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7 minutes reading time (1434 words)

Winds of Change

My last column began with the statement, "We're in the communication business." When I go home after a day spent with the information floodgates wide open between me and everyone I see, I feel I've earned my paycheck.

Then there are the days when I'm in the evaluation business, a very different form of communication. College professors officially grade their students at least twice a year. Audition juries accept or reject applicants to the school. Competition judges pick winners, and in so doing also designate losers. Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about evaluation, which is in effect a judgment, and which frankly makes me extremely uncomfortable. When the competition director hands me my check, the guilt expands exponentially.

Grades are bad enough. Talk to thirty piano professors about their understanding of the precise meaning of A, A-, B+, etc., and you will get thirty different answers. And what is it exactly that we grade? The objective among us might keep checklists which receive detailed attention at every lesson; our more approximate colleagues might give Ns to the talented students, B's to the less fortunate, and C's to those they'd rather not see again.

If you haven't yet read ​Intelligent Music Teaching by Robert Duke, I recommend it highly, not least for its insights into the assessment/evaluation dilemma. Many CC readers know Bob through his invaluable participation in the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy; with this book he more than lives up to expectations. "Assessment," writes Duke, "is the measurement of a learner's performance; evaluation describes the learner's performance in relation to other learners or according to some continuum of graduated labels. 'You made 4 out of 28 free throws (assessment), which stinks (evaluation)."1

Duke suggests that those who feel aversion to grading are not as concerned with ongoing assessments as they are with the consequences of assessment. "It's the grades, the test scores...and what those evaluations mean for the future that gets everyone exercised about assessments in school."2

Exactly. This semester I gave a talented student a low grade simply because he didn't complete the work assigned. On one hand it felt unfair to me; on the other, this was the grade he deserved in relation to the work completed by others.

Auditions are also about comparisons. We listen for "the best" and assiduously recruit those who make the grade. The higher the degree, the more stringent our standards become. Truth be told, I have been fairly vocal in my school about holding D.M.A. applicants to a rigid benchmark - this is Academia's ultimate music degree and those who attain it should represent the cream of the crop, those most likely to succeed in an extremely competitive field. Each audition season, though, my noble criteria are inevitably challenged by students who may not be stars but who are serious, who want to learn and improve. Is the sanctity of the degree so holy that earnest young people should be turned away with the message that they are not sufficiently gifted to enter the Promised Land?

The stakes are also high for the entrants in piano competitions. I adjudicated two since January and while I tremendously enjoyed hearing exciting young performers, I wrestled mightily with my evaluative self when it came to judging. One performance in particular really bothered me: in a semi-final round played by a pianist I had liked a lot in the preliminaries, I heard what I considered transgressions beyond the pale-rests that were either shortened or ignored, tempos that cheapened the music's dignity, and hyper-expressivity that drew attention more to the performer than to the music. I graded accordingly. When the same pianist came around in the finals, I was bowled over by the playing - I couldn't generate enough superlatives in my comments. I also graded accordingly here, and hoped that this performer would win. That was not to be the case. I worried that my grade in the semis was the cause. All this is laughingly subjective and egotistic of me. What I took for sloppy counting, someone else might call Romantic passion. The playing that so excited me in the finals may have been abhorrent to someone else. That's why good competitions always have several judges. Again, though, I become very uneasy with the power of the jury, often sitting on an Olympus of unquestioned authority, making or breaking the future for some very deserving pianists. How dare we assume we know what's best?

A very different take on all this comes from TheArl ofPossibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. Ben is conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and a long-time professor at the New England Conservatory of Music (his wife is an executive coach and family systems therapist). In a chapter entitled "Giving an A," they cite a leadership course taught at the University of Southern California to a carefully chosen fifty of the most outstanding students of the 27,000 in the school. At the end of the semester the grader is instructed to give one-third of the students Ns, one-third B's, and one-third C's, even though the work of No. 50 is likely to surpass that of nearly every other student at the university. Is this an accurate reflection of anything beyond fortuitous or arbitrary comparisons, depending on your point of view, made during a few months' effort?

The Zanders think not. Ben teaches a course in Interpretation at NEC, and after twenty-five years of teaching decided to give everyone an A. He thinks of this less as a measuring tool than as an instrument to open the students up to possibility. When he announces that each student will get an A, he also tells them there is one requirement they must fulfill to earn the grade. "In the next two weeks you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, 'Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because .. .,' and in this letter you must tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will happen to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade."3 He urges them to place themselves in the future and report on all the insights they acquired or milestones they achieved as if these were already in the past. Phrases such as "I will" or "I intend" are not allowed. He believes this allows the students to focus their gaze on who they want to be, momentarily silencing those inner voices that suggest impending failure. The promise of the A gives them permission to fulfill their dreams and represents an investment on the part of the teacher suggesting a belief that they can in fact reach their goals.

Is such a Utopia possible? I'd like to think so. "Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we were to apply this visionary concept to education, it would be pointless to compare one child to another. Instead, all the energy would be focused on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each child's developing skills, mastery, and self-expression."4

Maybe. But I think of my student who received the low grade, and realize that said grade may be an extremely effective chisel on the stone encasing his belief that he can survive only on his talent. I look at a student who went elsewhere for D.M.A. work and realize she may succeed much better in a different atmosphere from the one she would have found here. I think of the competition pianist and know that she will have a blazing career if she can rise above the minor setback of not winning. It was one competition, with one set of performers, judged by one fallible set of judges.

In the end, we learn by assessing every step we take. The evaluations may hurt, but they are nothing more than snapshots of a moment. Tomorrow, we learn again. 


1 Duke, R. (2005). Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principle of Effective Instruction. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources. p. 5l.

2 Ibid., p. 52.

3 Zander, B. & Zander, R.S. (2000). ThArt of Possibility. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. p. 27. 

4 Ibid., p. 26. 

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