In Robert Steven’s book, Mission of Transformation (2009), he mentions in the Foreword that Critique has become a favorite tool of his as an effective way of teaching and learning. It is my experience that most clubs or Bonsai gatherings will include some or other Critique session, especially at large scale exhibitions or shows. It is customary for the head Judge or a visiting Demonstrator to undertake this task.
I have been witness to many of these and have also done my fair share of these Critique sessions. One of the most important aspects of these sessions is exactly what Robert points out in his book and that it should be an opportunity to learn. It is therefore very important that it is done in a constructive way to enable not only the owner of the tree, but all the spectators to walk away with more than just the negative aspects of the tree under discussion.
I like to start these sessions by asking the owner to tell the story of the tree. This gives you a good understanding of the history of the tree and by asking questions, dive into the aspects that really matter. Once this part is done, I like to first point out all the positives. Find something, even if there is very little to go with. There will always be a positive. As the focus is for this to be a teaching and a learning experience, lead the discussion by questioning. Use open-ended questions and allow as many people in the group as possible to answer and become part of the conversation. It becomes very boring if it is only the Commentator delivering the commentary. There is a danger here in that you at times have a very vocal participant who gets so excited that they tend to dominate the conversation. As you are leading the Critique, be aware of this possibility and gently bring the conversation back to focus on the tree and the whole group.
A good place to start is the overall picture or story that the tree on display tells. Look at the whole scene. After that, I prefer to start at the bottom and work my way up. Lead a discussion on the pot, then the surface soil and covering. After this it is the turn of the Nebari and then the trunk. From here, discuss the style and the appropriateness of that for the specific tree. The next part will be the branches and the foliage before the critique almost reaches its end with the apex. Once all aspects have been discussed, it is really important to summarise and come full circle to the positives and then end off with one or two actions for future development of the tree.
It is a time consuming exercise and in the case of a display with many trees, I prefer to only go with the three top trees and then also one or two Shohin displays. This way each discussion is more in depth and the value add is much more than just a walk through the exhibition and barely spending a minute or two with each tree. What I would like to see is that when it comes to multi-day shows, that the Critique is extended and broken up over more sessions across all days. This can be thematic i.e. each session focusses on only one style of tree (design) or split the trees in Evergreens and Deciduous trees or as mentioned above, do the Shohin separately. The main things is that there must be something new to learn for every participant and the owner needs to walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and also a few pointers on next steps for the tree.