A substantial part of building a musical life is always moving forward and growing as artists and musicians. One of the most important ways to accomplish this is by receiving feedback from others. In order to gain this critical input about—and for—our music, we’ll need to know where to find it. In his book Ultralearning, Scott Young outlines three kinds of feedback we can seek out, each with progressive degrees of availability and effectiveness: outcome, informational, and corrective.
Outcome feedback will let us know how we’re doing overall, but doesn’t tell us specifically what we’re doing well or where we need to improve. This can come in the form of being graded at the end of a course, seeing the number of albums we sell, or based on how many people attend our live shows. This kind of feedback is common, and although this input is broad, it can still help you improve in a couple of different ways. “One is by providing you with a motivational benchmark against your goal. If your goal is to reach a certain quality of feedback, this feedback can give you updates on your progress. Another is that it can show you the relative merits of different methods you’re trying. When you are progressing rapidly, you can stick to those learning methods and approaches. When progress stalls, you can see what you might be able to change in your current approach.”
Informational feedback is similarly common, but is more valuable because it reveals to us specifically what we’re doing wrong. Where it falls short is in not showing us how to fix what’s not working. This kind of input is easy to get from a real-time source, like from an audience during a live performance. We’ll learn moment to moment whether or not the attendees enjoy the song or the solo we’ve just played, but without any insight into improving them if they fall flat. Self-provided feedback will also work, and can be almost as good as what you get from others. If you’re playing along to a recording, for example, you’ll be able to hear if you sound close to the original or not. Whether or not you’ll know how to adjust what you’re doing to get closer to the finished product will depend on your experience level.
Corrective feedback is the best kind to seek out for those who don’t know—or who want to know immediately—exactly what to do to make progress. This is because it will not only clarify what needs improvement, but also how to get there. You’ll get this type of insight from a teacher or a mentor, or even a group of other musicians or songwriters. It can also be provided automatically if you’re using the right methods of practice or study—like working on scale spellings by testing yourself with flashcards that show you the answer after you’ve made your guess. Although corrective feedback is the hardest to find, it can speed up learning and development the most. According to educators Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo and Susan M. Brookhart in their book Using Feedback to Improve Learning, the best feedback “...indicates the difference between the current state and the desired learning state AND helps students to take a step to improve their learning.” By having someone show you how to close the gap from where you are to where you want to be, you’ll get there sooner with less confusion and frustration.
If you’re unsure which feedback would be the best for your current goals and abilities, start by seeking out the most common types—outcome and informational—to give you a general idea of your current progress. If you need more finely tuned guidance, you can reach out to a teacher, or find a group of more experienced musicians who can share their observations and offer you specific suggestions on how to progress.