What Virtual A Cappella Taught Me About Feedback

Like most student organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, my a cappella group was met with the challenge of transferring our activities to a virtual space. Under the initial CDC- and University-issued safety guidelines, singing in a group was the first activity to be ruled out due to the risks it raises for both participants and our community. So we moved our rehearsals onto Zoom and delivered gig and competition performances virtually by creating music videos made from individual members’ recordings of themselves singing in their homes. As the Creative Director and Video Producer of the group, it was my job to make these virtual performances happen, and at first, I remember feeling skeptical — could we really pull together a compelling performance without physically standing together?

When we sing in a group under normal circumstances, delivering a dynamic performance is not typically a concern. While performing and rehearsing in-person, singers feed off of each other’s energy and move together, and no matter how different our individual voices or styles are outside of the ensemble, we match our sound and interpretation of the music to what we hear from each other. When my group had to work on producing virtual performances this year, however, the experience could not have been further from this description. Each person was alone in their room with a camera, singing an ensemble harmony that was never too exciting on its own, and yet the expectation remained that we performed as if we were surrounded by singers. Not to mention, performing for video puts facial expressiveness and every other visual detail within frame under a microscope in ways that live shows do not, which can also pile the feeling of pressure on our members.

As expected, the first group video that I compiled of our members immediately felt less confident and less cohesive than our live performances. What surprised me the most was how poorly my own performance translated to the group edit, even though I had spent two hours taping and re-taping my three minute video in excessive perfectionist fashion. Although my video had satisfied my standards when I watched it at the end of the two hours, details that originally seemed unproblematic turned into obvious issues when I was edited into the group. The first thing I noticed was that there were parts of the song where I had a bright smile whereas other members, leaning instead into the seriousness of their line, did not. Minute inconsistencies like this one stuck out throughout our video, and we looked hardly like the cohesive ensemble we prided ourselves to be. Was there a way to bridge this sense of spatial and experiential disconnect between our video tapings and the final edited product?

According to nudge theory, feedback can be a tool to guide better decision-making by letting users see the impact of their choices in a timely way. The book Nudge explains the power of feedback with an analogy to golfing:

"If you hit ten balls toward the same hole, it is easy to get a sense of how hard you have to hit the ball. Even the least talented golfers will soon learn to gauge distance under these circumstances. Suppose instead you were putting the golf balls but not getting to see where they were going. In that environment, you could putt all day and never get better...Alas, many of life's choices are like practicing putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback."

Even the best singer and performer fumbled in our exercise because they could not access feedback on what they looked like and how the group edits turned out. Under non-remote circumstances, live directing could usually provide this sense of feedback in real-time: if I could be in the room with each singer as they recorded, I could try to motivate them (“Be confident! You’re doing great!”), suggest changes to ensure consistency across all the recordings (“Could you try performing this part with more of a happy or hopeful interpretation?”), and indicate the progress that they are making (“That was much better than before! Could you take it even further?”). However, with our members spread across the world, this was not feasible, even if there was a way for me to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Thus, to restore this environment of feedback, I decided to build two to three draft phases into the timeline of our video production. With none of the fancy editing techniques that go into our final projects, these were stripped-down demos with the single goal of putting all of our performers onscreen at the same time — synchronized, side-by-side, and similarly sized. The intention was to allow those who were featured to review their own performance in the context of other singers, much like looking into the dance mirror in a rehearsal room. This exercise made it self-evident where individuals stuck out in terms of their performance and provided a point of reference for them to adjust their performance accordingly. Furthermore, it reinforced the sense of performing in a group by helping singers imagine the context that they would be edited into the next time they took a recording. Creating not one but a few practice videos was also essential to encouraging consistent and measurable progress. They served as checkpoints to help singers monitor their own progress, so that they could evaluate any stylistic choices that they experimented with, such as decide whether or not they had overcompensated for an earlier problem and needed to readjust their performance. As I had hypothesized, the feedback provided by these practice edits helped our members grow steadily more aware and in control of how they appeared on screen, and together we worked toward producing many virtual performances that we were proud to share with our friends and family, the school community, and even the international stage. (Take a look at our award-winning virtual performance here!)

The lessons I take from this exercise are about far more than singing asynchronously or performing for video: the power of optimized feedback environments finds many applications across projects and industries, offering benefits like accelerating skill development, cutting costs, and incentivizing user engagement. In a classroom, using quizzes to check students’ understanding can sensitize them to whether or not they are studying the material correctly or paying enough attention in class to be prepared for an upcoming exam. In a meeting, tracking minutes can allow attendees to reflect on whether or not they are taking up the appropriate amount of time when they speak, especially as it relates to other agenda items or the total length of the meeting. Even in the interface of a web form, a simple progress bar can help users gauge their progress and possibly reduce abandonments resulting from frustrations with not knowing how much is left.

Is there a process in your life where building in feedback procedures might quickly improve your (or others’) choices or behavior? Like my a cappella group, one little nudge might be all you need to unlock ‘Better’ versions of yourself and avoid ‘Oops, I Did It Again’ moments!

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