One of the most valuable tools we have for our musical and creative development is feedback—whether received from other people, or through our own listening. As with any tool, we can sharpen and refine the input we receive to make the most of it. In his book Ultralearning, Scott Young offers some strategies for fine-tuning feedback, including getting it at the right time and in the right quantities, knowing what information will be useful, working at the right difficulty level, and making use of metafeedback.
When working to hone our craft of making music, how quickly we receive feedback matters. Generally, getting it faster will allow us to understand and correct our mistakes sooner. This opens up the door to more growth in the long-term because we won’t waste time struggling with challenges that have pre-existing solutions. But we should be cautious about seeking out an answer or input from another person or source too early. For example, if you’re trying to play a song from memory and you consult a songbook the moment you forget the next chord, you won’t be strengthening your brain’s ability to recall information—a necessary part of performing a song by heart. Instead, give an honest effort to figuring out what comes next before using any external reference.
Receiving a higher volume of input can also be beneficial. “Sometimes the easiest way to improve feedback is simply to get a lot more of it a lot more often.” Write and share more of your music, see a teacher every week, or play in front of more audiences. This steady stream of feedback will allow you to engage in learning and improvement more aggressively, and has the added advantage of making you emotionally more comfortable with having your work and performances critiqued.
You also need to know what feedback is worth listening to. The most useful information you’ll receive will aid in the improvement of your practicing, learning, and writing in the future—like the kind that shows you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it. Feedback aimed at your ego should be ignored. As Scott explains: “When feedback steers into evaluations of you as an individual (e.g., “You’re so smart!” or “You’re lazy”), it usually has a negative impact on learning.” Both overly negative and overly positive feedback can diminish motivation, so avoid letting either impact you. Also, when it comes to dissecting quantifiable feedback—such as the number of likes or views a post receives on social media—be sure to remain focused on what is in your control. A performance video you share might do well because of the quality of your playing or singing—something in your control—or it might have to do with the right person sharing it with the right people at the right time—something outside of your control. Make sure you’re able to separate the signal from the noise.
Who you receive feedback from matters as well. As Seth Godin wrote in a recent blog post: “’Do you want to know what I think?’ The best answer might be, ‘no.’ Because this person is not very good at offering useful feedback. Because you didn’t create this product or service or performance to please this person.” Know your audience and stick with trusted sources of input, like a teacher, or qualified peers you know and respect.
Feedback can also be optimized by working at the right difficulty level. Putting yourself in environments where you won’t be able to predict whether you’ll succeed or fail will make the input you receive more meaningful. “A scientific measure of information is based on how easily you can predict what message it will contain. If you know that success is guaranteed, the feedback itself provides no information; you knew it would go well all along. Good feedback does the opposite. It is very hard to predict and thus gives more information each time you receive it.” If you are failing too often, you can simplify the problem so you’ll start noticing when you’re doing things right. If you don’t fail enough, you can make the task harder or give yourself stricter standards so you can distinguish the effectiveness of different approaches. “Basically,” Scott says, “you should try to avoid situations that always make you feel good (or bad) about your performance.”
While typical feedback assesses your performance or musical output, another useful type is metafeedback. Metafeedback evaluates the overall success of the strategies you’re using to practice, create, and learn. A common example of this would be to track how quickly you learn, and how well you perform, a specific musical exercise when you use various practice methods and strategies. If you start hitting the point of diminishing returns with your current practice or creative approach it might be a good time to try some different drills, a harder difficulty level, or put yourself in a new environment—like on a stage or in the studio. You can also use metafeedback to compare two different methods side-by-side to see which one works better.
Once you have refined the input you receive, be sure to put into action what you’ve learned. Maintain the right perspective so you can use this information to continue learning, growing, and challenging yourself. Feedback without follow through won’t help you get better.