Monday, May 4, 2009

Putting a Mark on Conducting

One of the things that I learned while visiting Oklahoma last March is that American and Canadian educators use different terminology when evaluating student assignments. American teachers will "grade" assignment, whereas we tend to "mark" assignments. Both seem to be interchangeable though, I make no excuse for using both of them in this post.

One thing I have continually struggled with in practical courses, is the idea of subjective marking. It's nothing new - from a young age, musicians are faced with the idea of subjective marking. I think in my first Kiwanis Music Festival Class, at 8 years old, I received an 84% for my performance, and from that moment, straight through to my last jury at University, I have received marks for my progress which seem to have no basis except one of the personal evaluation of the jury, examiner(s), or adjudicator(s). And now, for the past ten years or so, I have been giving marks at music festivals, on music exams, and in University courses based on the same subjective reasoning.

I've experimented with all sorts of formats, which have included giving specific marks for specific tasks. For example - 10 marks for all the cues and releases, loosing one mark, or a partial mark for missed or unclear direction, 20 marks for conducting patterns, 20 for left hand usage, and then 50 marks for interpretation, and musical direction. After adding them all up, I found myself toying with the individual task marks to end up with a percentage that I was happy with, and quickly just reverted to assigning a mark out of 100, based on my subjective observations. I certainly know that I've had teachers who must have incredible systems of marking exams (I once received a mark, which was out of 10, of 8.275!) What astounds me about it is that I've never been questioned or challenged on a subjective grade since I've been giving grades for conducting courses. Perhaps to me, the grade itself is less important than the comments that go with them, and giving solutions for the problems - which is probably why the grading itself stresses me out.

I've mentioned briefly in the past about the uncomfortable feelings I get at conducting competitions, whether as an observer or participant. I'm quite happy now to be at an age where I am rarely eligible to be a candidate in a conducting competition. While in Oklahoma at the ACDA National convention, I decided to go to the student conducting competition semi-finals and finals, and immediately I felt the desire to "get out of there as fast as I could", yet always stayed. Each conductor received ten minutes to rehearse two pieces with a choir they have never worked with before, excellent choirs I might add - who were all very responsive. However, I felt that the challenge was less about showing how well you could conduct, but how well you could rehearse. Which, ok, arguably might be more important than the later. Or is it?

What is a conducting competition then? A rehearsal competition? A technique competition? Both? What is it that a conductor can do in ten minutes that doesn't look completely planned and rehearsed ahead of time? And how can you plan to rehearse part of a piece of music with a choir who will likely know the piece backwards and forwards before you get to them? How much can you concentrate on conducting when you know there are hundreds of people watching you, and not in the good "watching the conductor" kind of way that we are always after our choristers about, but the kind of watching where they are dissecting every gesture you make, and ever observation you make? How can you best prepare for a conducting competition of ten minutes?

I love to rehearse with my choirs - and it is something I feel no shame in saying that I do quite well. I enjoy the entire process, but for me, the process is one that begins on day one, and continues to the concert itself. Not ten minutes. Also, the rehearsal process, which yes, I do plan ahead of time, but is largely flexible on the basis that what I hear in rehearsal must be corrected at the time it is heard. Too often in these conducting competitions, candidates go through their ten minute plan, but never stray away from the plan to fix a problem on the fly. (I was happy to see that the student who won the advanced class did indeed attempt to fix things that her ears observed).

I'd be very interested to hear your comments on both subjective marking in music, and conducting competitions!

In the mean time - Happy Stary Wars Day (May the 4th be with you!)

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