If I had to pinpoint something I dislike about being a music teacher, it would be having to assign a grade for a music ensemble. Plenty of adjudication festivals and other organizations exist for directors who want to know how their orchestras compare to others in their area or at their grade level, but of course, students in school orchestra receive individual grades for their enrollment in performing ensembles.
Despite my constant longing for a pass/fail grading system in which students’ participation, preparation, punctuality, and attitude could earn them a line on their transcripts that help administrators and colleges assess their interest in extracurricular endeavors and sense of commitment, I understand why mine is not the popular opinion. I know that many of my students count on good grades from their special area classes, not necessarily because they are “easy” grades, but because they are grades that they can earn simply by doing what they already enjoy doing. Sometimes, it is parent pressure that places a child in one of my ensembles, but the student benefits from the boost to their average nonetheless. But even a good grade in a performing ensemble might not help overall! As a high school student, my high marks in music classes looked good on a report card but hurt my overall GPA because music classes, however rigorous, received no weight as School Level classes compared to Regents, Honors, and Advanced Placement classes available to us.
In my ideal world, music ensembles would be offered only as Pass/Fail options so that the process of learning music and rehearsing as part of a peer group would be more highly valued. In this system, an exceptionally talented or hardworking student would benefit from leadership opportunities in their section, solo lines, or other rewards that are universally recognized in adult music communities. The process of learning and the routine of practice would guide the content and success of concert programs. But for now and in my experience, this ideal doesn’t exist in public schools. Grades reign supreme.
I had a fantastic teacher once in college who started his course by saying “I know all of you are smart. I want to know who is smarter than whom.” He went on to describe the process by which we would be assessed and how much thought he put into designing that process. In short, he wanted to test us using the most difficult questions he could write so that a very small percentage of us even had a chance of attaining the high marks that we were used to in every other subject in our lives, but to keep from discouraging us, he promised some sort of curve at the end of the course. A breakdown of that curve was something like this:
- Earned course grade: F or Below = Reported course grade: C
- Earned course grade: C or D = Reported course grade: B or A+
- Earned course grade: B, B-, or B+= Reported course grade: A-
- Earned course grade: A- = Reported course grade: A
- Earned course grade: A or A+ = Reported course grade: A+
The final requirement was that we show up for an additional exam day during which he went over the entire exam with us and we were able to ask questions about anything we might’ve gotten wrong. If we didn’t show up for that additional day to prove to him that we were truly interested in learning, our earned course grade appeared on our transcript. Happily, and much to my relief, my reported course grade was an A.
I have embraced a similar grading system within my orchestras in an attempt to reconcile all of my advanced training and ongoing growth as a professional musician with reasonable expectations in the classroom. As a result, my students need only to be contributing members to the ensemble to receive very high grades in Orchestra. They need to come prepared with their sheet music and functioning instrument, arrive on time, participate to the best of their ability, participate in all concerts, come dressed appropriately to concerts, incur absences only in unavoidable situations, and make some semblance of progress throughout the course. This criteria makes up about 90% of a student’s grade in Orchestra.
But what about that last 10%? That last ten percent represents the student’s progress and demonstration of skill, and yes, it is highly subjective. I have high musical expectations for my students, and it shows in this last ten percent. At Brewster High School, my students are used to being tested a few times a month (they’re called “seat checks” at BHS). These seat checks are administered during class and I grade them at home. Students leave the rehearsal one-by-one to record a scale or an excerpt for my camera set up in the cello & bass storage room (parent permission was obtained as part of a student contract at the beginning of each school year). Sometimes these are “pop seat checks” — material is not announced ahead of time — but often students know about them about a week in advance.
What they get in return is a short rubric, a score out of 10-25 points, and a ranking within their section based entirely on their performance of that particular assignment. In extreme situations, a student may get “NG,” no grade, if their submission does not resemble the material. I have space to write specific comments, and I do whenever possible. This gives me the freedom to express my expectations individually, make suggestions for improvement, and to adjust my directions according to the skill level of the specific student. Given this system, a violist might be ranked 1st in her section of 10 violists but receive a score of 8/10 or a first violinist may receive a perfect score but be ranked towards the bottom of his strong peer violinists. He can use the comments to guide his practicing if he desires a more prominent seating assignment.
Here’s an example of what one of those rubrics looks like:
Name: Instrument: Section: Grade:
Score: _____out of 25 or ______% Rank: _____ out of ______
NG = no grade; Submission does not meet minimum expectations and must be resubmitted
- Correct note values
- Steady beats
- “Flow” – the combination of a steady beat and appropriate subdivisions
- Notes/Pitches as written
- Fingerings as indicated (including shifting where applicable)
- Using open strings to tune
- Intervallic tuning
- Distinguishable differences in volume (if indicated)
- Characteristic tone produced throughout the range of printed dynamics
- Characteristic tone in both arco and pizzicato
- Correct bowing directions
- Execution of articulations including: slurs, accents, ponticello, martele, detache, harmonics, tremolo, etc.
- Tone production ***including posture & position***
- Vibrato (if available)