Should We Be Judging Our Kids’ Musical Performances? (Spoiler alert: I think no)

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Would this performance get a “I” rating? Probably not.  Is it a worthy musical experience? Yes!

I live and teach in a state where adjudicated events are a standard part of music education. Schools prove their worth – (read directors and students) – by the ratings they bring home from marching band contests, solo & ensemble contest, and large group contest.  The very high school I attended had a wall full of plaques declaring superior ratings at state contest. My band uniform was covered with blue ribbons I received at solo & ensemble contest.   The single II I received on a piano solo because of a memory lapse was a source of shame and disappointment.  My senior year, with a new, young band director, we received a II at state contest.  Even though that young man was (and still is) a fine musician and a remarkable teacher, we felt as though we had failed. It didn’t matter that we were playing college level music that had moments of brilliance.  We had failed to convince the judges we were worthy of a “superior” rating.  As far as I was concerned, our  worth and accomplishments as musicians were reflected in ratings at contest.

And, like many aspiring music teachers, this is the attitude and philosophy I took with me into my undergraduate music education program and first year of teaching.

Then I had my own bands and choirs.  And later my own children.

They didn’t all get Is. They didn’t even all get IIs. There were the dreaded IIIs and even an embedded IV from an occasional judge.

These ratings broke my heart. Not because of the crushing blow to the ego as a director, but because of the blow to the musical spirits of my students and my own children.

You see, there wasn’t one single judge who knew where those students started.

Not one who spoke to a student to learn how he or she connected with the music.

Not one measurement of the aesthetic experience on stage as everything faded away and a child became lost in the music (as if such a thing could be measured!)

No judge sees the band on the practice field for the sixth hour on a hot, summer day or the bruised lips from hours of playing.

No judge knows the courage it took for a particular soloist to decide to even try a solo, let alone walk into a room and play for someone they don’t even know.

No judge knows that a choir director lost 1/3 of her choir two months before contest because of schedule conflicts.

No judge knows the number of students that can’t afford to take private lessons even though their parents already work two jobs.

No judge knows that a band or choir lost a member earlier in the year and making music together has helped heal their hearts.

Judges are not heartless people – but their task is to evaluate the performance on a certain day at a certain time. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If one of the goals of music education is to instill a love of music making, a love for the experience of getting lost in the experience, how can we allow a rating to steal the joy and pride our students feel when they complete a performance they know was their best? How can we allow a judge to tell them that was nothing to be proud of?  I can think of no better way to crush the musical spirit of a student or director than to tell them it doesn’t matter what you felt as you were playing – the worth of that performance is decided by my rating. Is this said outright? No (at least I hope not) … but it is too often the message received from years of tradition and expectations.

Is there a place for adjudicating music? Yes – for those who wish to pursue professional careers in music performance, their playing ability will be judged – often harshly.  But even then, musical spirits are crushed when the love of creating something beautiful is found to not be beautiful enough.

So what is the alternative to judging our students? Allow them to experience the joy of making music together. Easy music. Difficult music. Songs we love. Songs we’ve heard. Songs that are new to us. Music from far away places and music from our past. And don’t forget listening to music. Listen to music together. Listen to different styles, different performances of the same piece, listen to instruments you play and those you don’t.

Standards don’t need to be lowered, but perhaps they need to be changed. Instead of judging a performance by being “grand champion” or getting a I, look at the young musicians reactions. How did they feel about their performance?  Was it something that instilled pride? Did it move them? Teach our students that a performance isn’t good because someone else says it was – they have the ability to determine its quality on their own, with their own ears.

Take it a step further and it doesn’t even have to be a performance. High quality musical experiences can happen in a drum circle in a middle school general music classroom where students improvise rhythms that gel into a groove that everyone in the room feels – and no one wants to stop playing.  They can happen the first time a student realizes she has the power to create her own music on a ukulele or guitar. They can even happen outside of school – as students jam together in a garage band (on instruments that often can’t seem to find a place in school music.)  They can happen as friends and family sit around on an evening singing songs of their faith or childhood. Maybe even at a barn dance as a hodgepodge of folk instruments compliment each others melodies and harmonies.

If we want the value of music education to extend beyond traditional ensembles and ratings, we must realize the harm we are doing to ourselves and our students when we make them compete to see who’s music is worthy of recognition. When students make music it is worthy of recognition. When this is the standard we strive to meet, we will truly be able to say we are providing music for all – for all times.

 

 

9 responses »

  1. The value of these events are in the comments and what directors and groups do with them. I think the biggest issue with our adjudication system is how directors place each rating in their “cap” to bolster their egos. In turn, this forces the students to see it as a competition to win rather than as a tool to enhance their playing; and we all know how over-competitive our society has become.

    A comments-only system would keep the benefit of adjudications, but discontinue the ego trips. Maybe instead of ratings, groups could be recommended to perform at the state conference.

    • I agree. There is certainly and unspoken hierarchy of directors based on the contest ratings they’ve accumulated. (Maybe even spoken.) An entire system of comments only would solve a lot of problems.

  2. Thirty-year MS & HS band director here: Plaudits for this piece, which was right in every aspect. When all music teachers agree, we will finally be teaching music the way we’re supposed to: for human creative expression, for pursuit of excellence, for fulfillment and pleasure. Thanks. Well done!

  3. Thank you for writing this thoughtful post. I still remember the humiliation I felt when I received a II for a piano solo my junior year in high school – the time my teacher did not know what was on the list, so I had to switch pieces three weeks before. As a career music teacher, I enter students in events with comments only, or with private ratings, not public ones. It is time to end this number rating system!!

  4. What a GREAT post! You hit every single point I despise contest/adjudication. I also loved your comments about drum circles, guitar, ukelele, and simple listening in a classroom. If we weren’t so focused on the competition/contest, we would have time for it. Thank you for writing what so many of us think!

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