For most if not all school music programs, the performing of concerts is at the core of what music educators and their students have uppermost on their agendas. Music teachers spend a great deal of time planning and rehearsing concert programs, always with the performance in mind. While (hopefully) plenty of musical concepts are being taught along the way to the concert, those concepts could and are just as effectively taught in non-performance ensemble classes such as general music. So what additional purpose is there in preparing and giving concerts? What value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?
The best way to answer this question is to consult our National Core Arts Standards under the artistic process of performing. With every occurrence of the phrase “for presentation” or “for performing” in those standards, there is a clue to answering our question, what value is there in presenting musical work to an audience?
The first value is found before the public performance; it is in the preparation of a performance for presentation. We first encounter this phrase in the fourth anchor standard. The authors wrote that students will, ” Select, analyze, and interpret artistic work for presentation.” While most music educators will immediately recognize interpreting as a normal part of the rehearsal agenda, and most will agree they teach at least some analysis of the music they are preparing, the full value of students selecting music to perform may be a bit more elusive. We know that when students are performing music they like or that is familiar to them, they approach rehearsals with more motivation and enthusiasm. But there is more to it than that. In order for students to select music to perform, they must be aware of their own skill level and musical maturity, and the difficulty level of the music they are considering. The process of selecting music requires that students match their own abilities to the demands of the musical work.
First students need to assess their own skills. Teachers can do this by giving students two or three short works of decidedly different difficulty levels. By attempting to perform each one, students can determine which ones are too easy, which ones are too difficult, and which one is just right. While we want our students to challenge themselves in the music they select, we do not want them to attempt something way over their head and become discouraged. Students can answer questions like, “what difficulties do I anticipate having in performing this music?” What specific measures or sections do I think will take the most practice to master?” “What practice strategies will I need to use in order to learn this music?” Do I have enough time before the performance to get this music ready for presenting?” “What new learning do I need before I will be able to rehearse and/or perform this music?” “How will I acquire the new learning I need?” Going through the selecting process guides students through valuable reflections and analyses that raise the overall level of their musicianship and music literacy.
Students’ analysis go beyond assessing the difficulty of a musical work. It also prepares students for making informed decisions regarding how to interpret the music. An analysis of the composer’s use of expressive elements such as dynamics and tempo changes, articulation, and timbre and the effect of the use of these elements on their response to listening to the music provides clues to the composer’s expressive intent, which is a foundation for musicians’ interpretations. The expressive qualities the student discovers in a musical work are allowed to freely interact with the student’s own experiences and interest, and the combination results in a personal interpretation that is both personally relevant and interpretively appropriate to the context of the musical work and its creation.
It is probably evident by now that selecting and analyzing encompasses much of what ensemble directors are accustomed to doing for their students; however, when students enter into the rehearsal process at the point where all of the selecting and analyzing has been done for them, they collectively become little more than the director’s musical instrument used to perform the director’s music using the director’s interpretation. While this is stated in an extreme way, it is to some degree true if students are not selecting and analyzing as part of the pre-rehearsal preparation.
There is another aspect of performance preparation that is perhaps usually regarded as part of what the director does, but is better left at least in part to the students; that is, the aspect of deciding when a performance is ready to present to an audience. To make this decision, students apply “criteria and feedback to evaluate the accuracy and expressiveness of ensemble and personal performances.” Personal performances can include how each student is playing their own part in an ensemble, when they practice the part on their own, or it can be how they play a solo part or work. As students progress in their work and advance toward meeting the criteria and incorporating feedback, they can judge when they have met the criteria and incorporated the feedback. At that point, the performance is ready to present. One of the difficulties in leaving this decision to the director, is that students who are struggling or who have simply not met the criteria yet are left either unsatisfied by the performance because they know they did not contribute what others did, or thinking that an only partially prepared performance is enough to consider that performance ready to present. When the performance decision is generated from within the ensemble, it is more solid, and more satisfying.
All of this gets us to the concert, yet little of it would have taken place without the concert to prepare for. At the concert itself, there are at least two main things to be accomplished. I’m sure most of you can think of more, but the two that I would like to present are first, as stated in anchor standard 6, students “convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.” This is possible because the students have worked through the process of developing an interpretation, and so that interpretation means something to them both individually, and corporately. The students have learned that by developing an interpretation collaboratively, they have something unified to present and express. This is also possible because through that process, they have learned through analysis what the composer’s intent was, which translates through an interpretation into meaning. It is only by hearing a performance that an audience can ascertain the meaning of the music. Even if students were to describe the music they played in their concert, or if every audience member (cherish the thought) read the scores or listened to another ensemble perform the same works, they would not fully understand the meaning that those students conveyed through that performance after doing that preparation.
The second main thing to be accomplished by giving a concert is to add something worthwhile into the lives of everyone involved. Student performances should always have benefit and value for the student musicians and the audience. From a holiday concert, to a ground breaking ceremony, from a community carol sing at Christmas time, to a half time marching band show, the performance must add value to the community, the culture, and the individual through the conveyance of meaning, the expression of feelings, and the entertainment of all. From an educational perspective, the performance is a summative assessment in that it represents the quality of work that has gone on in selecting, interpreting, rehearsing, evaluating and ultimately deciding to present. There is no suitable substitute for the live concert experience of musician. Writing papers or lowering grades to compensate for missed concert appearances does not replace the educational and life value lost. We give concerts because performing music fulfills the urging and requirement of the musician’s natural creative spirit.