We currently live in a society in which most of the population believes that they can become famous singers. The formula, in most people’s minds, seems to be: have voice > go on reality show > strike it big > collect fat checks. As someone who has devoted their life to the study, practice, and teaching of singing, you know it isn’t that easy. But, when that is the widely disseminated view of singing, how do you provide useful feedback to your students? You must actively build trust with your students so that they believe your constructive criticism. Then, you have to give them actionable advice.
The Critical Role of Feedback in the Voice Studio
Think back to your experience in undergrad or graduate school (be it days or years) and call to mind a student who you believed “didn’t have what it takes, vocally.” Everybody has an example of this. I know you do too.
I, personally, believe that everyone who can vibrate their vocal folds can sing. I do not believe that everyone can sing professionally. However, I do not think that everyone who takes voice lessons, or even majors in music, wants to sing professionally. Music schools need to be very clear about who they are accepting into which role and why. The problem is when music schools graduate students who have no idea where they fit into the field of professional singing. But, that is a topic for another post…
You will do your students a benevolent service by giving them critical feedback that motivates and encourages them to do better, systematically.
Become an Authority on How to Reach Singing Goals
You need your students to trust your advice and criticism. That means that you have to be a multi-faceted authority when it comes to singing. As a teacher, please stay in a curious and learning mindset as much as possible. Do new research on technique. Do spend time practicing your languages and how to teach diction to your students. Do spend time understanding the vocal/opera higher education landscape. Do spend time learning new audition and performance skills. The list goes on. The point is that your students will suffer if you, as a teacher, are disconnected and disengaged from the larger career field.
Effective feedback requires that your students have clearly articulated goals. Your feedback takes into account their goal and uses that objective as a benchmark for their success. Here’s an example of giving goal-focused feedback:
You said that your goal was to get into honor choir this year (clearly articulated goal.) Here are the metrics that they judge in the audition (demonstrating authority.) Will you please rate how you feel on a spectrum of ‘just getting started’ to ‘advanced’ in these areas? You said that you feel confident about being advanced in your sightreading. I noticed that you correctly sightread 10 out of 20 measures (concrete metrics.) I would consider that intermediate. What do you think we can do to improve those skills? Here are some steps I would like you to consider (action steps.)
This example brings me to the feedback sandwich formula for giving constructive criticism.
The Feedback Sandwich
The feedback sandwich follows three components: these are the expectations you have met, these are the expectations you have not met, and here are your next steps to consider. Notice how we started with the goal in mind. I want my feedback to my students to be tangible and transparent. This is why I used the spectrum but followed it up with the specific number of measures completed correctly and how that relates to where you are on your journey towards goal mastery. After that we have a quick discussion about actionable steps from both parties.
The whole point is that you are actually teaching your students how to break down large goals into actionable steps. It is very easy to make this connection to the larger world. Make sure your students know that this is a life skill that they can apply to any of their ambitions.
Your Students Want to Know
Sometimes teachers avoid giving constructive criticism because they simply want to encourage students to stick with music learning. But, non-stop praise can lead to distrust and apathetic feelings toward goal achievement. It is important to be supportive. But, as every Soul Cycle coach knows, the best way to be supportive is to compel your students to be better than they were before and show them how far they have come.
Here are some things that your students want to know and ways that you can provide feedback:
“What did I do well?”
- Students very rarely ask this question out loud. But, they are all thinking it constantly. Share with them examples of positive work. Be specific.
“What are specific ways I am meeting your expectations?”
- “This is why I am having you work on this technique exercise, sightreading example, or repertoire. Here is how you are meeting my expectations so far.”
“What are specific ways I can improve (right now)?”
- Who isn’t interested in immediate results? Find ways to suggest to students what they can change immediately as well as over time.
“How do I figure out what I don’t know?” and “What is a model example?”
- Obviously, students aren’t usually thinking this during lessons. But, you can open up their world tremendously by providing them with resource links, articles/readings, videos, and audio recordings.
“How do I compare with the average learner?” and “Am I an above average student/musician?”
- Be very specific about what is average for this age, skill level, and goal level. Then, provide specific examples about what would be above average. Ask your students, “what is the difference between those two?” Follow up with, “what could you do to demonstrate above average skills?” Talk openly, but positively, about these topics.
Make it Normal
Your studio should be an environment in which giving feedback is a way of life. Remember to be compassionate and caring in the way you provide your evaluation of skills. You want to instill in your students’ minds that you give feedback because you truly, deeply care about their progress. Model to your students how to receive feedback by asking them for feedback too. “Were the topics we discussed today clear?” Then, listen to them. Ask for clarification. Show them that you can absorb feedback without being defensive. This is how we learn, after all.
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