Carlos Lopez-Real, jazz saxophonist and teacher at the Guildhall School, talks about finding the feedback that is really useful… Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Reflection and feedback supporting a growing artistic practice
In this blog I’m going to share my personal journey with reflective practice and feedback, and how these processes have supported my development as an artist. I hope the insights are useful, interesting and transferable.
Imitate – Assimilate – Innovate
Early in my career I was focused on becoming a better saxophonist, improviser and composer, ‘better’ as judged against a set of criteria derived largely from comparison to my role models. I subscribed to the maxim ‘imitate-assimilate-innovate’ (attributed to trumpeter Clark Terry) which describes a process that many artists in my field had adopted. It was a maxim that I soon realized was equally applicable to many domains of learning, whether painting, cooking or engineering. Whether the goal was to absorb John Coltrane’s passion and harmonic concept, or Sonny Rollins’ clarity of articulation and sense of fun, the process was always similar. I would listen intensively, sing along to recordings, play along with the recordings, transcribe, analyse, apply and transform the ideas to new contexts in my own improvisations. It was a ‘top down’ way of learning, which complemented the ‘bottom up’ process of working directly with the raw materials of the music, the building blocks of rhythm, melody, harmony, form and texture. Taken together, it was about learning to speak this musical ‘language’.
Early Reflective Practice
My early craft development, as described above, was supported by an integral reflective practice. It was, in some ways, also the main focus of that reflective practice. Being in my late 20s, several years after my post-graduate training at the Guildhall School, I was striving to be what I would now describe as an effective ‘self-regulated’ learner. Essentially it was about self-assessment, and working out how to close the gap between my current performance and what I was aspiring towards (Sadler 1989). My reflective practice consisted primarily of detailed practice diaries, in which I would document my main discoveries, questions, puzzles, attempted solutions etc., as well as my current goals. I would review the previous entries at the start of each practice session. This would all be supported by regularly recording myself and listening back for more seemingly ‘objective’ insights; in essence this was a form of neutral feedback.
Peer Feedback & Communities of Practice
Parallel to the above processes of reflection and self-assessment, there were plenty of opportunities for peer feedback. The jazz scene in London exhibited many of the characteristics that Wenger (1998) describes as typical of communities of practice, such as a shared passion and a deepening of knowledge by playing regularly together. However, as Fenwick (2003) cautions, such communities of practice can be exclusionary and can become habituated to practices that are dysfunctional. The peer feedback that I experienced (and gave), while perhaps not dysfunctional, was generally not high quality. Typically it would often amount to little more than un-attributable praise (‘hey man, you sounded killing last night’). Aside from being a nice ego massage, this kind of feedback isn’t incredibly useful. There is no detail, no sense of next steps and progression. Even from the point of view of motivation, it’s not especially helpful. It often only serves to reinforce the reliance on extrinsic motivation by many insecure artists, where the opinions of others is what counts, rather than developing intrinsic motivation and the associated ‘mastery goals’, fueled by passion.
My ideas around how to give and receive feedback later deepened considerably as a result of developing my teaching practice. I was certainly able to progress and refine my use of feedback within a teaching context through models such as Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick’s (2004) ‘seven principles of good feedback practice’, and Gwyneth Hughes (2011) ideas around Ipsative Assessment, focusing on a ‘personal best’ rather than comparison with others. It felt natural to make use of these ideas in terms of my own reflective practice and self-assessment, given that I’ve always seen my teaching and my own artistic practice as two sides of the same coin. However I was still feeling stuck in relation to peer feedback in the professional world. Similarly, while reflective models such as Kolb’s (1984) ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’, Purcell’s (2002) ‘Improvisational Practice Cycle’, and Borton’s (1970) ‘What? So What? Now what?’ were of great value in my teaching and personal practice, I was still stuck with the thorny issue of how to have (what seemed like) difficult conversations with my professional peers in the rehearsal room or on the bandstand.
Liz Lerman, Coaching, Dialogue and Exchange
It wasn’t until I came across Liz Lerman’s (2003) Critical Response Process (CRP) a few years ago, coupled with engaging in the CPD Coaching and Mentoring project at the Guildhall School, that I finally felt equipped to have these ‘difficult’ peer conversations in a meaningful, respectful and productive way. Gerda Van Zelm and Robert Schenck have both written about these processes elsewhere within this conference blog. Similarly, Jane Cook (who leads the coaching and mentoring project) and Chris Brannick also write about the work within these blogs. At the heart of both CRP and the coaching approach lie a set of values (including honesty, respect and a desire for growth), together with the processes of dialogue and exchange. Crucially, both also contain structures that prepare the artist, or coachee, to be as open to receiving (truly hearing) as possible.
A coaching approach and CRP have certainly opened up many possible conversations with my professional peers. It’s still a hugely challenging context but it’s getting easier with practice. As with any new set of ideas I do find that I’m still rather ‘wearing them on my sleeve’; I’m still quite often in the state of imitation of the processes, though increasingly able to assimilate and innovate. As always, playing around with processes in different contexts, and ‘hacking’ them, yields new insights and variations. So here are some final thoughts and questions on reflective practice and feedback from the perspective of artistic practice:
Why? Why engage in reflection and feedback? Perhaps the artist has to answer this question first. What are your aims, your goals, your desired outcomes from reflective practice? These will of course be filtered through your own set of values; and these values themselves may become clearer the more you understand about what you want from reflective practice.
What are you reflecting or giving/receiving feedback on? Your product or your process? Your individual or collaborative ‘craft’? Or wider issues such as motivation, inspiration, your place as an artist in society etc.?
What processes or methods will you choose? This is going to depend on your aims, and on the subject of your reflective practice. It will also be filtered by your motivation (extrinsic/intrinsic) and the degree of honesty you want.
I’ve also come to realise that much useful peer feedback has come to me through purely musical means – a musical conversation as a process in itself. This is particularly apt in improvised musical settings that are bound by a common musical language (such as jazz). I will often get immediate, and extremely useful, non-verbal (primarily musical) feedback as part of the improvised musical conversation. Essentially this is the junction of feedback and ‘reflection-in-action’, or reflexive practice.
What are the consequences of doing nothing? (A classic coaching question!). What’s the status quo? Is there inertia, or fear? On the other hand, reflective practice has a natural ebb and flow within overall artistic development, and maybe you’re done with reflection and feedback for the time being. As Liz Lerman says, good feedback is essentially that which makes you ‘eager to get back to work on the artwork, the project, or the performance under consideration’. Speaking of which…
Borton, T. (1970). Reach, Touch and Teach. London, Hutchinson.
Fenwick, T. (2003). Learning through experience: Troubling orthodoxies and intersecting questions. Malabar, FL, Krieger.
Hughes, G. (2011). Towards a personal best: a case for introducing ipsative assessment in higher education. Studies in Higher Education 36(3): 353-367.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning : experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. ; London, Prentice-Hall.
Lerman, L. and J. Borstel (2003). Liz Lerman’s critical response process: A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert. Washington, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
Nicol, D. and D. Macfarlane-Dick (2004). Rethinking formative assessment in HE: A theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Higher Education Academy.
Purcell, S. (2002). Musical Patchwork: The threads of teaching and learning in a Conservatoire. London, Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18: 119–144.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge University Press.
Carlos Lopez-Real is a saxophonist, composer, improviser and educator, specialising in jazz. He has recorded and toured extensively, has curated several club venues and founded the E17Jazz Collective. He is the Programme Leader for the new BA in Performance and Creative Enterprise, and also a Professor of jazz studies at the Guildhall School. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, who awarded him a teaching development grant to explore video feedback and Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. His music is published by Spartan Press and Saxtet, he has contributed academic book chapters, including to ‘Developing Creativities in Higher Music Education’, and was the only UK lecturer at the most recent World Saxophone Congress.