Sweet (and not so sweet) music

I love music. Quite a wide range of music. Listening to and performing music helped me through some pretty miserable teenage years and at one point I toyed with the idea of being a professional. Somewhere along the line however, I realised I just wasn’t good enough and eventually I established a career in developing people instead.

Recently, I heard a story about a professional saxophone player that brought these two worlds together. It was a really hot day, and so she decided to practise with the windows open. Pausing after a struggle with a particularly tricky passage, she heard a ring at the doorbell. Opening the door, she found one of her neighbours standing there. Had he come to complain about the noise, the endless repetition of the same few bars, or was the odd swear word that she was convinced had been said under her breath rather more audible than she’d thought?

‘I’m sorry to interrupt you’, the neighbour said. ‘I often hear you playing as I walk by and I love to stop and listen. I just wanted to say you play so beautifully and to thank you for sharing your wonderful gift.’

Buoyed up by this unexpected compliment, she returned to her practice and sailed through the difficult passage, not just once but several times in succession.

Thinking about this and how it nicely illustrated the power of positive feedback, I remembered a very different experience from a few years back. I’d gone to see a performance by a jazz singer I knew and she was clearly frustrated with her bass player. Although he seemed competent enough, something wasn’t quite working.

Several times throughout the performance, the singer would turn to look at him and even on occasion pointedly clicked her fingers at him in rhythm as if to say ‘you’re not playing at the right speed’. As the performance went on, he began to look more flustered, and to be honest the feeling of discomfort spread to the audience. I heard shortly afterwards from the singer that his playing had got worse and worse and they had agreed to part company.

Research into whether people respond better to positive or negative feedback suggests that whether someone sees themselves as a novice or an expert can affect whether they respond better to positive or negative feedback (novices need positive feedback, experts negative).

At first glance, the case of the two musicians would seem to contradict this: both could fairly be labelled as experts, and yet the saxophonist’s performance improved when given positive feedback, while the bass player’s got worse with negative feedback.

Perhaps it’s the individual’s perception that’s critical. As the saxophonist was struggling to master something tricky, while not actually a novice, she probably felt far from expert and so the positive comment was just what she needed. The bass player was also possibly feeling less than expert in that particular situation, and so the repeated negative feedback might have just emphasised this feeling.

It’s really got me thinking about whether I respond best to one type of feedback or another, and in what circumstances. It’s also got me thinking I should get on with some piano practice – windows firmly closed!

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