The Persuasive Empowerment of Positive Opinion
(How To Be An Inspirational and Professional Coach/Critic/Judge)
In an art form, how often is a personal opinion or interpretation ever completely stripped out of a critique leaving only a factual conclusion made towards the content at hand? Many times an opinion or interpretation can be presented by a listener or judge of an a cappella performance/recording, for example, as a “critique,” however, fails to coincide with other listeners’ or judges’ “critiques.” Facts don’t normally contradict each other. Because of this, competitive venues that provide a winner decided by a judging panel risk being chosen from opinionated decisions, rather than factual measurements that were added up.
In many situations, it seems as though judges are the numbers of a lottery ticket that are in the hands of eager competitors in hopes of having their winning numbers called. It is easy to see how having a different judging panel (and sometimes a different audience) from one night to the next could provide extremely different results. So, why is it that when some judges get to comment and reflect on how they felt about an observed presentation of an art form, liberties are taken to be mean and negative towards the competitors instead of being supportive? A number of reasons can be discussed here:
1) The judge wants to be more entertaining for the audience. -- This is a cheap reality television sort of thing to do. It strives off of negative energy and really is unnecessary. It creates unnecessary enemies. You know why people watch Jersey Shore… it’s not because they want cast member relationships to work. Negative energy spreads so easily and is easy to sell and really easy to do really bad. That’s why the show has so many prearranged circumstances (What? I thought that show was a reality show!?). Besides, the people came to support and be entertained by the competitors, not the judges.
2) The judge wants to be presented as a BAMF. -- Bad-“A”-Mother-Fudgsicles always seem too over done in competitions where judges get to be audible about what was just observed. No matter what, mean judges will always be second to a bad cliché of a “Simon Cowell.” Don’t even approach the BAMF judge approach. If you do, you’ll just come off sounding like you’re trying to say something to get this image. Nobody likes to be a poser… or someone whom they feel is being one, for that matter.
3) The judge wants to weed out the bad and only keep the best to show how serious the competition is. -- And you can’t do this by giving positive critique, because…? The competitor is going to be eliminated anyway. There isn’t any more need to tear them down. In fact, if you find ways to still be inspiring to the people that are going to be voted off anyway, most likely those people will be your fans from your positive approach, their fans will be your fan, and all of the people who you voted to win will be your fan! Everyone will love you and pretty soon word will get around and somebody in the big world will want to cast you in a remake of a new sitcom where you play all of the lead roles because nobody could ever be as well like as you.
4) The judge wants to prepare the competitors for the real world of their art-work’s profession. -- Sure, the real world outside of fellow-loving-a cappella-people is cruel and harsh, but that doesn’t mean a judge has to be unprofessional about preparing them for the professional world. Last time I checked, public slander is unprofessional. Leave that for the part of the world who isn’t professional themselves. As a judge, you have a standard to maintain to deserve to be in a judging position in the first place.
The list can go on, so the question that can be asked is “Does there really have to be a bad guy when critiquing someone?” Quite often when a judge decides to be verbally negative, their statements actually turn out to be opinions or an interpretation that holds little to no actual measureable facts towards the competitor. If you would ever compare the way Simon Cowell critiques to the way that Ben Folds does on NBC’s show, The Sing-Off, it’s like comparing a five year old having a tantrum in a grocery store to the wise man on the mountain. The word “candle” is completely wiped from the English language all-together with this comparison. Simon Cowell can be disagreed with and Ben Folds, at best, can be agreed to be disagreed with because he makes a really good and supportive verbal observation.
Is Simon Cowell an extremely intelligent man? Yes! I’m not saying he isn’t; I’m comparing the method of critiquing. If you haven't allready, check out Deke Sharon's post, Not Only Britain’s Got Talent, where he points out how television-smart Simon Cowell is and people tend to forget that. Simon knows what makes people’s clock tick and he uses that to his advantage as a producer. (*edited 11/13/2011 after post reappeared)
So, what am I getting at? Well, the thing that I have grown to love the most about a cappella is that our community strives on bonding and helping each other explore our craft with anyone and anything that is wanting to sing or willing to listen (or just happens to be around). Positive critique is one of the most driven and powerful resources that is used by a cappella teachers, coaches, friends, listeners, and even judges in the a cappella world. Read anyone’s competition notes from ICCA’s or ICHSA’s and I’m sure you will find that the judges want the groups to be better and to grow. It is an extremely empowering experience whether you win or lose. You even find that the groups who seem to know that they are doing are exemplar at this type of mentality to support other a cappella singers, fellow competitor or not. It is so common to gain so many new friends and fellow singers at these competitions.
The love for our craft is so strong in fact, that not even television can taint it. When you watch the Sing-Off and see people getting emotional when their fellow competitors, now friends, are voted off, it’s real. They are genuinely not happy to see anyone leave the stage despite how much that group might have threatened them towards the Sony Recording Contract that is being offered to the winner. Jeremy Lister from Street Corner Symphony, the group that was runner up of The Sing-Off season two, said at one of the workshops at SingStrong 2011 that he thought it was going to be a cut-throat competition, but wasn’t that at all. Not even close.
The way that the judges make comments on The Sing-Off is exemplar of the way that the entire world, including any judging panel, should approach anything ever criticized. Everyone, from bystanders to competition judges, seems to have an opinion that they want and will freely share without any solution to the thing that caused them to feel as if they had to share it in the first place. It’s easy to be the person talking about something else critically. Not only things that could be fixed or worked on should provide a solution, however. Positive comments should also be accompanied by how something was good. That positive, yet unexplained criticism might as well be counterproductive criticism and can be just as dangerous as negative critique if it is unclear or misinterpreted. When critique in any form has a spin on it that is empowering, it becomes one of the most powerful ways to persuade someone to listen to the critique respectfully and follow through with action.
I currently teach 6th through 12th grade Choir and High School Musical Theatre at a public school, Mardela Middle Senior High, where all grades are combined into one facility. It’s nice to be your own feeder program. After concerts, many music teachers do a reflection activity (if they don’t, then they should start ASAP!) with their students of the recent concert. Last year, I had the opportunity after our Winter/Holiday Concert in December to show The Sing-Off to all of my classes that I was teaching as it was still scheduled and running in 2010 after our concert was over. We did critiquing lessons of how to professionally critique something in an empowering way and we observed how the judges on The Sing-Off criticized in the same manner. We also explored some bad critiques by shows like American Idol and it seemed as if all of the kids got what was being taught, immediately.
From then on, when the students and I watched The Sing-Off in class, we would talk about our own personal critiques of the groups that we watched perform and make our own empowering and positive critique. Because the students were able to explore how we all have different tastes and likes of music, we knew that when someone else said something to critique a group that we didn’t agree with, either we didn’t hear it that way or it was quite possibly something that we could agree to disagree on. In one middle school class, we had a very healthy ten minute debate on Eleventh Hour’s performance of Justin Bieber’s song “Baby,” for example, and whether or not the meaning of the song did or did not work in the soloist’s favor as a female in her tessitura and key. The discussions were fantastic and were working on higher level thinking.
The defining moment of this empowering nature of positive critiquing lessons was when I told the band teacher that I could take his 6th grade band students and combine them with my 6th grade choir students because he had to leave school early. I took all 55 of our students or so in and gave a real quick lesson on how to critique and why it was better to critique in this way to the band students. Some choir students chimed in on the lesson as well giving helpful tips on how to be an effective and empowering critic. We then listened to the previous night’s combined band and choir concert that we had put on, alternating from band first (so the choir can give an example of how to critique in this way) and then to choir. The comments that were made in this 6th grade class were just as good, if not better, than a judge for a choral or band festival. And you know how 6th grade band sounds or you can at least imagine 11-12 year olds playing an instrument. Let’s just say it’s easy to find mistakes, if you don’t.
We’ve all heard of the compliment sandwich, where we put the critique in the middle. The students that day were taking it a step above and offered a suggestion-type critique in the middle of the compliments. By the time that the class ended, not only did all of us have an insight of our future goals to get better, but we were all very pumped and uplifted in the thought of doing just that. We put our mistakes and accomplishments in front of us with no shame and observed together what we needed work on and what we were and should be proud of.
That day will be a day that I will never forget with them along with that powerful lesson. They will be able to take that lesson to the highest of leadership positions and it will be instilled in them, hopefully, for a long time. And this is all because of a cappella music and what I’ve been exposed to in that beautiful world of voices!
One last thing I’d like to say is that we’re all familiar with the a cappella podcast Mouth Off (if you’re not, hurry up and get introduced to it!) and how Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz critique in their different styles. When they review an album, which is my favorite part about Mouth Off, I extremely enjoy hearing what they have to say when they debate, the most. Not because I like it when people disagree on something, rather I love it when they bring two different perspectives on the table, because they are both right in their own way. I also, one day, want to strive to be a judge for ICCA’s or ICHSA’s, so this interests me.
If you are familiar with the way that Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz critique, you might notice that Christopher is a little bit more harshly tongued for what this blog is stating should be appropriate as a critique. Chris, however, will be the first to tell you that for every one “Chistopher” that is out there who agree with him, there are four more Not-Christophers that exist as well. Anyone that follows the Mouth Off Show knows that at the end of the day, Dave and Christopher are absolutely extremely passionate about music in general (not just a cappella music) and they want to see and hear every single a cappella group become better, whether they liked their album or not. Dave makes this clear as he explains why they critique the way they do and this blog can be summed up with the last five minutes of the 10.23.11 Mouth Off Show. There are so many things said there by Dave Brown and Christopher Diaz that were very essential to what a critique should be in general and how they try to approach critiquing an album in a professional manner.
Dave also mentioned that everyone seems to have something to critique on NBC’s The Sing-Off, in the ICCA’s, etc, and Christopher followed by saying, “…there is a difference between having an opinion about something and then critiquing it in a helpful way. It’s really hard to critique art… I did not like ‘A’ and therefore ‘A’ is bad isn’t really a fair way to judge art.” I couldn’t agree more.
I want to close in saying that next time you have to be a judge in any form, from a bystander to being on an official judging panel, remember to do it in an empowering way. Sometimes your critique is just another opinion and sometimes it hold facts that need to be addressed, but either way it really doesn’t need to exist in a demeaning tone. Even though every now and then we all need a kick in the pants, in the long run and in the professional world, the Persuasive Empowerment of Positive Opinions (Critique) are one of the most extravagant tools to have available to you where everybody becomes a winner: the things that need to be worked on will be empowered by motivation, the things that are working already will be reinforced, and the person with the critique is no longer the bad guy, but the hero. I’m so thankful that the a cappella community really knows this in habit already and I am a part of that world.