The Music Exchange
Dealing positively with negative feedback
Receiving feedback is a common experience for all church musicians. I’ve said in a previous article that the feedback I take seriously is from wise, godly people, and those who are in the habit of bringing guests to meetings. These people always have their minds fixed on serving others and not themselves.
However, dealing with the feedback of those who are simply looking for their own needs to be met is a delicate process. This is because their feedback is often very subjective, and is sometimes quite emotionally manipulative, but also they are feeding back to musicians who have problems dealing with their own emotions, and are equally manipulative!
It’s easy to spot self-orientated feedback. The comment always starts with, ‘I’. ‘I prefer the organ.’ ‘I’d love it if there more upbeat songs.’ ‘I really don’t like that song.’ ‘I prefer the old words.’ Or, as I’ve had on two or three occasions, ‘I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!’ One of the sneakiest is to add a royal ‘we’ in to disguise the ‘I’ Ð eg, ‘I think it would be really good for us if we had more singing in harmony.’ Smell a rat?
Combine these phrases with a musician who’s on the sensitive side, and there’s a recipe for a tearful Sunday lunch. I’ve never had to get the tissues out myself, but I’m always reminded on these occasions that a church musician needs a tougher skin than they’re often provided with.
The reason why this feedback is often so difficult to deal with is that it’s nearly always very trivial. Small matters of taste or tradition. The trouble is that the response of the musician usually matches the trivial nature of the feedback, and the hand-bags start flying. What exacerbates the problem is that the comments are usually received straight after a meeting, in the heat of the moment.
(As an aside, I want to say here that although the articles I write are nearly always inspired by an issue that I’ve been grappling with recently, I haven’t had a sudden spate of negative feedback. I was just short on ideas at the beginning of a gloomy February, and a kind colleague helped me out with this idea!)
Take a step back
Here’s a tip for those who would like to feed back about musical things. If you feel angry about something, it’s never a good time straight at the end of a meeting to get angry with the musicians. Also, please don’t hurry around the meeting room gathering support for your views to bolster your ammo. Go home, calm down, pray, and then think what feedback would best serve not you, but the whole congregation. Think also of how you could best word comments that would build the musician up, rather than tear them down. Then ring or write when the moment isn’t so raw. I’ve had some great bits of critical feedback from people that have encouraged me, because they’ve reminded me that there are people who care not only about the way we sing praises to God, but also about how others are encouraged. Musicians don’t need to be pandered to Ð we need to be challenged just as much as the next person, but just as kindly.
And now for musicians. We will have to face direct negative feedback even in the most Bible-centred churches. I’m pretty hopeless at dealing with direct criticisms as I’d much rather argue my corner. However, if I do this I’m in danger of trying to impress my subjective views on someone who’s trying to share their subjective views with me! We might both be wrong, or certainly it’s possible that neither of us is right as these issues are nearly always impossible to resolve. I always try to remember James 1.19, ‘…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’ (NIV). We need to model gracious patience even if it isn’t being modelled to us. We need to be able to take tough and even unfair feedback, and use it to train us in godliness. We learn nothing if we trade harsh words with harsh words.
I help out with Marriage Preparation at St. Helen’s, and one of the key phrases we use in the session on conflict is that it is important to win the person, not the argument. The good news is that we don’t have to marry the person giving us the feedback (unless you really want to), but we will spend eternity with him or her, so it’s worth holding our tongues and thickening our skins for the sake of the kingdom we’re inheriting together.
And hold on to that sense of humour.