How to Critique Without Hurting: The Sandwich Technique

How to Critique without Hurting Hearts: The Sandwich Technique

As musicians, we face a lot of critique.

Friends, judges, parents, everyone says this and that.

The sinking disappointment when someone plainly says your music isn’t good enough isn’t too far away.

We risk lots when we open up to critique.

My heart’s been shattered too many times to count, but that’s beside the point.

I’m going to talk about how you can critique without hurting anyone in the long run.

How We Hurt People: Hearts and Expectations

You might scoff at ‘hurt feelings’ and you might believe that ‘serious’ musicians won’t stop at anything, but you’re hurting hearts.

Psychologist and Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal’s experiment makes it plain: when teachers expect that certain students will excel, they will excel; yet the opposite is true.

We have to understand that everyone has different goal. Not every student is going to play at Carnegie Hall (and not everyone wants to do so), but every student will grow in different ways, and we are here to help.

You want to maintain a certain level of friendship with your students so it’s enjoyable for the both of you.

With friendship you get trust— and trust is crucial.

I like to critique with a great technique that I call the Sandwich Technique.

(Um, no food involved.)

The Bread

I start off by talking about what I enjoy about the music and what I particularly like, and even certain things that seem to stand out for me.

All the positive bits.

The Cheese

This is what I think the music needs to improve on and what I dislike about the playing.

The negative and ‘needs-improvement’ comments.

Keep in mind that music is quite subjective.

We might not understand why Rebecca Black’s Friday and Justin Bieber’s Baby have the same musical themes (yet both hit the top charts), but we can still argue that–

they’re catchy tunes.

  • When we start off with “I think…” or “I believe…” or even “In my opinion…”, we’re softening the comment because it leaves room for uncertainty and other interpretations.
  • We’re also emphasizing the fact that these are opinions, not necessarily what’s ‘right’ according to the ‘standards’, if any exist.

The Other Bread

I end the critique with a quick summary of what I like (“Great job on…” / “Keep on doing…”) and a comment on what needs improvement (“Keep working on…” / “Don’t forget to…”).

Grill It

How to Critique without Hurting Hearts: The Sandwich Technique

Lastly, a grilled cheese sandwich is engaging and exciting.

  1. They understand what I’m saying.
    • This is a big mistake that we all make. We get so caught up in our own heads that we ignore whether everyone else agrees, but I stop the flow once in a while to ask “Do you understand what I’m saying?” or “Does this make sense?” and even get the student to explain it back to me.
    • You might be surprised at the “No” sometimes.
  2. I convince them.
    • I believe that what I’m telling them is the best for that situation, so I convince them to think the same way.
    • I tell them why I think this way, in easy words.
    • Sometimes, I demonstrate the playing in two extremes to contrast the differences. (The good vs the really bad; for example, posture.)
  3. I watch my tone.
    • I make sure that my tone of voice gets my message across properly, that it works with my message.
    • Up to 90% of your message is communicated through your tone of voice.

Your Turn

Now I invite you to share a couple tips: what techniques do you use to critique?

Also: feel free to share this with a friend who might find this helpful.

8 Comments

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  • Annie September 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Good article. The sandwich technique is a great way to make criticism more positive.

    I often demonstrate two extremes so the student can really hear the difference. I then asks them which one they think sounded better and which one they feel they are doing. It is often easier for students to accept that they are doing something wrong if they are the ones to point it out themselves.

    I also always try to give positive criticism with the negative. When giving the negative I always sound positive/use positive wording. For example, not “Don’t breathe here”, but “let’s try it again and this time we are going to sing the whole phrase in one breath”.

    My students have learned to laugh at themselves. I have found that when students take themselves too seriously they get more upset/frustrated when they make mistakes. For a student to be able to say “Well that was really bad” and laugh about it instead of feeling bad helps keep the lesson positive and helps the student not be afraid of recognizing his/her mistakes.

    • Grace September 23, 2012 at 8:08 am

      Hi Annie! Incorporating positivity and encouragement into critique is definitely the way to go.

      I love your idea about laughing– I just had my first laughter yoga session last week and I can say that laughter relieves stress, especially when you do it for 40 minutes straight!

      Students become more resilient when they learn to recognize their own mistakes and be alright with laughing about themselves. Thanks for sharing!

  • Janis February 3, 2013 at 10:45 am

    A couple quickie comments:

    When you ask a student, “Do you get what I’m saying?” it’s important to remember that sometimes they’ll say, “Yes,” even if they have no idea. I’ve found they do this for a couple reasons. First, you’re confusing the hell out of them and they just say yes to stop the tide of words. Second, they don’t want to appear stupid. It’s a good idea to ask them to explain what you’ve said back to them.

    And I think a basic part of giving criticism is that it shouldn’t really be criticism so much as guidance. Respect where the person wants to take a given idea — if a student wants to take an idea in a certain direction, your job is to suggest what they might need to do to get there. If you want to steer them in a different direction, that’s a possibility too, but it’s not the same thing.

    So a good way to make suggestions is to think, “Okay, where do you want to take this idea?” Ask the student to explain their own ideas. When they do, you can suggest, “Okay, here’s something you might find helpful in terms of getting to that place,” or “There is another place you might want to consider where this piece can head.”

    I guess I think of criticism as, “You’re heading in the wrong direction,” and guidance as, “If you want to head in that direction, here’s some information that will help you get there.” If you truly do think the student is taking an idea off the cliff … well, let them for a bit. They won’t die. Unless it’s an audition or competition, the world will not crack in half if they play some Mozart as if it were Irving Berlin.

    And it may be that some students that are interested in competition would do best to be guided in that direction, and others who are maybe more into composing or chamber stuff might do better if allowed to go a bit further afield. A good teacher understands that all students are not meant to do the same thing, and may need different types of guidance.

  • Janis February 3, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I guess at bottom, I see a lot of teachers who tell their students, “There is no right or wrong, just play,” and when the student plays something, the first thing the teacher says is, “That’s wrong. The right thing to do is … ”

    If teachers want to critique or guide in a positive way, they need to really walk the walk and bite their tongues sometimes (Mozart != Berlin). Saying one thing and then contradicting oneself doesn’t communicate anything to the student other than the teacher doesn’t really mean anything they say, they just want you to do it right. And right means the way they tell you.

    It’s the difference between reading the map and grabbing the wheel. Unless the student is careening toward a ditch, don’t grab the wheel. :-) They won’t learn how to drive unless you let them steer.

    • Grace Miles February 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Awesome. Teaching and learning is a two-way street and keeping the connections flowing is key. A big part of it is finding the student’s direction; sometimes there isn’t a right or wrong, although it is more ‘elegant’ or established.

      I look at it like a buffet; teachers offer a buffet of skills and knowledge, and students can choose what they want to learn and which direction they want to go. Teachers guide them there. On the way, teachers give suggestions and critique based on their direction; this is the part that leaves people frustrated.

      When students learn different types of music, e.g. Mozart and Chopin, teachers emphasize the different characteristics of the music (adding their interpretations), and critique their playing based on that.

      But at what point should we leave the ‘norms’ and just do what feels best? If students decided to go in their own directions, I.e. leave the norms and conventions behind, then would they want to learn from their teachers, since that’s uncharted territory?

  • Jonnie Johnson February 15, 2014 at 11:09 am

    I like your website to help me to learn more.

  • Larissa August 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Grace, this is yet another great post that made me appreciate what my music teacher is doing. Like you she uses the grilled cheese sandwich approach to critique and I feel it helps me a lot as I can be very hard on myself. An overly-‘passionate’-tirade about how to get a piece up would not have the same impact. Focusing on strengths and being gentle yet precise with areas of improvement really help.

    • Grace Miles September 13, 2014 at 9:14 am

      Larissa, thanks for your comment. We don’t always see others’ hard work right away– often, not until it’s gone. At least, that’s what I’ve realized throughout the years.