Judge Not: the question of assessment (beginners)

The really big question when talking about assessing piano/instrumental students is: are external assessments of piano students a motivational tool, encouraging serious effort which certainly would not be made if an external assessment (and the possibility of failure) were not looming OR are piano exams something that strips time from the lesson that could have been spent developing a wider knowledge of the repertoire, a more varied technical expertise and a broader set of musicianship skills?

A firmly believed, but often not-expressed, view amongst piano teachers is that the use of graded assessments often ends up being a way for students (and their parents) to compare themselves with their peers, and this competitive perspective can undermine the motivational benefits that an assessment deadline can deliver.

I’ve recently been spending a great deal of time considering the benefits of assessments for beginner pianists, many of whom may be as young as five years of age.  It can be exciting for beginner pianists to have a chance to demonstrate the range of skills they have acquired in the first few terms of tuition, but I doubt that there is much benefit in assigning a ranking or a grade to students so early on in their piano studies; encouragement is really the goal, and recognition of what has been accomplished, rather than a summarising of the student’s shortcomings.

The P Plate Piano books have a non-graded assessment attached to them, but the specifics are still being finalised.  The problem is, of course, that providing a valuable assessment without inherently generating a means for students to perceive themselves as being ranked from best to worst, or as being marked out of 10 (even if this is disguised as being marked from “needs improvement” to “excellent”) is somewhat challenging.

And stripping away any element of measurement goes against the grain for many in the music education profession.  What on earth is the value of such a completely non-graded assessment, they wonder.

Firstly, a non-graded assessment allows for a student to be assessed on a range of musical experiences and performances that may not be directly comparable.  Piano exams around the world adhere to a remarkably similar format, generally because of an absence of innovation or imagination, but equally due to the fact that meaningful assessments can only be made when comparing like with like. So the repertoire students are asked to perform must fit somewhat narrow categories so that a set of criteria can effectively measure different performances, not just at one standard of difficulty, but from one level to the next.  This means that a student can hardly present a program which includes one improvised performance, one duet and one accompaniment of a choir; vastly different criteria would be needed to assess the success of a performance in each different context.

And so it is that piano students on the whole are either asked to play one Baroque/Classical, one Classical/Romantic and one 20th Century work in their exam, or (slightly bolder) one fast piece, one slow piece and one 20th century piece. All solo pieces. All within a somewhat restricted stylistic language  (and I do acknowledge recent developments, including the introduction about ten years ago of initiatives such as the Piano for Leisure syllabus in the AMEB, the Jazz Piano syllabus in ABRSM, and the use of transcriptions in Trinity Guildhall).

Without the need to assign a mark or grade, examiners can respond to a student’s performance (no matter what form or shape it takes) on its own terms, suggesting ideas to try next as well as congratulating the student on their demonstrated achievements.

Without the concern of how it might impact on a mark or grade, students can create performances that express their own ideas and communicate their own feelings about music with no time spent being preoccupied with what an examiner may need to hear to give a distinction mark.

Some music educators and piano teachers might be concerned that when a student has no fear of displeasing the listener/examiner then accuracy might well be jettisoned and faithfulness to the score abandoned.

To them I can only suggest that a performance aimed at accuracy is a dull experience indeed, communicating little beyond concern not to make a mistake, and a reverence for print music mistakes notation for the real thing (the sounds, textures, tone colours, the out-of-nowhere but inside-your-body experience that is music).

Much more interesting is the performance which is technically assured, but musically motivated, risking error in the quest for emotion, emphasising playfulness over perfectionism. Maybe a wrong note, a misplaced tone, a not-quite perfectly executed attack might be the result, but not through lack of engagement with the music.

Without the fear of judgement and measurement, a non-graded assessment allows a celebration of being part of the music, rather than a straining effort to be good enough.

And that is exactly what I want my beginner students to experience.

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