The Need for Feedback

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Thomas Eakins, Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art

When I was a guitar student in college, I always practiced in the same room, facing the same direction. It almost became a second home for me—one of my friends eventually posted a sign with my name on the door. But when I had to leave these friendly confines to go perform in an unfamiliar hall, I always felt I sounded worse. Then I would start to make more mistakes while worrying about what had happened to my sound. Eventually I realized I wasn’t actually playing badly; my ears were just getting different resonance than they were used to from the room I usually played in. To cure myself of this perception, I set a goal to branch out and practice in spaces with the least reverb I could possibly find. I played outside on the patio, where the noise of a passing car could almost drown out my guitar. I found a space in the old cafeteria with a tiled wall facing up at a 45-degree angle and played into it so that all my sound would be reflected up into the atrium and not back at me. Eventually I just got comfortable that I didn’t sound like my usual self in a new hall.

Singers experience this same dynamic, as they often feel as if the sound echoing back to them physically helps to support their own vocal production. When my college choir went on tour, singing in a different venue every night, our director would always warn us about the acoustics of each new space. So it didn’t catch us off guard when we sounded so much richer in a traditional Scandinavian-style church with an all-wooden interior than in a low, flat auditorium converted from an old K-Mart. Then there was the musty old church in Muskegon that mysteriously amplified frequencies about two octaves below middle C, much to the delight of the bass section. If anything, it created a sort of feedback loop, as we growled away with even more gusto, knowing that our low notes were going to be heard.

It’s hard to perform well if the only evidence you have for whether anyone can hear you is whether you can hear yourself. Much of the pleasure of performing comes from hearing your own sound reflected back to you from the hall. My current school is spending over a million dollars to have a top acoustical designer revamp the interior of their main concert hall, not primarily to improve the audience experience, but to make it easier for performers onstage to hear what they’re doing. The reverberation from the hall reassures the performer that their sound really is traveling out into the world and not just vanishing into a void.

Composers need to hear the reverberations of their work too. The echoes that come back to us from the audience reassure us that our work is real and actually affecting the world. Milton Babbitt said he didn’t care if anyone listened, but I suspect he was, if being honest, clearly in the minority. Most composers will go crazy trying to persuade their friends to go out into the forest so that, when their tree falls, there is actually someone there to hear it. One snowy evening, a piece I had written played to an audience numbering exactly seven; the performance felt surreal, like it didn’t really happen. In order for our artistic endeavor to seem validated, there have to be people who hear and react to it, whether with pleasure, criticism, or simply acknowledgement. This is what drives me, in my weaker moments, to obsessively check the number of Facebook likes and YouTube views my recordings have accumulated. It reassures me that my work has become a part, however small, of someone’s life.

But these “echoes” can only come from individuals. Sometimes I run into trouble listening for them from things that aren’t people. A couple of years ago, I had a rather strange conversation about one of my pieces with a composer I respect. It ended with the person warning me, “You wouldn’t want them to think you’re one of those Kentucky people!” At that time, I recognized the falseness of the assumptions  that I would be mistaken for a “Kentucky person” (whatever that is), that this would necessarily be a bad thing, and that, even if it was, it wouldn’t be worth it. However, I failed to notice the more pernicious assumption hidden beneath them all, namely that the success or failure of my work depends on the evaluation of “them.” For the next year or so, concern for what “they”  would think I was—if not a Kentucky person, then what?—haunted and ultimately hobbled my work. For all my trouble, “they” never sent any echoes back my way, so I never knew if I was pleasing “them.”

I eventually decided I didn’t want to write for “them,” for some nebulous evaluating entity lurking out there in the music world. I want to write music to be heard, music for listeners, individuals who hear a piece and respond to it as it moves them personally. Trying to create work to receive a favorable impression with “them” will lead to artistic cramping and ultimately paralysis. “They” will tell you not to take risks, or at least to never, ever fail when you do. “They” judge you on your originality and forbid borrowing even the slightest bit of inspiration from others. “They” would rather you left your beliefs, memories, and personal quirks behind when you compose.

But listeners don’t mind. Most listeners would actually rather hear there’s a story behind the music. Listeners aren’t picky, simply asking for music that sounds good, nothing more. Listeners can show you grace and look past the occasional flaw in your work. After all, listeners are human themselves. “They” aren’t.

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3 thoughts on “The Need for Feedback

  1. I agree that acoustics in a performing or rehearsal space are very pervasive, especially whenever we begin evaluating our performance or rehearsal results. All musicians have a tendency to be self-critical whenever they perform outside of their (literal) comfort zones. However, I think the act of singing presents a special conundrum for the singer. As a singer, I have never had the luxury of hearing myself the way others hear me. The sound I am making is coming out of my own body (that is, from my vocal cords). My body is also processing the sound simultaneously through my sense of hearing. (In contrast, the instrumentalist is using a foreign object to produce sound; since the object is not a body part, the instrumentalist is at virtually the same listening vantage point as the audience.) I’m no anatomy expert, but I’ve always wondered if there’s some sort of internal resonance going on whenever we speak or sing that makes us sound a certain way in our own minds. This would explain why we tend to say “That’s not me!” whenever we hear our voices on recordings.

    Music is a social art in which composers, performers, and listeners negotiate how they relate to one another during the musical event itself. Music can’t exist in a vacuum: it demands to be heard and deserves our reactions. Many people (musicians and non-musicians alike) argue something along the lines of, “The true musician does music for music’s sake, and not for vanity, fame, or fortune.” I imagine that they’re thinking of a starving artist holed up in his attic, composing piece after piece because it’s his “destiny.” While music is a very personal and enjoyable hobby for many people, offering a form of solace or even meditation (as is the case for Chinese qin players, for example), not all musicians do music for music’s sake. Plenty are in it for the money or fame (though these goals can be misguided). Cynicism aside, most musicians are in music because they have something to say, and music just happens to be the medium that found them. The message of the music must be conveyed: it is not enough to keep to oneself in the attic. We feel the need to share; Facebook and YouTube become necessities. (The sociological implications of these necessities are another column.) Musicians must constantly evaluate why they make music because the reasons will change depending on the situation.

    The listener plays an equally important role in upholding the social contract inherent in a musical event. The ideal listener is an active listener who may not “like” what she is experiencing, but takes the time to digest it and glean meaning from it. One of the worst lies that is perpetuated about music (in certain settings) is that music should be pleasurable, entertaining, and make us feel good. Musicians could combat this by demonstrating how music compliments every aspect of life while staying aware of the needs of the listener. Live performances can and should offer an escape. Performers also need to also be mindful of programming, ensuring a healthy variety of pieces without having the whole performance drag on for too long. (Listener Fatigue is real!!) However, the live performance is also the perfect opportunity to “challenge” the audience, often by giving them the experience of music they cannot access elsewhere.

    I don’t think you’re alone in lumping our anonymous listeners into that critical omniscient category of “Them” or “They.” However, it is quite possible that I have been someone else’s “Them”/“They” at some point. You have absolutely no clue what is going through the minds of the composer or performer at any given moment. In general, most musicians I’ve met are intensely self-critical, more so than they are even aware of or will openly admit. It’s their persona and how they carry themselves that clues me in to that insecurity. The least we can do is approach our colleagues’ work with an open-minded curiosity and be thankful we have the opportunity to listen.

    • Of course the acoustical problem of feedback applies to singers in a way that it doesn’t for instrumentalists, but not all instruments really allow the player to hear what the audience hears, either. And thanks for unpacking our responsibilities as listeners too!

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