R – One of the wonderful things to happen in my career has been the establishment of the grassroots, Maine Arts Assessment Initiative. The mission statement is, “Creating an environment in Maine where quality assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to deepen student learning in the Arts” (a blog post on this soon, btw). And while summative assessment on a large group ensemble is not an educationally valid endeavor (Math teachers and Science teachers don’t pass out one test for everyone to collaborate on and then give everyone the same grade – – – and if we want to be an academic subject standing on equal ground with them, we can’t either), formative assessment on the other hand is essential, especially in the large group ensemble. We do it all the time. The combination of the MAAI mission statement and formative assessment is what led me to the idea of the post concert #1/pre concert #2 reflective thinking model I articulated last week in concerts and reflective thinking – part 1. We have two classes between those concert performances: one to score which performance indicators we are falling short in, and one after that to shore them up prior to the second performance.
Below are two visual examples of this process from last term, first by my Freshman Treble Choir, and next by my general Chorus. You will note: the column on the left are the selections, the row across the top are the performance standards we were able to give feedback on by listening to the concert recording of each. The black numbers refer to the POST reflection performance (performance #2) and the purple numbers refer to the PRE reflection performance (performance #1) of that same song. The picture is of the white board after the class did an analysis of the second concert, and only after completing the entire board did I THEN add the purple numbers to reveal what their scores were of those same songs after the first concert.
FRESHMAN TREBLE CHOIR. The first observation is that the weakest performance indicators for the first concert (purple numbers) were not the same for each song. Diction was the weakest indicator for Patapan, dynamics for Home, phrasing/note accuracy for Song Of Ruth, etc. This was cool for the singers to see, because as directors we know that each selection has its own unique challenges and needs. The kids could see a visual of that (after all, it was their own scores!). It informed the singers that they couldn’t just concentrate more on one overall indicator, they had to apply unique goals for each song.
The next observation is that, post concert #2 (black numbers), 14 of the 22 indicators showed an increased score, 3 stayed the same, and 5 went down. What was really fascinating was the rationale behind the lower scores. In Patapan, I dropped a cue in concert and it led to a very weak entrance on the second page. The kids heard it and commented that it brought the score down (as it should). But it was fascinating to hear them say that, because they did clean up the note issues from the first concert! Instead, they became hyper critical of that one spot on page 2. We discussed that: does one mistake do in the entire indicator for the entire song? Song of Ruth diction – we focused SO much on tone and phrasing before the second concert (and the scores bore that out), that they felt the diction dissipated a bit. I actually agree with their assessment, but it was worth the trade off. Their phrasing and tone was much better and made that particular selection sparkle (it’s by David Childs… if you don’t know it, check it out). We discussed that: can focussing on one or two components more than others hurt the rest, and is it worth it? Finally, I laughed when they assessed He Is Born after the first concert. I was really unhappy with how it went, but it was a combined piece with the chorus and chamber singers – and singing it in concert was the first time they had ever sung it all together – – – and my Freshman girls were in awe of the male voices! Their scores for He Is Born was subsequently off the charts!!! Too funny…. so we talked about that. And though the second concert was much better for that song, by then the novelty had worn off and the girls had become much more analytical. The scores dipped way down as a result. We discussed THAT too.
Third, I’ve used standards scores exclusively for a few years now and the kids know that the target is always to achieve a “3”. Anything above that is gravy and a nice indication that at times they are exceeding expectations. Even at their most critical, the girls rarely gave scores lower than a 3. They felt that, across the board, using criteria we had spent months working on, they were meeting expectations for each indicator. That was really nice to see because I largely agreed with them. I felt that they were capable of more, but that they were meeting the indicators right where they should have. When they gave “4” for phrasing in Home, it was because they were blown away by how successful they were and what the effect is when you pull that indicator off with just the right song. I got chills listening to them articulate what we heard in the recording, and I was really, really proud of them for it. They caught the emotional content of the selection and they could identify, from an artistically technical standpoint, why that was the case.
Finally, we can look across indicators and discover general strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble as a whole. The scores for both performances suggest that the Treble Choir strengths (relatively) was tone and phrasing. I’m in agreement with that, and it’s certainly the two indicators I spent the most time trying to develop in 4 months of rehearsals other than notes. Best song for them overall in performance? Clearly it was Home. It was perhaps most age and ability appropriate for them, and it was the earliest song they mastered as well. Would they have been better off with one fewer song and mastering the other three better? A good reflective question I had to ask myself in retrospect.
GENERAL CHORUS. Half the singers in this chorus were brand new to singing at the High School, and the other half had sung with me at least one semester before at some point (YHS choruses and treble choirs are semester long classes only). So, unlike the gals, many of them had a prior reference point for YHS concerts and they were very unhappy with the first performance. Notice how low the purple scores are for their 4 songs they performed by themselves: 20 indicator scores overall, and 17 were BELOW a “3”! I really pushed the envelope a bit too much with my programming for them, and consequently they were a good choir in pockets. Depending on the day. And the hour. And the phase of the moon. In other words, they were a young choir that was very inconsistent. What happened the night of the first concert was that they froze up. They knew it too, and noticed the effect of it in their sound on the recording. The second concert was a different story because instead of being wigged out by their substandard first concert, they brought a remarkable sense of focus to the second concert that kept them on point and worry free. I would argue that focusing on the indicators helped to accomplish that; they were an entirely different chorus the second night.
The next thing I notice here is that their second concert scores underscore the quality of the rehearsal they had after the first reflection. Hands down, no exaggeration, it was their best rehearsal of the term by far. Not even close. They were incredibly focused and driven to patch up the weakest elements. The improvement on some of the indicators was an entire POINT (or more!) in some cases. Check out the scores for tone and diction in Faithful Over A Few Things and virtually every indicator in Climbin’ Up The Mountain between the two concerts. The latter was an interesting case where we decided that the tempo was just too fast to accomplish what we wanted, so we slowed it way down both in rehearsal and in the second concert to really focus on the indicators more. The results speak for themselves.
Can you tell by the scores the one song we did not work on between the two concerts? We had so many fish that needed to be fried (Sandi Howard humorously calls it “triage”), that one of the songs had to take the hit. I think we merely ran the middle of it once to keep it fresh, but Away From The Roll Of The Sea, while mildly better the second concert, was fundamentally the same performance the second time around. The kids and I talked about that after the second concert: where should attention go with limited time and more to do than time to do it? Did we make the right choice?
He Is Born was that weird event – again – where the kiddos listened with a more critical ear the second time around because, as was the case with the Treble choir, the novelty of having finally sung it with the others had worn off. The scores were close, but consistently lower even though the second performance was superior to the first. We talked about that phenomenon too. It also brought to light for me the need to have at least one rehearsal with combined forces before a concert, even if just once. It was a logistical impossibility for me this time around, but I need to rethink the entire idea if the dress rehearsal for it can’t happen.
In closing, this process was extraordinary because of the depth of conversations the kids and I had around authentic topics that real musicians have about their craft. The mere act of doing so made this entirely worth it by itself; them leaving my program with this level of dialogue is significantly more important than anything else. They have have the rest of their lives to sing again in other choirs (and if I did my part, they will be more motivated to do so), but they only have one shot with me to establish a musician’s foundation on which to build. That the students also got to see the correlation between focused, directed work on specific indicators in specific songs and the increased musicality that comes as a result, well that just makes it even more lasting an impact, doesn’t it? I go back to that component of the MAAI mission statement, “quality assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to deepen student learning in the Arts”. I believe Reflective Thinking as applied to multiple concert performances really brought this to life for my students. I know it brought it to life for me.