You Were Sharp, and Flat: Three Ways to Decode Feedback

Now that audition season has come to a close, all of us singers get to embark on a lovely period of time called competition season. First off, competitions can be extremely difficult to get into. In a recent rejection letter I received, the competition said that out of over 400 applicants they could only hear 20 (!) singers in the semi-finals. Just getting to sing in competitions is a challenge in itself! However if you are accepted, they can be a fantastic opportunity to get in front of people in the industry, try out rep, and get feedback. 

Feedback. Oh boy. While you typically don't get any feedback from auditions, many competitions offer it in the form of comment sheets or a brief sit down with the judges. In theory it sounds fantastic. "This industry-established person is going to tell me what I did and didn't do well, and give me suggestions for what I can improve." The problem begins when you realize that every single person hearing you has their own opinion on everything and their opinions are often not the same. Not only that, but getting negative feedback is tough! Our voices are a part of our bodies so it often feels like a personal attack rather than a discussion of our instrument and performance. It is difficult to remember that this person only had an extremely brief look at us as an artist; their opinion is not gospel and we shouldn't take all of their words to heart. This sometimes keeps us from truly understanding what their feedback is and how it can benefit us. Here are three questions to ask to help make sense of it all. 

What did everyone say?

This can be as easy as everyone on the panel giving you identical feedback (for example, "You weren't rhythmically accurate on the triplets in the Queen of the Night aria"), or maybe you have been hearing the same thing throughout your audition season. Sometimes though it's not so easy to figure out. In a recent competition, I was told by one judge that I was flat in my middle voice while the other said I was sharp. I could have just thrown it aside because those were two completely contradictory statements, or, I could dig deeper. What did both of their comments have in common? I wasn't singing in tune. Remember that the judges are doing their best to write feedback both to help their own decision making process, and to give you constructive criticism about your work. They are writing while trying to attentively listen to and watch your performance. At the end of the day, they've been multi-tasking for hours and have heard the same Baby Doe aria twenty times. Be forgiving of any inconsistencies and be receptive to their comments. Try to find the connection between seemingly contradictory statements. 

What did nobody say?

Sometimes feedback can come from the things that nobody on the panel mentions. Are you never praised for your dynamic control, or your floated high notes? This may be a sign that while these areas are not sticking out in a poor way, they also are not your strengths and have room for improvement. When I started doing competitions and auditions, all of my comments (good and bad) seemed to center around my technique. Nobody ever mentioned my acting or stage presence. This was an indicator to me that I wasn't making a strong enough statement onstage. My performances were "nice" but I wasn't fully becoming the character. I was giving lukewarm and, according to one judge, unmemorable performances. Find what area of your work is routinely not being mentioned and set out a plan to improve in that area. 

Did I understand their language?

We have to keep in mind that judges are not all singers. They are conductors, general directors, pianists, voice teachers, etc., and have come into and learned about this field in many different ways. As a result, the musical vocabulary used by professionals is broad but at the core, the principles that make excellent singing are the same for everyone. In a recent competition I was told by one judge to not accent every note in a melisma, and by another judge to sing with full bow like a cello. They were both asking for more legato! If you are not understanding their comments, take their feedback to a trusted member of your team and get help translating it into the language you use. 

Through auditions and competitions, I have been given a wide range of feedback; some was absolutely spot on and some I had to scratch my head over. While we can't apply every comment from every person, we can accept all feedback with grace and be grateful to the panel for hearing us. What have been your experiences with feedback? How has it helped or hindered you?