Lisa Aschmann and I taught a songwriting workshop once, where we began with the following instructions: "Well, we're here to offer feedback to each other. So if you sing a song, let it be a song you are willing and ready to have critiqued. And perhaps be able to tell us what kind of feedback would be helpful to you about the song."
The first woman who offered a song said, "I'd like to do a song about childhood sexual abuse. It's been a very important part of my own personal healing." Inwardly, I cringed before she started. What on earth could I, or anyone there, say? What if I didn't like the song? "That first verse? I thought it was a bit corny and mawkish..." Right, sure. I'm reminded of that old book "Up the Down Stair Case" where a lovelorn high school girl writes a love letter to her English teacher, who returns it red-pencilled with spelling and grammar corrections. The girl commits suicide. Ah, yes, feedback.
Well, it didn't stop there, by the way. The next woman said, "You were so brave; I'd like to do a song that I wrote about childhood sexual abuse as well. This song really means a lot to my support community." The next one up was a guy with a big dreadnought guitar. I confess in my black sexist soul, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself: "Well, at least now we should get someone with a nice, shallow road song and we can talk rhyme schemes for a while..." Then he said something to this effect: "Hearing those songs has empowered me to share a song which has deep personal meaning for me. It's about childhood ritual sexual abuse." Well, I can tell you this wasn't a big session for critique...
At the time, what bothered me was that we were holding a songwriting workshop where the stated purpose was people sharing songs for feedback. Looking back, I realize that while that might have been our (the facilitators') stated purpose maybe that's just not where people were coming from. We were in California, after all. (Hey, I grew up in California, I can tell jokes about my own ethnic group, right?) On the other hand, who knows where the other participants were coming from? If it was presumptuous of us to try to impose certain groundrules or structure on the session, wasn't it just as presumptuous for the singers to change the stakes so radically?
Experiences like these have made me realize that giving and receiving feedback, whether it is one on one with a friend, in a songwriting circle, or in a professional co-writing relationship, is truly a fine art, and one which has a big influence on the rest of one's artistic work.
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