Assessing students is only possible if they have been working toward a clearly stated objective; one that both the teacher and student fully understand, with all of its requirements and implications. A good objective includes a statement of what the student will have gained once the objective is met, and how the student will prove that he or she has met the objective. How the student will provide proof is the means by which student work will be assessed. A teacher might say, “I know that you understand appoggiaturas, because you have given me an accurate definition, you have performed one correctly, and you have appropriately interpreted the notes involved.” A student who can only give a definition knows what an appoggiatura is, but cannot apply that knowledge to performance or interpretation, and therefore has an incomplete or even irrelevant understanding. What good is it to have knowledge that cannot be put to use?
By this we can see that in doing something observable and measurable, the student not only makes it possible for the teacher to assess the work, it also helps the student apply and find relevance in what has been learned. Well done objectives and assessments (and I hope by now we understand the two must go hand in hand) are an essential component of effective teaching and learning. To help in writing lesson plans with clear objectives, certain terms from the national arts standards must be understood. I will discuss those words in the remainder of this article.
The first component in both responding and performing processes is to select repertoire. For performing, the authors of the standards explain that to select is to “choose music for performing, rehearsing, or responding based on interest, knowledge, ability, and context.” Context is defined as the “environment that surrounds music, influences understanding, provides meaning, and connects to an event or occurrence.” It is a simple matter to choose one’s favorite song, or one that is most familiar, for responding or performing. It is quite another thing to choose a song after considering what one knows about it, what performing abilities one has, and for whom and for what purpose the performance will be given. With those criteria in place, the student must give the selection more careful thought, and may need to discard that favorite song or think of other choices that would better meet more of the criteria. Those additional criteria, beyond simple preference, set up a learning environment for deeper learning and understanding that will be demonstrated by the selection made, and the support from evidence, drawn from interactions with the criteria, explaining how and why the selection was made.
Another important word for us to understand is interpret. Students develop an interpretation for their own performances, and determine a composer’s and performer’s expressive intent through interpreting music. Interpret is to “determine and demonstrate musics expressive intent and meaning when responding and performing.” This definition immediately leads us to define another word, and that word is “demonstrate.” How will a student demonstrate expressive intent and meaning? To demonstrate is to “show musical understanding through observable behavior such as moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments.” Notice talking or writing about music is not given as an example of demonstrating, nor should it be.
Aaron Copland in What To Listen For In Music wrote, and I agree, that meaning of a musical work cannot be fully, adequately, or accurately described in words. Musical meaning is experienced and personal. It is manifested in feelings, emotions, and physical responses that quickly exceed the capacity of words to represent or convey. When a person demonstrates musical meaning, they must rely on the observer relating to the outward expression of that meaning, making it a shared meaning seen and heard through artistic gestures. The responses of moving, chanting, singing, or playing instruments are artistic actions that give voice to expressive intent and meaning, and allow the student him or herself to create an expressive intent, if only in passing along their response to an observer. Responding in this way is a kind of second hand performance. Unlike the original performance to which an audience is listening, which is a single one, response performance to the single original is plentiful, because each audience member is a response performer giving a personal and unique interpretation and meaning to the original. The same is true for performers interpreting a musical work. Though many orchestras or soloist may perform the same symphony or sonata, each performer will demonstrate a different though perhaps similar expressive intent through interpretation. It is only when the music is performed, original or response, that interpretation can be assessed.