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(De-) graded musical performance. Part 1: expression and motivation

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Who likes exams? Despite the incredible fact that there are actually some people who do, most of us don’t. This is not an opinion, it is a fact. Grades go against our natural eagerness to learn. I won’t write about the first group (those who like exams) and their motivations, because that can take much more space than an average blog post offers… But I will share some thoughts about the second group where I include myself: people who don’t enjoy preparing for or participating in exams (and especially those who dislike waiting for the results to come out). There are all kinds of exams for all kinds of subjects, and I dislike them all. But to my taste, the worst of all is the exam that intends to measure excellence in musical performance. Whatever that is. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma made it quite simple a while ago when talking about competitions -he stated that he wasn’t in a position to judge anyone else’s self-expression and refused to be a jury member for any competition. So far, expression and self-expression are part of a musical performance, aren’t they? In that case, grades should reflect those expressions.

Well, expression is a very difficult thing to measure on the spot. In their famous attempt to analyze the communication of emotions from performers to listeners, Gabrielsson and Juslin found out that some of the performers’ expressions were similarly understood by all listeners, but there were some others that were not so easy. Fine. As Schogler and Pepping put it, “The sounds in expressive musical performance, and the movements that produce them, offer insight into temporal patterns in the brain that generate expression”.  In brief and under normal conditions, this means that when our brain has a specific intention of expressing ‘something’ in connection to the music that is represented in the score, it gives an order to our body so that we can manipulate our instrument or voice, therefore, producing sounds and movements that are received by our audience. That’s fine too, and it is very necessary that some people are researching about it in order to understand the complexity of human beings’ mechanisms for emotions.

Still, none of those examples answer to grading-type-questions such as: Was that a good enough expression? Was it adequate? Was it too little or too much? Did everybody like it or just a few people? I remember a close friend of mine told me a real story that happened in an entrance examination for children going into the music school system. A seven-year-old girl came into the exam room and, before playing her piano piece, asked the jury members

So, shall I play it with or without emotions?”

This is the moment where I could get into details about apprehended or real emotions during a performance, but I will leave it for the post about competitions and young talents, which will come at some point in the near future. Let’s move forward then.

Among the many other parameters in musical performance, we also have something called motivation. I remember I read an article a few years ago about the young and talented Russian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin (our times Rudolf Nureyev) who became the London Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal at the age of 19. He was doing great, and suddenly he left the company. He then lived happily ever after with his tattoo parlor in the English capital. Media was fast –as it usually is when there is fresh meat (as we say in Spanish)– and gave all kinds of details about his night life, his intake of substances and such. However, nobody understood that Sergei was more motivated to make tattoos and enjoy his time with his friends (in whatever ways he preferred that I won’t judge following the essence of this post) than to bow to his faithful audience. I am pretty sure he was good at getting the highest grades during ballet performance exams, and I am also pretty sure all his mentors and teachers failed completely when grading his motivation. What we don’t know is wheter he actually liked dancing at some point in his early years or if the transmissive and exam-based education system destroyed that later on, as it has happened in the case of many artists. This is what I would call going from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation (Wikipedia tells all you need to know about this), and finally ending up with no motivation at all.

Research has extensively shown that grades impact the desire to learn because they put the learners’ focus on extrinsic rewards (“mom will buy me a present if I do well”) or on social desirability (“daddy will love me more”, “my teacher will prefer me”, “my friends will think I am great”). Tests are never intended to measure learning (or teaching, huh!), but results. Grades can only assess (and just partly) the what, but not the how or the why, of what is learned. If we think about musical performances, we spend much more time on preparing for it (the how and the why) than on the actual concert (the what). Still the only part that counts is the shortest, the result. Educational psychologist Pozo and colleagues (where I am glad to include myself) have extensively studied these issues, agreeing that there are specific conditions, processes and results for learning something, and that the focus of learning should be placed on the learner’s motivations and processes of learning, in order to achieve long-lasting and meaningful outcomes.

In other words, developmental psychologist Peter Gray acknowledges that children come into this world happy and enthusiastic to learn, equipped with the curiosity, playfulness, and sociability to direct their own education (the engines of learning, remember?). However, when we give them a hard time with exams and grades, we stop their intellectual growth and fun, and we indoctrinate them into a standardized ‘delivery system’ (stealing that expression from the very one and only Sir Ken Robinson –with whom I agree in almost everything). When the engine of learning is not the learner himself, but the teacher who controls everything and the evaluators who decide what is good and what is not, we face several problems. One of the main experts in grades, tests, evaluations and all things related is Alfie Kohn. His overwhelming research and writing has helped to understand about the side effects of giving grades. Some of the most relevant for today’s post are (you can find these and many other writings from his website):

  • High scores often signify relatively superficial thinking.

  • The interest in the learning itself is diminished.

  • Learners come to prefer easier tasks.

  • Students tend to think in a more superficial fashion and forget what they have learned more quickly.

I couldn’t agree more with Kohn, but after my own experiences as a musician, and my own observations and experiments as a researcher, I would like to add something else. Students who are under the tutelage of traditional teachers and are exposed to constant exams sound pretty much the same and you recognize where (or under whose tutelage) they come from. Thus, unfortunately not only individual uniqueness is lost, but much talent is wasted because some musicians get stuck in the circle of exams/tests/competitions and they don’t see life apart from that. For instance, I asked an incredibly talented colleague of mine how life was and he replied:

"Competition life, boring life".

Apart from motivation or expression, there is another issue that grades or exams cannot assess, and it’s a crucial thing. But I will write about it in the next post. Till then, feel free to comment and please remember that this post is not a scientific article, therefore I have referred to just a few examples in the research literature and I haven’t added references to keep it easily readable. But you can always send an e-mail and ask for further information in case you feel curious. I am just a mouse click away from you.