Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Unpleasant Truths

I'm writing this about two and a half hours before it's scheduled to go up; I had a different post ready to go, but I'm bumping it to Friday because I'm still feeling frustrated from, well, the subject of this rant.  Go ahead and look below the break for some musings about music, fanfiction, and what the two have in common.

Music, and singing specifically, is one of my major hobbies, and I am or have been a singer or conductor in countless choirs (okay, not countless, but it's in the dozens).  For the past few years, I've been assistant conductor with a local barbershop chorus, and yesterday we had a board meeting.  Now, our chorus is mostly old men, and they're getting older every year.  Apparently, as the resident "young guy," I'm supposed to help them figure out how to attract new, preferably youthful, members.  Here's what I wanted to say at the meeting:

"Right now, most of the chorus treats barbershop as a social club.  Rehearsal starts late, once everyone's done having their private conversations, and tends to be interrupted by rambling monologues, including some frankly offensive political and racial 'jokes' (to give you an idea of how clueless some of the older members can be: last year, I had to explain to a group of our singers why it's not appropriate to perform a minstrel song while wearing blackface in our Fall Show.  They were not being ironic).  It's obvious that most of the chorus members never look at their music outside of practice; we're only able to learn a few new songs a year, despite theoretically logging almost 120 hours of rehearsal over that span.  As a result, most of that rehearsal time is dedicated to learning notes and rhythms, and almost no time is left for working on anything that might make us actually, you know, sound good.

"There's absolutely nothing here to draw a new member in.  If a potential chorus member came to one of our practices, he'd rightly conclude that there were at least half a dozen local choruses that he could join which would sound better, have more engaging practices (working notes and rhythms is one of the least satisfying uses of practice time), and at which he wouldn't end up spending at least half an hour each week awkwardly standing around listening to octogenarians rambling on about people who died twenty years ago, quartets they heard perform forty years ago, and their own myriad medical conditions."

Obviously, that's not what I said.  Instead, I suggested that we try to focus on producing a better sound at our performances, since there's a pretty strong correlation between how good a group sounds and how likely potential singers are to want to join it.  While I won't say the suggestion was dismissed entirely, the opinion of several of the board members seems to be that our group already sounds fine, and that we don't need to worry about where we're at musically.  After all, at our shows, people always come up and tell us how great we sound.  In any case, our group isn't supposed to be an elitist haven for professionals, I was told; to quote: "A lot of the guys here just want to have fun, and besides, audiences can't tell the difference between good singers and okay singers as long as you're having fun on stage."

Singing and writing are similar in a lot of ways: both are intensely personal (your voice, your ideas), both have objective bases (notes and rhythms, grammar and punctuation) upon which are layered more subjective decisions (plot, pacing, characterization; blend, tone quality, inflections).  And, in the case of my barbershoppers and those fanfiction writers who put their work on places like FIMFiction, both involve exposing the public to your product.

In fact, the similarities between the barbershop chorus and fanfic writers are pretty significant.  Both are composed of a small subgroup who take what they're doing seriously (too seriously, many would say), and a larger core for whom "it's just for fun" is an all-purpose excuse.  For members of both groups, it's easy to find folks who'll ladle praise on them, regardless of the actual quality of their work.  There are large factions in both groups who seem to believe that putting in effort and having fun are antithetical.

And for both, criticism can be a bitter pill to swallow.  The fact that singing and writing are both so personal means that it's easy for criticism to sound like a personal attack.  When our chorus last performed at a district convention (where there are professional judges who critique each group), we received pretty low marks.  The larger part of the chorus angrily dismissed the judges' complaints, saying things like "We sang those songs the way we wanted to, we don't need a judge to tell us how to sing," or "What they're looking at and what real audiences care about are two different things."  And on the fanfiction side... well, I'm sure anyone who's been involved in any fanfic community for any length of time can fill in plenty of stories of hyper-defensive authors by themselves.

Unfortunately, I've never quite developed the knack for helping these people, in music or in fanfiction.  You can reach a lot of people by making sure that your comments are neutral in tone (if not in content), by mentioning at least a few positive things, no matter how much you have to reach to find them, by praising improvement, however incremental, and most of all by offering constructive advice with concrete examples.  But if someone can't tell the difference between "There are a lot of things you could improve about this song/fic" and "You are a terrible singer/writer" (and there are many people like this), how do you reach them?

Sadly, I don't know.


  1. You realize they are unreachable, wish them the best, and conduct your attentions elsewhere.

  2. I've performed in a few large ensembles before (all amateur, of course) and the people leading them have always found a way to help organise the group as a whole. One way they did it that I think works is that certain sections would be split apart and be given extra practice just amongst themselves. When the sections got back together as a whole they tended to sound a lot better afterwards. I don't know if you've tried this already, but it might be worth a shot.

    Mind you, it might be a bit redundant if you're dealing with old men who're very set in their ways and attend to socialise rather than perform well. You might not be able to reach someone as a musician if they're not even trying to be a proper musician.

  3. The problem isn't with how you approach them, it's their attitude. Try the brutally honest approach. You will either shock them into some semblance of proffessionalism or they will ostracise you. In either case, the situation won't continue to stagnate.

    I can't understand the "it's just for fun" excuse for laziness. Where's the fun in doing something poorly? I know I'm an amature at many things I enjoy doing, but there's so much pleasure in improving... even if I never am half as good as the "pros."

    1. Lots of people have lots of fun doing things poorly all the time, because they don't care about doing it well. All kinds of people who play games are terrible at it, and don't care. Similarly, lots of story writers aren't good writers (especially on technical issues) and just don't care.

      All they want to do is write a story about ponies doing something. If they manage to do that, then being told the 500 ways they're doing it wrong just detracts from their enjoyment of doing it rather then enhances it.

      The issue in your case is that you derive pleasure from improvement, which isn't a universal trait. Lots of people don't. For them, the extra effort spent on it is just time they could be spending doing something more interesting.

    2. The difference with games is most of us aren't playing in front of hundreds of people. Those that do typically want to perform well. Chris' group doesn't want to improve because they already think they're doing well, not because they have no interest in doing well. Were the audience more critical, they'd either practice more or quit. The same goes with writing fiction. One might continue to do so for their own enjoyment, but if they had no positive feedback they'd either quit posting their stories publicly or try to improve

  4. Interesting that you have that hobby. I've written music for a long time, did it competitively in high school, and have focused on choir for the last 10 years or so. Cool to see interests line up in this fandom.

    Also, as one of the longer-tenured people who reviews MLP fanfiction over at Ponychan, I know the minefield that is trying to critique people's writing in a way that they will use. We're obviously a step down from EqD in that regard—people can take our opinion and do whatever with it, because we're not a gateway to anything in particular. Still, it can be disheartening noticing the small number of people who actually take your suggestions to improve and ever return. At least there, disgruntled people just slink off in silence, for the most part. EqD gets a lot of vocal hate over it. And both have spawned communities on FiMFiction, in particular, that are organized by the principle that such sites are just out to be elitist and force a few people's opinions on the masses.

    Nobody wants to hear that they don't measure up, and their reflex is to assume the fault is with the critic rather than accept the services of a volunteer who spent several hours, at times, to help them. A good critic can be objective enough to say whether something is good, even if he didn't enjoy it personally.

    Frankly, being able to accept constructive criticism is a vital part of doing anything.

  5. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot you can do. After all, that issue stems from an attitude problem held by the person receiving the feedback. At the end of the day, it is their prerogative whether or not they take or reject constructive criticism, and there is little the criticizer can do to change that (especially an anonymous person over the internet).

    All I think you can do is tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may. What they do with the truth is up to them.

  6. There are people who are simply not interested in being serious about doing something, and don't care about how well they actually do it. Whatever "it" is.

    Because they truly don't care how good they are at it, you can't reach them with attempts to help them improve. It cannot be done. For your signing group there, it's a social event for them as much as it is about actually singing (and perhaps even more so). The results of the signing are not the priority.

    It's important to understand the motivation of someone when providing feedback, because you can save a lot of your own time and frustration by realizing that a person/group simply isn't interested in criticism or improvement. Giving it to them won't change that.

    For the people that ARE, your talents are more appreciated.

    (I've kind of gone through this personally when I put a story up. I got a bunch of positive feedback, and then had someone absolutely beat the stuffing out of me. However, his feedback contained a lot of great information about things I was doing wrong, and it was invaluable to me specifically because I was hoping someone would tell me how to improve. But for a lot of people they don't care about that and simply want to tell a story. If they do that, they've succeeded and they're happy.)

    1. While it's definitely true that there are people who don't care how well they do at something, I think they're far more uncommon than people believe (I also think people who genuinely don't care wouldn't be likely to post their fanfics publicly, but that's neither here nor there). For example, I play a lot of different card games, with a variety of friends. Some of them... aren't very good at cards. But they're still trying, and although they're having fun despite losing, that's not the same as saying they don't care about trying to win. They want to win, and they'll make every effort to do so. Much like how someone can take pride in a merely okay fanfic, knowing how much effort they put into it--it's not that they don't care that it's not perfect, it's a matter of taking pride in one's effort as well as one's results. The key takeaway here is that they still care how good it is--that's just not the determining factor in their satisfaction. Again, people who really don't care are pretty rare.

      Or take it back to my chorus. They want to be good. They want big crowds at all our performances, they want to be praised and held up as a shining example, and they want new singers to join and help us grow. The problem isn't what they want to achieve; it's that they don't realize how far their perceptions of their our performances are from reality, nor are they willing to seriously entertain altering the dynamics of our rehearsals. As far as they're concerned, the problem isn't us; it's publicity, it's popular bias against barbershop, it's judges who don't know what "real audiences" care about, etc.

      You're absolutely spot-on about the importance of understanding motivation when providing feedback; if you want to make a difference, you need to speak to the author in a way they'll be able to understand and use constructively. But I don't know how to help those who know there's a problem, but are convinced that they aren't the source of it. And sadly, that's not exactly an uncommon occurrence, in fanfiction or in real life.

    2. The only way I can think of getting across to someone who thinks the problem is others and not themselves is to play along, but make an argument on pragmatic grounds. If someone believes you agree with them, they'll be more likely to hear you out. For instance, those fanfiction writers might be more willing to change their material if you agreed that EqD's full of elitist pricks, but that the only way to get on there is to put up with their crap, at least for the time being. This would only work if getting their story on EqD was a major goal of theirs, of course

  7. As far as dealing with people like this goes...well, PP already said it. I'm usually leery of anyone who asks me to look over their work, because I'm one of those guys who takes writing (way too) seriously, so I know I'm going to tear into their work with the best of intentions without always knowing whether the author is mature enough to handle it. It's a tough rope to walk.

  8. The problem is harder than you make it sound. The reason people don't listen is because they don't have any good reason to listen, because getting bad feedback tells you NOTHING. Getting SPECIFIC bad feedback, "this story didn't have a strong hook," might tell you something; being told "You suck" conveys no information. Not because it's vague, but because those who excel and those who suck are both told "You suck" frequently.

    Whatever the domain is, barbershop or fanfiction, there's no way for a person to know whether they're good at it or not. The people whom you regard as greats get just about the same amount of negative criticism as the people you regard as terrible. device heretic gets lots and lots of criticism saying his work sucks and is unreadable. If you don't like DH, name any author you do like; I promise they also get such critiques. And [insert name of author you can't stand] gets lots of hyperbolic praise.

    How can anyone tell which kind of author they are?

  9. You cannot help those who do not want to be helped.
    It is a waste of time for the both of you.