No to Multiple-Choice Music Tests, But….

I’ve been following some of the recent news about the development of standardized music tests. Dana Goldstein’s Slate article met with responses from Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, and Nancy Flanagan; many teachers and others offered comments. From what I’ve seen, most commenters oppose standardized tests in the arts because it emphasizes conformity over creativity, serves the wrong purposes, and restricts arts curricula. They do not oppose arts assessment in general; to the contrary, they argue for various kinds of thoughtful assessment.

I agree that multiple-choice tests are no way to assess arts performance or understanding. They could possibly serve to assess a small portion of the learning, but not the whole. That said, I believe some kind of common, standardized assessment has a place and could do a great deal of good. I will focus on music here.

My licenses are in ELA and ESL, but I have brought music into my teaching from the start. In my first four years of teaching, I directed my English Language Learners and other students in three musicals and a play that involved music: The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For many of these children, it was their first time singing in harmony or performing on stage. Some did not know at first how to judge whether they were in tune, so I included some ear training, which led to moments where things “clicked.” I also taught them how to breathe when singing, how to project their voices, and how to shape phrases. Some of them had great intuition for this and went far beyond my teaching. We practiced those songs again and again, and by the time the students could sing them, they were proud, amazed, and joyous. (Michael Winerip wrote a moving article for the New York Times about my students’ rehearsals and performance of The Wizard of Oz.)

The “assessment” here was built into the rehearsals and, of course, the performance. The audience could see how much the students had put into these productions and how much they had learned. Some of it was specific, concrete learning (such as scales, arpeggios, rhythms, and lyrics), some of it less tangible. Some of it came from the students and their own understanding; some, from the hours and hours of practice, and some, from the encounter with specific pieces, songs, and plays. The students were not only learning how to sing and perform, but also gaining exposure to musical theater, American and British culture, and (in the last case) Shakespeare. Some of this could be tested fairly easily; some of it, not easily at all.

I hoped to give my students certain kinds of music instruction I had missed. That sounds a bit odd, because I was unusually fortunate. I began taking cello lessons, at school, at age 8 and continued with formal study for another ten years. I spent two summers in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood, played in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, played duets with a friend, studied with a member of the Boston Symphony (a wonderful teacher), sang in choruses, and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra as a freshman at Yale. As an adult, I have played in various ensembles and bands, recorded with some of my favorite songwriters, and written songs. But it is painful to realize that I still have many technical flaws—due in part to my continued scrambling with fundamentals.

There was a strange discrepancy in my training. Along the way, teachers told me that I was musically gifted; some waxed euphoric about my abilities. Yet, for the first four or five years, each new teacher told me that I had learned just about everything wrong and had to start from scratch. Though I practiced and practiced, I did not overcome this scourge. Several times, when auditioning for a particular teacher or for admission to a music school, I was rejected flat out because of my poor technique. The main problem was that I had no technical core. Teachers had taught me different ways of holding the bow and fingering, but until high school, no one taught me the underlying principles of relaxation, breathing, and fluid motion. Also, I tackled difficult pieces early on before I was ready for them. Most of my teachers let me do this, as they didn’t want to stifle my enthusiasm.

It would have been great if I had learned some fundamentals at the outset, in my first few years of study. It would have been even better if cello teachers generally agreed on what those fundamentals were and insisted that their students master them. I don’t fault my first teacher; she gave me the gift of an introduction to the cello, and I have no way of judging now how well she taught me. I do fault a system that treats children as non-serious amateurs until they prove otherwise, and that lacks consistency in early instruction.

I have seen other approaches to music instruction. In high school, I spent a year in Moscow and attended music school in addition to regular school. My teacher in the U.S. had suggested that I study with the great Natalia Gutman. Thrilled and honored by this suggestion, I called her shortly after our arrival and spoke to her in halting Russian. She told me graciously that she wasn’t taking on students and recommended that I audition for admission to the pre-conservatory school.

The cellist who listened to my audition said my technique was seriously deficient. He referred me to a good district music school, where I was placed in the fifth grade (in regular school, I was in the Soviet ninth grade, the equivalent of our tenth or eleventh).

The school followed the Soviet music curriculum. I spent almost the entire year on the Goltermann Concerto in B minor (not one of my favorite pieces). I played many technical exercises, practiced about four hours a day, had private lessons twice a week, and took ear training and music history classes as well. My teacher wouldn’t accept a note even slightly out of tune. “Chishche! Chishche!” (roughly, “Cleaner! Cleaner!”) she would cry out. I adored her and appreciated her demands. She appreciated my creative work as well; when I brought in a composition one day, she took time out of the lesson to have the accompanist play it. At the end of the year, I performed before a jury, as all students did; I was awarded the highest possible grade.

I do not glorify the Soviet system of music instruction. (The curriculum was too rigid; I should not have spent a whole year on Goltermann.) One thing I do applaud: there was a common understanding of what good technique entailed and in what sequence it should be taught. This did not impede musicality or joy; my classmates at the music school delighted in what they were doing, partly because they were learning to do it well. The performance before the jury was scary but also exciting. (If I remember correctly, the jury recognized expressiveness as well as technique.) My musical experience there was by no means limited to music school; I attended many concerts on my own, including performances by Gutman herself. Her performance of the Shostakovich sonata stands out among my memories.

What does this have to do with assessment in the arts? A certain kind of standardization at the beginning levels, conducted in the right spirit, for the right reasons, and with room for exceptions, would help young students enormously. Now, music instruction in schools takes many forms and directions. A school may lack resources for instrumental instruction, so it may focus on singing (granted, the voice is an instrument), theory, music appreciation, and music history. Or it may offer band and orchestra electives to those who already play. That’s a separate issue in itself; since music instruction can mean so many different things, there’s no single test, multiple-choice or otherwise, that can measure it. But let’s say a school does offer violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and other lessons. Shouldn’t it have a clear understanding of what the basics are, an understanding that it shares with other schools? Shouldn’t it have a way of testing the students along the way, to make sure they’re learning properly? Wouldn’t this open up possibilities for students, instead of closing them off?

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