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Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Jean Martin-Williams, a professor of horn at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music here at the University of Georgia. We're going to talk about her experience as a professional performer and an educator. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Jean:
Jean Martin-Williams: So, in the field of music performance we will call it peer review when we are submitting things to international conferences or national conferences, but we tend ot call it more seminar feedback, that kind of thing, when we are doing it in a more informative way, instructive way.
MC: What would you say are the main benefits of the feedback?
JMW: Improving your art. I mean, it's a wonderful way to see if what you think is getting out there is actually getting out there. And we also do a lot with self-criticism and even having students record themselves in a practice session and then to play that back and say, "Okay, am I really doing what I think I'm doing?" Because one danger you can get into as a performer is if you're constantly giving yourself feedback as you're playing, then you're not really a performer, you're more a technician. So that's always something I really try to encourage my students to do is to have part of their practice session where they're just performing. And for those who just can't stand to hear something go wrong without fixing it: if they record themselves then they know they can go back and hear what was wrong and fix it. So it's really the best way that way.
MC: When you're doing the seminar-type feedback sessions, what's the structure like?
JMW: Well, I have all of the undergraduates together, and these are the horn players, but I know this is very similar to what's done with other instruments. And someone that's working on a piece that's not necessarily ready for performance in a public venue but almost ready will play their piece and - they know ahead of time they're going to be performing - and then the other students give them feedback. And I think it's useful for the performer but maybe more useful for the people listening, because they are performers themselves, and a lot of times hearing someone else do something either that's really good or not-so-good can make that student realize that, "Oh, that's what I need to be doing," or, "Now I see what the professor was talking about." So, I think it's beneficial in both directions, because basically if you're an artist you need to be able to give yourself feedback, and be honest with yourself not only about what's not going well but also about what is going well.
MC: So, they're playing a piece live, and then waiting for the discussion to follow?
JMW: Yes. And so it's always particularly stressful your first time to play in seminar. You would expect it to be stressful for the freshmen, the first-year students, and of course it is. Maybe more so for the graduate students though, because even though they have come from a lot of performing experience, I think they realize, "Okay, I'm a graduate student, there are big expectations. I've got to really do well" and that kind of thing. And I certainly remember that from my own experience as a doctoral student in an institution where there weren't many doctoral students. So, feeling a lot of pressure that way. So, that in itself simulates a live performance of just feeling like, "Gosh, this has got to be really good." So, that's good experience in itself, just to have that sort of nervousness, the butterflies, and then you play, and then you just wait. And I'll usually give some feedback, particularly if it's someone who is studying with one of my colleagues, so that if I haven't actually heard this person play in a couple of weeks. And then there are a few students who are always very willing to give feedback and then others who may be a little quiet or so. They know eventually they're going to get called on. Because I think that's part of it too, is to be able to just put it out there. And then sometimes we do written feedback, just for something different. Because I think some students may be reticent about speaking up. They may just be a little shy but have some really valuable things to say. And, also, that way the performer has these written comments to take back with them and then maybe read over a few times in a less stressful environment.
Sometimes I'll have actual questions like, "What was the best thing about this performance?" "What needs work?" "What surprised you about this performance?" or, "What do you hear that's improved since the last time you heard this person play?" And that's a really fun thing. Sometimes someone will play, maybe during their second year, and somebody in the class will say, "Wow, I was just thinking of when you played the first time last year, and you did well then, but, boy, you've improved so much." And a lot of times people don't really realize how much they've improved, because they hear themselves every day. And horn players, at least, I think, are very much perfectionists, which is somewhat ironic because of the - just the physics of the instrument - it's just very easy to play a wrong note. So, you have these perfectionists who have sort of this built-in problem with it ever being perfect, and so because of that often the students, as their ability goes up, their standards go up, so they never really sit back to say, "This is going well." Now, you do have students on the other side who are maybe unaware of what needs improvement and are just focusing on what's going well with their playing, but I find mostly by the time someone gets to be a music major in college, they're really focusing on what's not going well.
MC: Now, what would you consider a successful feedback session?
JMW: A successful feedback session would be, first of all, when the performer has something they can use. In other words, whether it's technical - such as your rhythm and your time are very inconsistent - or something more musical - in that I'm getting a lot of wonderful small phrases, but it's not clear what you're trying to say overall. And, what I like is when there's a musical outcome that then is going to improve the technique. A lot of students focus on what they need to do to have better technique, and then assume, well, music will come. And I found that, if you concentrate on the music, often the technique will come. And you have to also, I think, just realize that the purpose is not to be able to play the highest, the fastest, the loudest, but to play the most artistically, which may involve most high, fast, and loud, or not.
MC: Can you talk about some of your first experiences receiving feedback?
JMW: Yes, I remember as an undergrad, I was at a small liberal arts school that had a conservatory, I was at Lawrence University for two years and we would get together, all the brass players together because it was small enough, and I remember being very fearful, and then realizing, "Oh, this is really okay," but you sort of have to get over that hump. But probably one that comes really strongly to mind is a very negative experience I had as a graduate student. The principle horn of the Boston Symphony, now retired, but he came to do a master class. And so each of the professors could pick one of their students to play for this person, so my professor picked me, and I played a difficult piece and was assigned a pianist who was unable to rehearse with me but assured me that he knew the piece, which he didn't. It distracted me. I didn't play my best, but I thought I played pretty well. And I finished playing thinking, "Well, okay, let's see what this great person has to say, and, at least, even though I didn't play my best, I'm going to get a lot out of it to help me." And he looked at me and he said, "Well, young lady, evidently no one told you, you need air to play the horn. Who's next?" And that was the end of it. And it was devastating, because first of all I just felt like I badly represented my teacher. I felt very humiliated. And, now, looking back, I realize that it's not the kind of teaching that I would do, and so, but at the time because it was a great performer, who isn't necessarily a great teacher, but I was really looking at it as, "Okay, this person is the authority," and so it was really devastating to me. But I think it really helped me be a better teacher. Because I realized how, even just what I guess he thought was kind of a joking remark, that humor is important at times, but you have to really know your audience.
MC: It seems like, especially in the culture of music performance, there are so many auditions and gateways and ranks to climb. Is that a fair assessment?
JMW: Definitely. And we now at UGA we have two auditions a year for placements in the orchestra and the bands, and those are done what we call "blind," which means it's behind a screen or behind a curtain or whatever, so that as the people -
MC: How dramatic!
JMW: Yes, and that's the way professional auditions are done too. There's always some kind of, what we call a screen. Maybe it's not literally a screen, but some way so that the people evaluating don't know who is playing. And so everyone's just given a number, and then the people listening, which in this case would be the horn professors and the orchestra and band directors, we would listen and make notes to ourselves and then we rank everyone. And then we base the seating on that. And so you can be a graduate student, undergraduate, music major, a non-music major, and you're all in the same pool there. So, that again is certainly a way you get evaluated. But I also have to point out it's not an exact science. And that's true when you go to an audition anywhere, there's certain things you can really control. You can control what's coming out of your horn bell, but you can't control what someone's hearing. And having sat on both sides of that screen many times, I know that's a hard lesson to learn, but it's a really important lesson to learn. Because otherwise you start to value your own playing just based on how you're doing in auditions. And, I mean, that should enter into it, but it shouldn't be the only way.
MC: I can see the benefits in terms of seeking some objectivity around the process, but it also seems really disconnected from things like mentorship, and growth, and sensing potential.
JMW: Right, and I think part of it, that's one reason we went from once a year to twice a year, so that if somebody just has a bad day, or if we just don't hear them in the way that would play, they can kind of fix it the next semester. But then the other side of it is that if someone does particularly well and kind of seated above where they really should be, then after a semester that gets corrected too. And it's hard, because there's sort of a pecking order that develops that everyone kind of agrees too: that so and so plays better than so and so. And then they come back after the summer, and somebody may have really taken off over the summer, and then also you have new students coming in. And then there's the assumption that, "Well, the first year students are going to come in at the bottom." But, that generally is not the case.
MC: Not necessarily.
JMW: Yeah, in fact this year we had one of the first year students end up in the top band. And so that kind of mixes up the apple cart a little bit too.
MC: Do you think there's a particular time when feedback is most beneficial?
JMW: Yes. I think feedback right after we've performed is really not the best time to do it. But in the seminar situation, that's kind of all we can do because I think if we waited and then the following week we said, "Okay, let's talk about who played a week before," the people listening might have forgotten a few things. Plus, I think the person playing would feel like, "Okay, I've had a whole week, I don't really know." So, we have to give it immediately, and I think that that's more typical of what's out there in the industry. I mean, if you go out and play a performance, you're going to get applause or you're not. Or you're going to be asked for an encore or you're not. Or you're going to win the audition, or you're not. I mean, it's pretty instant because you're performing. But I think there's the emotion in it.
I always tell my students not to listen to their recital CDs like right away, and most of them agree with me on that. And don't want to. And I know myself, my own performances, I usually don't listen to the recordings for a few months. Because it's too raw right away, because all I'll hear is everything that went badly. And then I'll just think, "Oh my gosh, they were so polite to applaud." And then, you know, after a few months go by, you listen much more objectively and much more holistically. And with my students, I want them to really care about what they're doing and to really feel like their art is individual, and that they have a voice. But then I also don't want them to totally define themselves by that, so if they have a bad day or they get bad feedback, it doesn't mean, well they're a bad person. And that's a really hard thing to instill with a lot of my more talented students.
MC: Are there any personal experiences that stand out from your time facilitating these feedback sessions?
JMW: When I think back, I don't remember so much specific "ah-ha" moments that have happened, but more times when I hear students saying really valuable things to their peers with confidence, and things that they've worked through themselves. Particularly when they'll say, "You know I worked on this piece, and I had this same problem. This is what helped me." And, frankly, sometimes I hear them really validating what they've learned from me. When, maybe in the lesson situation with me, they're always a bit - I don't want to say hostile but - just defensive, and so I can realize, "Okay, this really is working." But I think also the thing I really like is, what I've started doing more recently - in fact, just did yesterday - is, I had the student play something that they knew they were going to play, and then they got feedback. And then I had them play it again. And sometimes students are reluctant to play it the second time, because I think they worry, "Well, what if it doesn't go as well?" or "I've sat here in my embouchure's gotten cold." But generally it's a way for them to really instantly apply what they've learned. And I know that when I'm mentoring graduate students who are going out on job interviews to teach music at a university, usually you have to give a master class as part of your interview, and it's really a chance just to see how your one-on-one teaching is. And I always encourage people, "Don't try to fix everything." Just think about one thing that you hear that that student could do better. Work on that one thing and then have them play again, so that the student will hear, "Oh, there's been improvement." And then, frankly, also the search committee will hear, "Okay, there's been improvement." But I think any time we are able in a feedback situation to focus on a few things rather than lots of things, that's when the benefit really comes in.
MC: Are there any discussions going on in your field about how to change or improve these methods?
JMW: I think there's universal agreement that the audition is not a great way to determine if someone will be appropriate for an orchestra. When we audition students to come to UGA, particularly in the Brass area, we try to not only hear them play but have some time to talk with them, talk to maybe their high school band directors, to try to maybe get a little more of a sense of who this person is totally. What their work ethic is like. What their aspirations are. Why they want to major in music. To make sure it's not just, "Well, I hang out in the band room in high school, so I might as well major in music." Because then it's pretty shocking to them to realize how much work it is to be a music major, and how much time it takes and that kind of thing. But, certainly, assessment of course is a big buzzword on campuses right now.
And we actually just had some discussion in the Hodgson School of Music about more ways to assess how our students are doing, and more ways to improve what they're doing. And one thing we decided as a brass area was to improve our students general knowledge of great orchestral music and to have some listening assignments outside of just what we are normally doing now, and not just to think, "Well, they're going to get this Music History," and that kind of thing. And one thing that's certainly personally interesting to me is to incorporate their music theory more into their performance studies. And I'll ask students, "Okay, you're a second-year student. What are you doing in aural skills right now, what are you learning?" And, often, they are kind of flummoxed why I'm asking that. And then I'll say, "Well look at this, and in this piece you're playing. That's where you can apply that."
I think there's agreement that a seminar feedback session is incredibly valuable. Auditions somewhat valuable, somewhat not. Doing auditions at a college level certainly prepares people for real life, if they're going to be pursuing a career as a performer. And I think it also prepares them for whatever career they're going into of just committing to something. Saying, "Okay, this is what I've done. I'm going to put it out there for people to evaluate, and then I'm going to be able to handle the feedback and move on."
MC: Well, what advice would you give to someone who's about to enter one of these seminar feedback sessions?
JMW: The first thing I would say is to practice the actual session. In other words, not just if you're playing Maxime-Alphonse "Etude No. 3," don't just practice "Etude No. 3" but, also, have the experience if you know what room it's going to be in - and of course here they would - you can get in that room on a weekend or something, actually walk into the room and maybe sit there for ten or fifteen minutes as someone else would be playing, and then you go and sit and play. Because we're all used to playing and warming up before we play, but often in these sessions, if you're the fourth person to play, you're playing cold. So, have the experience that way. Think ahead about what you're going to eat that morning, you know. Make sure you're well hydrated. All those things, and maybe play for a couple of people who will not be there that day, and just to get the experience for having an audience there. And then, also, to keep in mind why you're doing this: it's not to show, "Well, I play at this level," or, "I play at that level," or "I'm good," or, "I'm not good," but it's going to improve your playing. And also if they keep in mind what it's like for them to be listening, I think that helps too. Because when I ask them, I'll say, "Well, you know, if Johnny is up there playing, are you sitting there the whole time thinking, 'Wow, I can't believe he missed that note'"? And they're like, "Well, no," and I'm like, "Well, then you know that the reverse is happening." So I think anything they can do so that the actual situation seems familiar is going to make them have a better performance.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Hanna Lisa Stefansson and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on September 20, 2012
Transcription by Taylor Hobson