Photo: Tina Phillips (2009)
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(De-) graded musical performance. Part 3: Showing off and 24/7


And here comes the last part of my series of blog entries about grading musical performance. As some of you might have thought before, instrumental music grades are not only an effective system to measure standardized performance achievement, but also how music students are doing regarding their parents’ (and teachers’) needs. Yes, as literal as it may sound. Fortunately, many parents enrol their children in the music education system for many good reasons, some that come to my mind right now are:


-Rejoice playing music with other kids (developing social skills)

-Enjoy as individuals the beauty of making music (developing the appreciation for culture)

-Learn the habit of practicing; take care of the instrument and learning materials (developing organizational and responsibility skills)

-Communicate a message to the audience, understanding the inner message of a composer’s piece, or appreciating/respecting the teachers (developing emotional mechanisms)


But, we do also know those parents that have a need of measuring who is best or who gets the highest grades and awards. They have a need of showing off with their relatives, friends, colleagues or even neighbours (!) about how great their kids are. (Did you notice the elegant male peacock fanning out his tail infront of another fellow in the image above?). But showing off is a dangerous thing. Such pressure mechanism inhibits learning (i.e. Michaels et al., 1982). In fact, once the exams are over, we rarely retain anything, only by pure repetitive practice we might fix some technical/instrumental/vocal procedures. Worse, we actually become very much against learning without being graded. By the time we become teenagers we don't function without grades, we become conditioned and addicted, like our parents, our teachers and our education system…

Why a parent decides to go for this kind of predetermined plan for his/her kid is not a mystery. It comes partly from their childhood experiences (they were graded too!), but also as a consequence of our 24/7 life. 24/7 is a recent term which means one is “online” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or in other words: ALWAYS. Parents –and later on their adult kids– are too busy to pay attention to the small and really important things in life, like having fun at the music classroom instead of getting high grades. Yes, I talk, among other stuff, about the constant use of social media (and I write a blog, huh!) or having too much work (and too little paid). Our life is too hectic to reflect on the processes or conditions of learning and not about the results (if you remember from my first post, the what or the how/why). Nowadays, parents demand –partly as a consequence of our Western society’s needs– an easy method of knowing the achievements of their children. However, parents are not the only ones to blame (parents out there: breath!).

Most of Western education systems also require methods of knowing students’ quantitative development (not qualitative –the how/why–), so that they can create their ranking scales that are useful for so many purposes one cannot list. Grades are the best quantification method in that respect. This makes students competitive and helps parents make grades indispensable. As a consequence, we create an audience who look for these kinds of numbers or statistics, too (who is a competition winner, who is famous, etc.), forgetting about the artistic experience. But hopefully, after the previous couple of posts (here and here), you might already know that grades measure something very negligible from the whole cake. As such, I will write a brief personal reflection about the whole thing on (de-) grading music performance.

It is a pity that our access system to music universities, and also to music schools is so poor than it cannot detect all the issues I have written about, not to mention so many others I have not (yet) discussed. Nevertheless, what we should know by now is that grades might not be the best solution when aiming at becoming a performing musician. One of the few things that could help us learn to become musicians is something called self-reporting grades. This entails the notion that when grading yourself honestly and with acceptance of your individual situation, it can raise your level of achievement and learning (Sadler & Good, 2006; Hattie, 2009). And as a parent myself, right after reading what I just wrote here, I felt the urge to stand up from my computer and go ask something from my friend’s child (since mine is too small to talk). I wanted to ask if he liked what he did at the music school today and if he feels he has something artistic to share with the world in a happy enthusiastic way, because otherwise he would be wasting his time by going through the whole system, whatever grades he might get.

We all have to stay positive (do not mind how critical I am, I am also a happy dreamer). Students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they do not get grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they are learning, more likely to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply about what they are learning. Such a dream! The evidence on all of these effects is very clear, and it seems to apply to students of all ages and all topics from academics to sports (even Helsingin Sanomat wrote about this in one of their articles). I refer once more to the constructive solution of Pozo (2008). Or if anything, for still adamant about grades, please at least consider self-grading, which appears to result in increased student learning (i.e. Sadler & Good, 2006), thus being a much better option than any external evaluator.

Last but not least, I encourage you to read expert authors of topics in grading, such as Alfie Kohn, John Hattie, Stephen Krashen or Daniel Pink (and so many others). I encourage you to calm down with the development of your children’s (and your own) talents, and instead focus on their (your) happiness (“slow parenting”, as they call it nowadays –funny, don’t you think?). I encourage you as an audience to be critical of the quality of music performances and especially attend as much of them as you can in order to develop such criticism. I encourage you to be open about this topic and resist when everybody else is forcing you to go under the same quantification system, when or if you feel it is not right for you, or when you prefer another option. And to truly end this post, I encourage you to learn the constructivist system of education, and then embrace it. If, however, after my three posts there are still questions lingering in your mind on this topic, I remind you that I am just a mouse click away from you (although not 24/7). So long...