This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
Just as important as hearing criticism is the ability to communicate your ideas effectively. There are a few practices that can make a world of difference in getting what you want as well as getting the most out of your collaborators.
Opening Up Creative Possibilities With Humility
If everyone is willing to hear comments on their work, you're on your way to bigger and better things. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves. On my podcast where I interview producers, there's a common trait that angers them. When a musician says, "can you turn the compressor off that snare?" when a compressor isn't even on a snare, it elicits an angry reaction from the producer as the musician is overstepping their boundaries.
Most people can smell from a mile away when someone is swimming out of their lane of expertise and into theirs. It's basic human nature to be a bit annoyed. While it's a bit silly these producers are angered by this ― especially since the musician is trying to be happy with an album they may promote for the rest of their life ― the producer is angered that you’re not talking to them in a way that's helpful to achieve your goal. In order to get your goal across, restating the question as: "Can we work on the snare a bit? Is it feeling a bit compressed maybe? I want it to be a bit more gentle."
There are a few details to this technique to pay attention to: first, it's polite without offering a direct action that must be done. Secondly, it offers some solutions but doesn't give an imperative. It's also helpful to describe the emotional response you'd like it to be closer to. It can occasionally be hard to get on the same page using words like "gentle," but if there's an example of a record with the sound you'd like the snare to be closer to, you can usually get an engineer to get it closer to what you want.
The same criticism skills go for your band members; being super specific about what you want them to do can suck the creativity right out of them. While you may know you want your bassist to play an octave higher for the last bar of the chorus, it can be helpful to ask them for some other ideas on what they could do for that bar. Allowing them to come up with solutions makes them not only feel valued, but also helps them maintain their interest in the project. It also can lead them to come up with an idea that's better than what you thought of or can be combined with yours for an even better result. Even some of the least proficient musicians I've worked with will surprise me when I exercise this technique. If the musician is great at their instrument, they probably have a more advanced way of getting what you want if you communicate with them in a way that opens up possibilities instead of shutting them down with overbearing suggestiveness. If they don’t come up with a better idea, you can always suggest that they go up the octave since you know that works.
Getting The Most From Outside Collaborators - When working with outside collaborators or studio musicians, there are a few ways you can maximize their contributions with a similar technique. I make them two mixes before a session; one contains the part the songwriter and I have composed for them to play on a MIDI instrument, along with another that doesn’t include our example. I'll tell them to listen to the song without the part we wrote to come up with their own ideas. I'll get a few takes of their idea to see if they come up with anything better than what we already have. After that I get them to play the part we wrote, sometimes with some of the ideas they came up with added in. After they record the part we wrote, I then ask, "is there anything you can think of to improve this part?"
That single question is usually where the magic of the collaboration happens. The session player is often creatively stifled by following orders from those who don't understand their instrument, feeling both frustration and resentment. But given the chance to improve upon an already finished idea emboldens their expertise to find small inflections we overlooked that a proficient player understands. Allowing collaborators to develop their own ideas while letting them feel like the expert opens up creative potential. Even if you know exactly what you want, allow your ideas to be improved upon since there’s little cost of time compared to the reward.
Constructive Criticism Is Often About Keeping A Conversation Going
“Rule of art: Can’t kills creativity!” ― Camille Paglia
In acting improvisation classes, there's a technique called "yes but" that allows a conversation to keeping going for your collaborators to work off of. When suggesting or criticizing a part of a song, this is helpful when you introduce "no but." Adding an alternative or a more descriptive part to your criticism allows a conversation to start, whereas only saying you don't like something leaves the conversation in an uncomfortable place. It's inspiring for collaborators to hear what you like or dislike since it offers a place to build from. Criticism is labeled constructive since you can build from it. Trying to make sure all of your criticism or affirmations have a description that inspires the next step helps keep the momentum going.
“Negativity is the enemy of creativity.” ― David Lynch
Leaving an open-ended solution to the problem that includes the person being criticized involved will always get a better reaction. After stating what you find wrong, offering a solution but not strictly stating that's the only way to do it leaves the door open. Simple statements like "what if we try___?" or " since you're good at this stuff, what do you think we could do to fix this?" can get an amazing reaction from collaborators.
If you do have to criticize someone, find anything nice to say first and your criticism will be met with much more open ears. I try to find anything ― no matter how hard I have to try ― I can compliment before giving a seriously harsh criticism when working with musicians. This tactic often leads to them accepting the criticism and openly evaluating it.
When To Be Detailed About What You Want
We just talked a lot about leaving things open for collaborators, yet there are times being overly descriptive can be extremely helpful. Just as you should leave your collaborators some wiggle room to be creative, there are times to give a lot of direction. In short studio sessions, it can be hard for a collaborator to know what you want when you’re not familiar with one another unless you're able to express what you’re looking for in great detail.
As a mixer, I’m doing a process the musicians I work with have little knowledge about. When I receive mix notes from the musicians I work with, I tell them to explain their thoughts in as many words as possible. Usually, these musicians don't have the lexicon to easily describe what they want so encouraging them to go overboard can give me clues to what they're looking for. Detailed input on what you like whether it's tone, inflection, composition, etc. can be extremely helpful in getting your vision across, especially if there’s a communication barrier.
Wait For The Idea To Be Realized
One of the most common disputes in collaboration is when someone critiques an idea before it's ready to be judged. Many ideas aren't able to be judged unless they've been developed for a few minutes or the proper context is presented. The fastest way to a fight during a song’s drafting is to judge a person's idea before it's even been realized. Not only does this cripple the chance of the idea improving the song, but it also stifles the person who's idea it was.
Just as we discussed with brainstorming sessions in musical environments going wrong, we must remember one of the only ways collaborative environments work properly is by not criticizing others until the idea is fully developed. While this can seem like a waste of time, the momentum drained when collaborators feel hushed along with the bad environment it creates isn't worth the time spared.