Concerts as Assessments

For many years of my career, my instructional manager (principal) used my concerts as my teacher evaluation. As far as she was concerned, that is what I did, and how well my students performed was a reasonable measure of the quality of my work. Because my concerts were consistently of high quality, and honestly because it was an arrangement that was mutually convenient, I agreed to this arrangement. But I knew that my concerts were only one measure of one portion of what I did. Of equally, or at times perhaps greater value, was what I taught that was not intended to prepare music for presentation at a concert. So if concerts are to be used as assessments of teachers, what part of music teaching are they a measure of?

As usual, I will refer to the National Core Arts Standards to answer this important question. Before I do, because I am discussing teacher evaluation and not student assessment, I must point out that teacher evaluations as far as student performance go are assessments of student growth over an specified time span. Though methods, procedures, collaboration, and so forth are part of the evaluation, the “bottom line” is going to be, are your students gaining in proficiency under your instruction?

If the aim is to measure student growth in proficiency, then there is immediately a problem with using concerts if no baseline data has been gathered before rehearsals begin. In other words, a concert might be wonderful, and earn a teacher high marks on the evaluation, but if the students performed only very easy repertoire which they played perfectly after only a few rehearsals, and then just repeated their ready performance over the next months until the concert date, very little growth has occured, and the evaluation should reflect that.

Of course the opposite is not entirely true. If the students performed very difficult music, they improved significantly over the span of the rehearsals, but still played poorly in the concert, the gains in proficiency made have not resulted in competency, and should not be suffiecient to earn the teacher a high evaluation. In either case, the skill being measured is rehearsing, refining, and preparing a repertoire of musial works for presentation. The first step in this is to select repertoire to be performed. Student interests, knowledge and abilities all have to be considered when selecting concert selections, and use of well-chosen repertoire is key to building proficiency and ultimately presenting a quality concert.

There is another consideration that should be made when using a concert as the basis for a teacher evaluation. Unlike concerts given by professional musicians, school concerts are designed to have educational value. The goal is that by preparing and performing the concert, students will gain higher levels of musicianship and musical understanding; that they will grow as musicians, both in ability and in the enjoyment of music making. While what students were taught is on display at a concert, how they were taught is not, and it is in that how, in the process that leads up to the concert, that the bulk of musical teaching and learning occurs. Well-taught students learn to interpret, evaluate and self-evaluate, refine, collaborate, convey expressive meaning, and through application of their growing musicianship, and only that of the teacher when needed as a guide, they make ready the music for the performance.

This aspect of teaching, knowing how the students were taught, is most accurately documented by observing the teacher during rehearsals, not during the concert. It can also be evaluated by asking students questions after the concert; questions such as, “how did you arrive at the interpretation of the music I heard tonight?” “What rehearsal strategy did you find most helpful as you preparing tonight’s concert?” What skills were you working on improving by learning this particular musical work?” “What contributed most to you being able to perform as well as you did tonight?” A student who contributed significantly to the interpretation and preparing will have thoughtful answers to these questions. A student who was taught a concert program by rote will have trouble answering them, or not even know what you are talking about if you ask them.

The rehearsal should be a laboratory, where students learn how to be musicians. The process to be used in this laboratory is well outlined in the National Core Arts Standards. I will review them here briefly. First, as I have mentioned, music must be selected. Selecting music should be part of the students’ musical training, not the sole job of the teacher. The authors of the standards wrote, “Performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.”

Who better to consider personal interest, knowledge, and technical ability in the selection of repertoire than the ones who will be performing. The teachers role in this is not to pick the music for the students, but to help them take inventory of their interest, knowledge and ability, and to bring that information to bear in evaluating musical works in the context of the personal inventory.

Second, the musicians need to have an inside understanding of the music they are going to work on. They need to know how it works, how it is put together, what it is meant to accomplish or express, and in what performance context it would most appropriately be presented. “Analyzing creators’ context and how they manipulate elements of music provides insight into their intent and informs performance.” In what circumstances or for what purpose was the music composed? How did the composer use specific musical elements and what clues does their use of those elements give to their expressive intent? These are questions the students need to investigate. Again, the teacher should be a guide, not a lecturer. Students need to do their own analyses and arrive at their own answers to these questions, and then use those answers as they for their interpretation.

Interpretation is the next piece. “Performers make interpretive decisions based on their understanding of context and expressive intent.” The students are the performers, so they are the ones that will make the interpretive descisions. Notice the basis for those decisions is the result of their analysis. Ultimately, they will learn what and how the composer expressed, and then explore ways of performing the music to convey the composer’s intent, colored by their own personality and interpretive bents.

At this point, finally, the student musicians are prepared to begin rehearsing. Too often, we jump straight to the rehearsing without allowing students to understand what they are trying to accomplish or convey thorugh the music. Often, much of the work I have just described for the student has been done in seclusion by the teacher, and only some of it filter through to the students. By having the students to the prep work, they are much better prepared to intelligently and purposefully begin rehearsing. This rehearsal process will take the shape of cycles of rehearse, evaluate and refine until the students determine that the music is ready for presentation. “Musicians judge performance based on criteria that vary across time, place, and cultures. The context and how a work is presented influence the audience response.”

This is what educating student musicians is all about. The final product, the concert, is a reflection of part of the result of the teaching, but not all of it. A truely accurate assessment of a music teacher’s work cannot be done only by attending a concert.

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