Let me begin today by asking you a question. If you direct a large music ensemble such as a choir, orchestra, or band, how do you assign report card grades to your students? I’ve been teaching music for over thirty years. “Back in the day” it was perfectly acceptable to give any student that warmed a seat and did what he or she was told an “A” and to penalize everyone else for not begin quite so cooperative. With large numbers of students all meeting at the same time in the same room, this was expedient, and for most of us it was hard to imagine any other way of “doing grades.” Perhaps there are some who still assign grades this way, but this really isn’t what you want to be doing. Let me explain.
Grades represent an evaluation of a student’s performance on projects, class work, homework, tests, quizzes and other assignments that teachers give their students. If a student gets an “A” it should mean that they were able to do with excellence what you stated in an objective they will be able to do once they have received your instruction. Now think about this: how many band, choir or orchestra directors state as an instructional objective, “students will be able to sit in their assigned chair for an entire rehearsal?” Or “students will be able to arrive at rehearsal with a pencil.” Honestly, if all your students have to do to get an “A” are these kinds of things, then your music program is not worth whatever taxpayers’ dollars it is getting! You teach musicianship that demands of students that they be able to self-evaluate, interpret, execute the playing or singing of their instrument with accuracy, beauty of tone, and expressive intent. These are the things that students should be graded on, regardless of the size of your ensemble. Students, parents, administrators and taxpayers will not take such a program lightly, but will value it because there is something of substance and value being done.
The next point, of course, is how does one accomplish this kind of evaluation with so many students in together at one time? i will offer a few suggestions, but I am sure there are other ways as well. If you hold sectional rehearsals, have students play alone short passages carefully selected to evaluate one or more aspects of performance. These needn’t take a lot of time; just eight measures can be enough to evaluate tone, technique, expression, pitch and rhythm. For singers, they can pass a small recording device and sing into it for 12-20 seconds at a time while singing a choir piece. Instrumentalists can go one at a time to a practice room and record themselves on an assigned passage or etude while the rest of the ensemble continues rehearsing together. Other aspects of playing can be assessed from the podium with a checklist. These aspects include posture, embouchure, and holding and finger positions. Students who are doing an item correctly get it checked off, those who are not doing correctly do not get a check. Count up the number of checks for a score on these aspects. It is also possible for the director to walk around and through the ensemble while they are playing or singing without a conductor, or with a student conductor. The director can quickly assess individual performances as he or she stands near individual students. You will not evaluate an entire ensemble in one class period, but it is entirely reasonable to expect to evaluate an entire ensemble over the course of 2-4 sessions.
Why go through all this trouble if you can just give a kid an “A” for showing up? There are three reasons. First, doing legitimate evaluations such as those I have described is the only way you’re going to know with any precision what students are learning from you. When students are performing with other students, weaker performers can rely on stronger ones to lead the way. Many singers who appear to be performing well are actually just following a split second behind another student, and really have very little idea what they are doing, or how to successfully function in the ensemble independently. This is how musicians sometimes graduate from high school music programs, having played in ensembles for years, and still have no idea how to read music.
Second, students deserve to learn something from you. If you only grade them on how well they do things they can do without any instruction from you, like sit in a chair or bring a pencil to class, then there really isn’t any reason for them to be in your ensemble except to fill up their schedule with an easy grade. If that’s all your ensemble is, an easy grade, then even if you give successful concerts, you are doing your students a disservice. Most of your students will not continue in any music courses or ensembles after high school, because they never really had a good reason to be involved in the first place.
The third reason is grading just on participation devalues a music program. If an A in band doesn’t represent comparable work and accomplishment as compared to an A in math or science or language arts, then music is all too easily dismissed as a “frill” and not worthy of being a core subject. The value of music education is not found in just showing up. It is found in pursuits such as finding expressive intent, forming an interpretation, self-evaluating and receiving feedback and then acting on that feedback in a process of refining a performance until it is ready to present to an audience, complete with purpose, expressive intent, and personal investment in the art of music and music making. So the next time you prepare your music grades, don’t forget what you’re saying about your program in what you’re evaluating.