Lowering the standards

Here we go again.

Last Saturday, October 18, two of my students attended the Fall Festival, an event organized by kcmta (Kansas City Music Teachers Association).  According to the kcmta website,

The Fall Festival requires the performance of one memorized piece of literature for an adjudicator. (Adult categories may use music.) Performances are open to the public. Each student will receive a written evaluation, rating and certificate. In addition, a student earns a ribbon and points toward a Fall Festival Award plaque engraved with his or her name and the year in which the award was received. A minimum of twelve points must be earned to receive a plaque.

Rating Points Ribbon
Highest Honors 4 points Purple Ribbon
High Honors 3 points Blue Ribbon
Honors 2 points Red Ribbon
Honorable Mention 1 point White Ribbon

Grace, one of the two beginning students to participate this year, is competitive.  Not that she doesn’t normally work hard, but knowing that there’s a ribbon or prize at stake makes her work even harder.  I will admit that, having recognized this trait in her, I make use of it.   In our preparations for the Fall Festival, I explained the points and ribbon and plaque system.   With my encouragement, she did the math:  if she gets 4 points, it’ll take her three years to get the plaque.  If she gets 3 points, it’ll take four years.  So.  We talked about what it would take to get 4 points:  everything in the score had to be played exactly as written – every staccato super crisp, balance between the hands clearly in favor of the melody which in this case was in the left hand, crescendo meant that every note was louder than the one before – not just so-so and leaving it to the listener’s imagination whether or not it was getting louder.  And so on and so forth.

She was motivated to get it just right.  She’d ask me to evaluate her playing, “Was this a four?” and I would answer, “Not really yet.  More like a 3.7 because your staccato was kind of but not really crisp.  Try again.”  And again, and again.  “Was this a four??”  – “I’d say 3.9 because there was this very tiny break in the melody.”  For once, we wanted more than mastery.  We wanted perfection.

With their parents’ help, and a lot of work on their own, both she and her brother John prepared for the Fall Festival.  We even went to the location to try out the piano and see about the bench, look around – which in the end didn’t do us much good because the performance room that was listed in the program was different from the room on the sign-up sheet.

As one of the teachers, I helped out in the “recording room” – filing critique sheets and ribbons into the teachers’ envelopes.  For Grace’s and John’s performance, I went to their performance room and listened.  Both did well, but neither was perfect:  Grace’s right hand was a bit too loud, and John, unfamiliar with the instrument, sat too far to the right and ended up playing his piece perfectly but an octave too high.

In the recording room, looking at the critique sheets of so many other students, I noticed that the grading system was not just from 1 to 4 points, but judges often added a minus or a plus.  Makes sense – there can be a huge gap between a 3 and a 4, and being able to modify, say, 3+ or 4- made it easier to bridge that gap. Had it been up to me to judge my students, I would have awarded them a 4- because they played almost perfectly, better than a 3 but not good enough for a 4.  After all, a 4 equals “highest honors” – presumably the highest grade possible.  Or so I thought.  Then I noticed that occasionally a judge would award a 4+  – apparently for an exceptional performance.  If we only had points, I’d be perfectly ok with awarding a 4+.  But getting 4 points equals a “Highest Honors” rating already.  How on earth can something be better than “highest honors”??

We seem to be reinventing the English language here.  High, higher, highest.  Awarding a 4+ would have to be “highest-er” than highest.

My concern, as usual, lies with what we are teaching our students:  both Grace and John received a 4 which at first surprised and then pleased them.  Of course a 4 is nicer than a 3, but the rating – highest honors – is not appropriate to their performance.  I had taught them to listen to themselves and learn to evaluate, very specifically, not just “yeah, that wasn’t bad” but “the staccato needs to be crisper” and such.  They had evaluated their own playing and they knew that it wasn’t perfect.  Definitely not highest honors – which, by definition, does not leave any room for improvement.

I trust that their parents who have high standards for themselves and their children will somehow make sense out of this for Grace and John.

For me – I am disappointed.