Sunday, 24 September 2017

Judgement day

Passing judgement on artistic work.

It's something I have to do frequently in my work as a music teacher. And, over the last few years, it's something where I've frequently been on the receiving end in my photographic and audio-visual work. 

I hate doing it, myself. It's not a problem marking essays or aural perception exercises or even students' performances, but when it comes to their compositions, their own creative musical constructions, I flinch from awarding a mark.

It's because I know that, when students have completed their task whole-heartedly, it's very personal. There's a part of them in the music I'm hearing. They're left exposed, hopeful, vulnerable. I don't want to put a number on that, or even to place them in order of merit.

I'd love just to applaud and congratulate.

But, as a teacher, part of my job is to encourage them to develop their creative work. And part of that involves giving feedback on their work. Some of that feedback has to identify the ways in which they can aim to improve. 

So that's what I try to do. I start with praise - and there are always, always things to praise. I try to be specific, using technical terminology to show that the work is worthy of being discussed in a serious way. Then I carefully choose something which, in my opinion and experience, the student could realistically take to a higher and more effective level. I try to present that in a way that sounds professional and matter-of-fact, totally believing that the work shows promise and that this area for development is very much achievable. And I conclude with something positive, hoping that I'm leaving the student motivated, first of all to compose again, and also to focus a little on the area that I suggested for development.

I don't always get it right, and I'm sure my students sometimes feel discouraged, and I'm sorry about that. But I recognise very genuinely that it's a privilege for me to have this creative work shared with me, and that that privilege brings serious responsibilities.

Having my own work judged makes me feel jittery and sick. I look at my little photographic print or watch my film, exposed in front of an audience on an easel or a screen, and actually tremble. I'm often all too well aware of its flaws and weaknesses myself. Usually, I'd love at the point of judgement just to snatch it away and run out the door. But, because I genuinely want to improve my skills, I wait, trying not to hyperventilate audibly, to hear what the judge has to say.

Sometimes, that process ends up being exceptionally rewarding. My few moments with my work in the spotlight leave me feeling validated, encouraged, eager to create something else, and possessed of useful new knowledge about how I can take my work further, or stimulated with new ideas that I wouldn't have thought of myself. 

But sometimes, that's not the case. Sometimes I've felt humiliated, or dismissed, or totally misunderstood, or perhaps not even worthy of comment. Because my work, up there on display and subject to judgement, is a part of me. 

The most positive experiences of having my work judged haven't all been the same. Nor have they necessarily been the ones where my work achieved its highest successes. But the judges in question have tended to:

Make it clear that there's nowhere else they'd rather be than enjoying our creative work.

Show a genuine emotional engagement with what they see.

Speak in a lively, enthusiastic, eager way.

Start with the positives. There are always positives. And that means in the work itself, not its peripherals or its presentation.

Take the work seriously, putting it in its broader context, noting the techniques used. 

Treat it as art.

Avoid second-guessing what it is or where it was made, if they don't know for sure.

Choose something that can be improved.

Avoid focusing on why that thing is bad; instead give positive, constructive, practical advice on how it can become better.

Avoid finding the same flaw in lots of work - if that's happening, it's probably just a bee in their bonnet.

Avoid too many personal anecdotes - it's our work up there, and it's us waiting on tenterhooks.

Avoid low blows that make the audience laugh at the expense of someone's work.

Finish on a positive note, so that the engagement with each piece ends on an upwards trajectory.


Having put those thoughts on (virtual) paper, I'm heading out into my own working week with them clearly in mind. I'll be judging creative work every day. I hope I can follow my own advice.

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