What Great Musicians Know About Giving Constructive Feedback

If public speaking is our #1 fear with death at #2 — as Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out in one of his standup specials — giving constructive feedback may just be #3.

It stands to reason why so many of us are reluctant to offer constructive feedback: most people aren’t receptive to it. Reactions can range from minor disagreement to tears, personal attacks, or worse. How can we increase our chances of a productive feedback session? In an HBR article titled “How to Give Feedback to Someone Who Gets Crazy Defensive,” author Holly Weeks states, “When delivering negative feedback to someone who’s likely to get defensive, it’s not your job to make the other person feel better. It’s your job to deliver the information in a clear, neutral, and temperate way.” As I read the article, it occurred to me that great musicians — many of whom are also great coaches — do this very well.

Take renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, for example. In my coaching workshop, I show a video clip of Perlman interacting with young Russian musicians during a master class. His feedback technique is superb: rather than focus on what the students did “wrong,” he focuses on how they can play better. To one student, Perlman says: “Don’t play fast between the sections. Take your time. Wait until the sound comes out, is finished. When you wait, you’ll really say to the people: ‘Isn’t this beautiful?'” The student smiles broadly, imagining the scene Perlman has painted.

With another student, Perlman laces his comments with gentle humor: “It’s like you have a pencil here,” he says, pointing to the end of his violin, “and you’re trying to draw a picture.” Both student and audience crack up. Brilliant.

Conductor Ricardo Muti is another example. In an article titled “The Sounds of Music Offer A Lesson in Learning,” author Bravetta Hassell recalls observing Muti lead the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a pre-professional program for emerging leaders in music. According to Hassell:

“[Muti] offered criticism where refining was necessary – singing phrases to summon what he had in mind. He offered praise where he heard strengths, but he wasn’t grandiose or insincere. He expressed his confidence in the soloists before it was their time to play. He asked questions. He was aware of his purpose in this unique professional context. He was persistent in getting the intensity, the pacing, the feel of the music where it needed to be.”

When I was learning my first instrument, the clarinet, I had a teacher who was cut from the same mold as Perlman and Muti. I would play a section of a piece — Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, for instance — and wait for his response. “Good,” he would say. “Now try it again, this time with greater emphasis on the forte (loud) passage.” Nothing superfluous, nothing complicated. No fumbling or bumbling. Just clear. Neutral. Temperate.

Giving constructive feedback need not be a source of anxiety. While we can’t control the other person’s reaction, we can calibrate our feedback in a way that mitigates their defensiveness response. The next time you need to provide constructive feedback, consider taking a page out of these musicians’ playbook. Keep it clear, neutral, and temperate, and chances are you’ll hit all the right notes.