s. But I found that the feedback composers received in these sessions often backfired: it often made them feel less confident and motivated to improve their work.
Now that I’ve described some of the limitations of unstructured feedback, I want to give an overview of CRP, slightly adapted for composers, and my experiences implementing it within my studio classes at Wichita State University and elsewhere.
Critical Response Process
CRP was developed by Choreographer Liz Lerman to help improve her work, especially during the workshopping process, though it is not specific to dance. My description will follow the process as Lerman describes it in two books—both co-authored with John Borstel—2003’s Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process and 2022’s Critique is Creative. The second of these came out just after I submitted the proposal to give this talk and includes not only a new description of the process itself, but also some chapters from outside contributors about their experiences using CRP, several outside of dance. If you’re interested in implementing this process after today’s presentation, I highly recommend either of these books.
There are three main roles in CRP: the artist, responders, and the facilitator. I will use “artist”—Lerman’s word—and “composer” interchangeably here. The responders, in my most common use of the process, are the other students, but it could easily include faculty, other musicians, or even non-musicians. The facilitator leads the discussion and enforces the structure that I’ll discuss in a moment. I would personally recommend the facilitator going over everything I’m about to describe privately with the composer before the session, and then give an introduction to the whole group of responders if they are new to CRP at the beginning of the session. I have also found that with new groups of responders, the facilitator may also need to momentarily play the role of responder in the interest of modeling the kinds of engagement that fits each step of the process. As a possible fourth role, you may wish to have a dedicated notetaker, though for smaller groups like the ones I usually lead (around ten or fewer), that may not be practical or necessary.
One interesting consideration is when in the composition process to engage in feedback from a larger group. I personally like to use CRP with works that are still in progress, rather than those that are completed, since it can be hard to take a piece apart and put it back together once it is already complete, and for all sorts of external reasons—like the need to prepare a senior recital or meet an application deadline—students may not have the time to significantly revise an already-complete composition. At the same time, the work needs to be substantial enough that there is something to which responders can respond. So, it needs to be more substantial than a sketch, but not necessarily a complete draft.
When presenting a work in class, I usually have students share a PDF of the score and audio realization in our studio Discord (though sometimes a video or a live performance may be relevant). I know there are lots of issues around relying too heavily on computer realizations, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks in this particular instance, and I discuss relevant caveats with students beforehand. I ask the composer to not say very much about their piece before we listen to avoid “priming” the responders, but I do ask them to briefly describe what proportion of the total piece they are about to present. For example, they might say “this is the first half of the second of three movements of a work for woodwind quintet”. After that introduction, we listen to the piece and follow the score, and then we begin Lerman’s process.
Critical Response has four distinct steps.
Step 1: Statements of Meaning
Critical Response begins by simply asking about what things the audience perceived—not necessarily what they liked or didn’t like, or even what “worked” and didn’t “work”. I ask responders to think about answering the question “What did you hear?” For example, they might say something like “I heard two distinct sections”, or “I heard bluesey harmony”, or “I heard a Thelonius Monk quote”. Lerman suggests the facilitator frame even more specific questions like “What was meaningful?” or “What was interesting?”. These can be useful in steering towards feedback that is somewhat positive. And, it can be tempting for responders to start with the phrase “I liked that…” or “I loved when…”, and I—as nicely as possible—ask them to hold their opinions until a later step. It’s unavoidable for opinions to creep into earlier steps of the process, but I try to catch the more directly stated ones. I sometimes change the name of this step to “Observations” or even “Neutral Observations” to avoid sliding too strongly into opinion.
The reason for avoiding direct opinions here is that the goal of this step is to show the composer how their work is perceived by a group of curious, generous listeners. If the composer imagines there were three sections to what they played, but a responder hears five sections, it’s an opportunity for the composer to think about form: why they made the choices they did, how important those choices are to their conception of the piece, and what they could do to clarify those choices.
Once the responders seem to have run out of insightful Statements of Meaning, it’s time to give the composer the floor in the next step.
Step 2: Composer as Questioner
In Step 2, the composer asks about specific elements of the work. This is the composer’s opportunity to show what is important to them about the piece, or ask about how an element was perceived that the responders might not have thought to mention in Step 1.
Formulating these questions can be a bit tricky, especially for younger composers who are still discovering what is important to them in their music. I like to give a few guidelines to students. First, don’t solicit opinions—again, there will be time for that later. Try to stop them if they start a question with “what did you think of…” or “did you like it when…”. Second, I try to get them to ask questions that are relatively specific. Lerman warns against getting too specific, but I haven’t found that to be a big concern with my students. For example, a student might ask “What instrument did you hear as the primary voice in the introduction?” or “What relationship, if any, did you hear between the first section and the second section?”. I even had one student ask “Can you sing back the main idea?” which was pretty interesting!
For facilitators, this is the step that might require the most coaching in advance of the session. As I said, younger composers may struggle to formulate these questions, so I will usually discuss them in a one-on-one meeting or lesson with the composer before they present to avoid putting them on the spot. Even for more experienced composers who have participated in CRP before, I usually send them a note the day before to remind them to bring some questions.
Much like Step 1, Step 2 focuses largely on the way a composition was perceived. The main difference is that in Step 1, the responders approach the music without guidance, much like most audience members. In Step 2, the composer guides some reflection through their questions, which shows some of what they find to be important about the piece. The next step begins to address why the composer made the decisions they made.
Step 3: Neutral Questions from Responders
In this step, the responders ask questions about the creative decisions the composer has made. These can be very specific, like “Why did you choose to write mezzoforte in the alto clarinet part on beat 2 of measure 81?”; or they can be very general, like “Why did you choose to write for alto clarinet?”.
It’s easy for questions from responders to have embedded opinions, so this is another time for the facilitator to be active. Most of the time, a question that has an embedded opinion can be reworded into a more neutral form that asks the composer for the same explanation but doesn’t invite them to feel defensive. (CRP tries to avoid exactly sort of defensiveness that comes from other forms of feedback.) So instead of asking why the middle section is so long, a responder might ask how the composer is thinking about structural proportions, or what sorts of formal planning they did (and why). There might a very good reason for a section to be much longer than others, or there might not! If there is a good reason, the composer might want to consider ways to make the proportions seem more intentional. If there isn’t a good reason, it’s more powerful for them to discover that on their own and look for ways to revise the length.
If your students are like mine, the first few times through CRP, they may start to get frustrated that they can’t jump directly to offering opinions. However, I think the two questioning steps are some of the most meaningful parts of a session, especially for composers who are earlier in their studies, because it helps them discover what is important to them about the music that they are making. Only after that has been established do responders get to offer direct opinions.
Step 4: Permissioned Opinions
Finally, in the very last step of the process, responders are invited to share their opinions, but even then, there is a highly structured way to do so. This step is the only one with a specific script: “I have an opinion about %blank%. Would you like to hear it?” If the composer says yes (which is usually the case), the responder shares their opinion. The topic of the opinion could be anything from dynamic balance to counterpoint to idiomatic writing to formal structures.
Lerman herself admits this can be a bit awkward, but it has a lot of utility, especially in keeping the composer from becoming defensive. Even if they always say “yes”, knowing that they could say no, puts them in control of the dialogue. Additionally—and this is the part that I think is sneakily brilliant—it gives the composer a few seconds after hearing the subject of the opinion to try to put themselves in the mindset they were in when they initially made those decisions. It makes them better prepared to receive the opinion—positive or negative—in the constructive spirit it was intended. I think of it like a baseball catcher getting down in their crouch before the pitcher winds up and pitches. They’re going to be far better at catching the ball.
By placing the opinions at the very end of the process, it ensures that the responders have a better sense of the composer’s goals, and that their opinions can be expressed more empathetically and have more useful implications for the composer.
Benefits, Caveats, and Conclusion
My students really respond well to our Critical Response sessions. They are almost always highly motivated to work on their compositions at the end of a session (or at least they tell me they are), which was usually not the case in other critiques I have done. It also lets them show their peers what is interesting and valuable to them, which makes for a supportive, creative community.
One downside I do find with CRP is that it takes a long time. In a 50-minute session, if the pieces are relatively short and students are already familiar with CRP, we can squeeze in two. With a 75-minute class, I find that three or four is reasonable. The first day I introduce CRP each year, I only plan to do only one. If speed and efficiency are crucial, it’s possible to put a timer on each step. In a real pinch, I find that I can often skip Permissioned Opinions and still give students a lot to work with. Despite the time investment, I find that CRP is deeply valuable to my students, even when they aren’t the ones presenting work.
I think the greatest value of Critical Response is in the structure and the dialogue. The structure separates the composer’s intent from the intent of the responders. Critique changes from being about how someone else would have done it differently to being about how well the composer has defined and achieved their own goals. Through dialog, CRP asks composers to take ownership over creative decisions they may not have realized they were making. By interrogating their assumptions, it gives them tools they can use on their own as they work on future compositions. Compared to before I implemented CRP, the composers who study with me are writing music that is more different from one another, more clearly defined, and in which they feel greater agency and pride.
Lerman, Liz and John Borstel. Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process: a method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert. New York City, NY: Dance Exchange, Inc., 2003.
______. Critique Is Creative: The Critical Response Process in Theory and Action, edited by John Borstel. Middletown, CT: Welsleyan University Press, 2022.