Andy’s thoughts on the critical feedback of worship musicians debate

We’ve had a lot of feedback to our recent series where we have asked questions phrased somewhat negatively. The most recent was what 3 things you would like singers to stop doing?

Marie responded in a post discussing her perspective  and we were encouraged by the discussion that emerged from it. We know that we won’t convince everyone (or perhaps anybody) but I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the topic too.

We get the message loud and clear that some of you dislike the ‘what don’t you like’ type questions and would prefer if we changed the language to ‘what do you like’. Ok we do hear you and if we are losing ‘friends’ because of it we are happy to only use the latter phrase in future posts.

However that’s a shame because I think that would lose something. Having done this blog for a number of years and observing people’s comments both here and on other forums I’ve found that the ‘what do you like’ posts get a lot more very generalised, uplifting, but dare I say it sometimes more clichéd responses. They certainly have their place on this forum and can be inspiring but so often fail to drill down and properly explore the nuts and bolts issues of why so many of our local church worship bands just don’t sound very good…

It’s not a spiritual issue. It’s actually very practical and mostly to do with either the craft of playing an instrument, or the craft of being a band musician (two different things!), the craft of musical communication or simply people management skills. That’s why Musicademy exists. It’s a best effort attempt to help musicians try to understand some of those elements and then give them learning tools to develop their craft.

If your band sounds bad, and you actually want to change it, (not everyone does), fundamentally you need to be able to drill down and understand precisely what doesn’t sound good and why. Many church musicians simply haven’t got the mileage or experience not only understand what doesn’t work and why but then how to fix it. Those positive ‘do’s and fixes come from playing in lots of different settings, learning and education and playing with and observing musicians much better than you. Frankly many church bands make these mistakes over and over again week in week out because they are ‘unconsciously incompetent’ through lack of experience.

When we ask the ‘what don’t you like’ questions we get very specific responses because musicians have gone as far as being aware that there is a ‘craft’ problem but then either haven’t developed their musicianship enough to be able to provide a positive response and fix or there isn’t a well managed enough forum in their team to express and work through critical feedback.

When I was in music college we had a section called ‘live performance workshop’. Every week 200 students would all learn the same song and be randomly called up into scratch bands to play the song together, there and then, unrehearsed. The tutors would then critique and invite feedback from the student body. Some of it was pretty direct and lots of it was about the ‘don’ts’ in music which even aspiring pro musicians just didn’t realise until it was highlighted. But you know what? Not only did it mean that the musician in question didn’t make that mistake again, it also meant that every onlooker didn’t do it either. Each week we found that the last scratch band performance of the same song was markedly better than the first even though every musician only had one go at playing at.

Yes feedback was direct, but it was respectful, was about musical skills not the person per se, and focused around preparation, execution, communication etc. Also we had good tutors who managed the situation well and could differentiate in critique between one person trying hard but getting it wrong and another who just didn’t prepare enough or was being a self centred diva…

So when we’ve asked the ‘what don’t you like’ questions I don’t see the question or those responses as ‘negative’. I see the responses more as frustration and asking for help by people who are deeply committed to and love their worship band, but where they see problems and don’t necessarily have the tools or voice to do anything about them. In fact we ask those types of questions because we get an honest appraisal of where the problems lie and we want to be able to give help, advice and training that directly connects with those issues. If we only do ‘positive’ questions, of which there are many on our (871!) blog pages we simply don’t get the quantity or quality of feedback that helps us build training materials in our blogs, articles, interviews and DVDs.

On a wider level it seems in so many of our Christian circles there is a knee jerk against anything that is couched in language that seems to be ‘negative’ before pausing to try to understand the meaning, nuance and focus behind the questions. It’s almost as if some of us block our ears lest we get ‘tainted or tempted’. Are we really that devoid of critical thinking capacity that we can’t see beyond the words? Are we that fragile in our faith that every question has to be ‘positive’? Is it somehow that a ‘negative’ question is un-Christ like so we don’t dare go there? Is there something deeper within ourselves that can’t cope with exploring the negatives in our churches just in case it shakes our faith, makes us doubt, or highlights deeper areas in our community life that we can’t instantly ‘fix’? (obviously not much directly to do with singers and guitarists Whitney and Edge fantasies but you know what I mean..?)

Even deeper is it really healthy that in some of our churches we seem to have fallen into a very clergy/lay or paternalistic culture where many forms of critique, particularly from lay or subordinates can be passed off as negative, and therefore ‘bad’ or ‘unwelcome’. Rather than questioning the ethics and ‘Christian values’ of those posing or responding to a ‘negative language’ question is it not better to work out if what they are saying has any truth? Then, if acknowledging if a problem exists, working out what it’s really all about and then once we’ve properly understood it then go about trying to make a change?