In this edition, the focus is on soliciting feedback before the show.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of a cappella groups in my local areas ask me if I could sit in on a rehearsal to give feedback on their intended competition set. In principle, this makes a lot of sense—getting an outside, objective set of ears and eyes on your performance before you put it in front of the judges affords you the opportunity to fine tune and adjust, and sometimes someone from outside the group can “see the forest for the trees”—spotting big picture issues your group might be oblivious to because they’re just too close to the process of constructing the set.
Asking for outside feedback is great, but timing is key. First of all, there is sheer scheduling. We live in an age when people live by the calendars on their phones, and asking someone to come in with a just a few days’ notice to the final rehearsal before a competition means that you’re minimizing the chances of actually getting that guest to come due to scheduling conflicts and perhaps not even getting the message in time.
In addition to scheduling, you’ll want to get feedback in enough time for you to actually do something with the feedback. While there are a handful of perennial ICCA Finals contenders who can be confident that they have a solid set nailed down and really are looking for fine-tuning, rather than holistic advice, groups with less experience and more room to grow really ought to be looking for feedback sooner so that an outside voice who can point out a significant tuning issue that will take time for the group to correct, a point when the choreography is overwhelming the music, or, even more broadly, that that twelve-minute medley of every Michael Jackson song you can find might be a cool concept, but you probably want to put it on the shelf for competition. These are the kinds of changes that will take more than few days to plan around, so soliciting some of that feedback weeks, if not months before competition (rather than days, or hours) is key
Have questions in mind.
While general feedback is great, it can also be scattershot. Oftentimes, the best move is to have just a small handful of key points that you want observers to zone in on when they’re observing, to keep the feedback more focused and ensure you’re actually getting the kind of feedback you were interested in in the first place.
Be receptive to criticism…
The main reason to invite in outside observers is to get honest feedback. (Note: there are exceptions, when a group might legitimately just want a morale booster, in which case the group should make those interests clear.) Too often, I’ve seen groups shake off criticism from master classes or judges’ scoring sheets, citing aesthetic differences or that the expert didn’t know what she or he was talking about on a particular point. While I can understand that impulse, it’s also important to consider that groups rarely evolve and holistically improve in a vacuum. Groups should take feedback and think critically about it. Even if you don’t agree with every piece of advice, that advice might still point out significant areas in which the group should focus its attention.
Additionally, to head off non-credible feedback, it might make sense for the group to invite people it trusts, exclusively. If there’s someone whose feedback the group will dismiss anyway, it’s disingenuous bother asking for that person’s advice.
…but don’t let feedback overwhelm you.
Everyone has an opinion, and the group that tries to serve every single critic likely will not be able to hone in and really respond to individual criticisms meaningfully.
As alluded to in the previous point about being open to criticism, it’s beneficial to keep the pool of critics limited—not inviting too many voices into the conversation. Moreover, while it’s important that groups be receptive to critique, it’s also fair for the group to decide you’re going to focus on no more than three large-scale criticisms in revising the set, to keep from growing too scatter-brained or from changing so much that the set loses pieces of its intrinsic character that are important to the group.