Grading art

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It’s the end of the semester. Teachers are frantically trying to get grades in on time, and students are checking their grades hoping for a high GPA. In some disciplines, grades are well understood: either you solved the equation correctly, or you didn’t. Either you did your homework, or you didn’t. These objective criteria are easy to evaluate and translate into a grade.

In the arts, often things are not quite as easy. It’s difficult to objectively evaluate the emotional value of a piece of art. In an arena of personal expression, who can say what constitutes “good,” and how does one determine whether a piece meets that standard? When grading performances, I often think of the story of Maya Lin. In 1981, she designed a monument in memory of the fallen soldiers from the Vietnam War, and submitted it both for a grade in one of her classes and also for a chance to win a national competition. Her professor thought it was OK, but nothing special. He gave it a B, and then submitted his own design in the competition. The professor’s design ended up losing, Lin won the $20,000 prize, and her black granite wall of names is now an instantly recognizable national landmark.

Because of this challenge, I know many teachers who grade their performance classes strictly on attendance: if a student regularly showed up on time, with the right materials in hand, s/he earned an A. In fact, that’s a substantial component of how my large ensembles are graded. Because of the wide variety of skill levels represented, it is treacherous to try and be much more specific. Does the older student who easily coasts through the repertoire really deserve a better grade than the younger student who works harder to execute the part? I don’t think so, and I make sure my grades reflect investment as much as anything else.

For private lessons, however, the grades I assign are much more carefully tailored. For each lesson, I grade the preparation of the assignment from the previous week. Were the notes and rhythms accurate? Were the notated articulations and dynamics rendered? Did the lip slur exercises show that the student was focusing on the proper technique? Were the scales accurate and fluent? These are all questions that can be objectively answered and scored. From this rubric, students receive an objective grade for each lesson and performance. Based on a weighted scale described in the syllabus, all those scores are then calculated into a grade for the semester.

There’s an obvious omission in this strategy, of course. At no point do I evaluate “musicality,” “expression,” “substance,” or any of the other characteristics that make music “art.” Basically, I’m grading only to what degree a synthesizer could have done a better job.

It’s well understood that professional musicians are being replaced by synthesizers at an alarming rate. Broadway shows regularly hire just a few key musicians and synthesize the rest of the score. Even the main theme from the high-budget HBO series Game of Thrones is badly synthesized — and it hasn’t seemed to hurt the popularity of the show at all! To get a 100% in my class, therefore, is only to become a much more expensive version of a computer. In order to be more valuable than a synthesizer (and therefore worth the additional expense), musicians must make the most of any opportunity to dramatize the art form and make it more meaningful than a computer can. So, why am I not grading those factors?

I teach them, of course. I talk to no end about the value of artistic expression, historical context, and individual voice. But, while I can offer my opinion on those issues, I’m not sure they need to be graded. Art is a communicative, constructive, human experience. It is subjective, personal, and contextual. It is everything that a number in a spreadsheet is not.

However, art depends on a mastery of the medium. A painter with a clear vision must understand the brushes, the canvas, and the colors in order to realize his or her intent. A trombonist with a specific interpretation in mind must have complete command of the embouchure, air, and slide in order for the audience to hear that musical statement. Technical facility is something I can grade, and it’s something that can accurately, if not completely, measure a student’s development in an academic setting.

One could argue that this grading scheme might push my students toward being technical automatons. It could be tempting for students to follow the grade and do only what’s necessary to get the A.

To some degree, however, that technical emphasis is merely reflecting the modern industry. In a masterclass I attended some years ago, Joe Alessi remarked that when he’s sitting on an audition committee, any candidate who plays the right notes in tune and in time gets advanced past the prelim round. Not many people advance, because not many people are capable of that level of precision. In my own playing, every time I’ve made a dramatic leap of progress, it’s because I realized I wasn’t as in tune or as in time as I thought I was. I corrected those errors, and I became a better player. I still don’t have a full-time orchestral seat, so I assume that I’m still not as in tune and in time as I think I am! If school is, in part, supposed to prepare students for “real life” and “the workplace,” then it’s entirely appropriate to highlight the value of playing accurately.

From a much broader perspective, I don’t think there’s much danger of turning music majors into automatons. People don’t choose to major in music for the love of playing scales and drills. People become music majors because they love music. They love excitement, drama, and performance. Artistic ideals are built into these students’ core identity. It is a struggle to bring a musician’s eyes down from the grand vision to focus on the mundane details. Equipping students with technical facility liberates them do what they really want: to explore the artistic concepts we discuss in lessons and to pursue their own creative projects.

Even if those things never make it into the grade book.