As artists, we crave positive affirmation. But we also need critique in order to grow. How do we give each other critique that is positive, encouraging and also constructive?
Stacey Regan and Elise Massa have been leading the Ascension Songwriters Collaborative at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA. Elise Massa is the Northeast Regional Leader with United Adoration. We asked Stacey to send us tips for creating a positive environment for collaboration and creativity. Thank you, Stacey!
- A safe place
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I grew up with this mantra, and it’s worth its weight in gold with artists. Most creatives are sensitive, and this is great. It’s why we pick up on things and respond with art that helps others respond in ways they can’t without such prompts, but our sensitivity also makes us more sensitive to criticism, and most of us have at least one painful story regarding the sharing of our art. Therefore, a safe place is an absolute necessity for creative people to present their raw, untried, un-thought-out unfinished ideas, suggestions, and projects.
If you put in the effort to make your group a kind group, people who really care about one another and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, sensitive people will return. Furthermore, when feelings do get pricked, apologies and forgiveness are much easier and more likely to happen quickly because it is a stated intention that participants treat each other with kindness. Even if you get folks who like straightforward criticism and suggestions (like me), I don’t want anyone to be cruel, and kindness for the sake of others can still inform the behavior and speech of this type while stretching our humility and patience in a really good way.
- Gentle suggestion vocabulary
“I wonder” is our most frequent go-to in this department. “I wonder what would happen if you went to a minor chord here instead…” “I wonder if there’s a way you can give this line more power with alliteration …” Another is, “I’m confused. Could you explain your intention with this line…?” “I’m confused. Could you unpack this verse…?” “I’m confused. Is this no longer supposed to be a lament…?” An honest but gentle way of indicating that the idea is good but you think more work is needed is, “I’m really interested in seeing where you take this…” or “This is such a great concept. Keep me posted on your updates…” or “The imagery you’re using here is so powerful, I hope you’ll continue working on it…”
- Be specific when asking for help
If a song of yours has a chord, a word, a line, a melodic phrase, that is annoying you, sounds unfinished, doesn’t belong, you hate, whatever, say so and ask for specific help. On the flip side, don’t use that as an open door to make additional suggestions unless the invitation, expectation or relationship is clearly there.
- Affirm, affirm, affirm
This is one of the things that’s so great about the United Adoration sessions. There’s so much affirmation, that it actually can dilute the lone, unpadded, unintended “ouch” inflicted by a clueless participant.
Specific affirmation is by far the best. There are several lyrics in the song, “Jesus Made a Way” that I wouldn’t dream of rewriting, simply because someone said they really liked it; and every time I sing it to myself, I’m reminded of that fact, which is like hearing their affirmation again. (Of course, I liked it enough to keep it!)
Stacey Regan is a songwriter and founding member of the Ascension Songwriters Collaborative at Church of the Ascension, an Anglican church in Pittsburgh, PA. Stacey grew up in the Air Force and the church—one environment guaranteeing frequent changes, the other ensuring stability wherever those moves took her family. Within that church family environment, Stacey began playing guitar and writing music, establishing herself as a worship leader, teacher and composer. She identifies herself as “a serious lyricist who manages to write easily accessible melodies,” and is especially grateful to Andy Piercy and those he brought with him to the Songwriting for Today’s Church workshops at Trinity School for Ministry over the last 8 years. During Covidtide she’s been a regular attendee and evangelist for the United Adoration online creative sessions and gives them credit for keeping her sane and accountable to other songwriters while sharpening her own writing skills.