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Don’t Use Rubrics Unless Everyone Can Succeed

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Rubrics have a place in the performing music classroom, but they should not be used to recognize achievement. When properly and effective implemented, rubrics can measure a student’s ability to reach fundamental levels of isolated skills; they also create transparency in showing students what the expectations are in meeting each particular skill.

A rubric will never tell the whole story of a student. It does not recognize motivation or a student who can naturally do what is required but unwilling to do any more. In regard to a performance solo rubric, an extraordinarily talented soloist with one weakness will score lower than an above-average singer who pays close attention to all categories. This result occurs because the off-the-chart student cannot earn more than the highest possible score in any one category and gets penalized for any shortcomings; if we try to combat that scenario by creating a rubric that is intended to differentiate all students by making the top score in any category virtually unattainable, we will have discouraged most of our students, most of the time.

For beginning and average students, a well-crafted rubric can help them to improve basic skills primarily through awareness. As students recognize their own growth, they may gain motivation. Advanced students can use a fundamental rubric as a checklist to ensure they are not missing basic skills as they are exceedingly off-the-charts in others.

Rubrics by their very nature categorize learning and take away the essence of performing music. The true art of music-making cannot be quantified or measured. If our goal is to motivate and inspire our students to become young artists, we must understand that a rubric will not serve as a high-level teaching tool for teachers nor will it serve as a high-level motivational tool for students.

5 Ways Music Rubrics Can Fail Our Students

Just think about our experience as a listener who is grading a performer with a rubric as opposed to one who listens to that same performance without a rubric. When tied to categorical assessment, we breakdown the tangible; when listening with our eyes, ears, and hearts, our initial desire is to be moved. Without a rubric in front of us, we try to connect with the performer and assess where and when the connections were lost. Was it a lack of focus from the singer? Did they understand what they were singing about? Was it their tonal placement that took away their ability to connect? Was it poor diction? Was it poor breath support that led to poor phrasing and also to their disconnect toward a meaningful performance?  Without a rubric, the focus is on the whole; in this way, we assess technique when and where the whole is lacking.

Effective ways to use a rubric

A well-crafted and well-intended rubric should:

1. Set a fundamental standard that all students are capable of reaching

All students should be capable of success on a rubric. Some students may have to work significantly harder than others to attain the goals, but it is within the realm of possibility for all students to be able to achieve. The rubric sets the basic standard of competence in an area, not a recognition of ultimate achievement.

2. Create transparency for students to recognize fundamental and tangible skills

A rubric should bring awareness to students of specific skills that they are fully capable of achieving, and where they currently are in relationship to meeting the fundamental goal. In many cases, students should even be able to self-assess using the rubric.

3. Not become the main focus over artistry

The goal of every student performer is to become an artist. The purpose of developing technique is to allow more depth of communication and artistry.

Let’s use language development in children as a comparison. Most 3 year-olds have a vocabulary where they can express basic needs. They are hungry, thirsty, happy, sad, etc. As their vocabulary increases, they begin to be more and more specific in communicating their needs and feelings. By the time we are adults, our tremendous vocabulary allows us to communicate emotions and needs in an extremely intricate way, which allows us to demonstrate more depth and uniqueness.

A young singer with poor technique should still be focusing primarily on how to communicate. As their technical and tangible skills develop, their ability to communicate should continue to improve; they will have more flexibility in the artistic and emotional choices that they wish to make. Should we focus our attention primarily on the technical side, their technique becomes isolated from it’s true intended purpose.

Some examples of effective rubric usage.

There are several ways I am suggesting the effective utilization of a rubric in a performance ensemble. The purpose of what I’ve listed is to demonstrate ways rubrics can be effective and impactful while not letting it’s purpose overshadow artistry, musicality, and a quest for deeper and more enriching learning;

Setting up scoring on a rubric

In all of these rubrics I recommend a simple way to assess, such as:

1 = None of the time

2 = Some of the time

3 = Most of the time

4 = All of the time

1) Class participation rubric

A rubric that clearly assesses each aspect of expectation for students throughout the daily rehearsal. This rubric can be used as a self-assessment. These categories can be  listed and distributed in the handbook on the first day of class, and the assessment can occur once or twice a semester. Categories for assessment include: Body alignment while standing, body alignment when sitting, holding up music, making markings in the music, focus throughout the rehearsal, starting immediately at the bell, focus during warm-ups, focus during sight-reading, etc.

2) Vocal Growth throughout the semester

This is a simple assessment based on my perception of their progress. In my program, students have a weekly rotating voice class, and this is what it is mostly based on. For programs that do not have voice classes or sectionals, there are many other ways to utilize this concept. Perhaps a self-assessment rubric with categories such as: Focus throughout the daily warm-up, practice at home, volume in rehearsals, etc. By setting clear expectations that provide aware for the student, they then have something to work towards.

3) Music-reading Rubric

The concept would be used to assess that students know the fundamentals needed to read music in our classroom. Every program has different needs. I choose to align my student’s sight-reading skills with my state’s highest standard of solo festival sight-reading. The rubric I would use would ensure students can label all notes on solfeggio, can label specific rhythms within specific time signatures (2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8).

4) State Solo Festival Rubric

To be clear, I do not believe mastering a rubric makes for an elite singer. My use of the state rubric only occurs two to three weeks prior to festival. For several months, we focus on bigger picture learning. As students continue to improve their performance on a weekly basis, we circle around large areas such as healthy production, tonal placement, diction, phrasing, expression, stage presence, and communication. As all of these aspects are intertwined, it is my ear and intuition that guides my teaching and the direction for improvement in each individual. As the festival draws nearer, it now becomes time to observe through the lens that the state organization will be using to evaluate each student; this is when we begin focusing on the categories by which they will be judged. In this way, these more tangibly assessed skills become an isolated focus, but only after the larger picture has been improved to the highest level possible.

5) Music Marking Rubric

If music marking is taught and expected to be done by our students, we can collect our students’ music and see how they’ve chosen to effectively make those markings. By looking at several of their scores, we can assess skills such as: do they circle wrong notes, final consonants, dynamics, pronunciation, breath marks, labeling solfeggio, etc. By browsing through several different pieces of each student, we can accurately assess if they have achieved each set skill involved with music marking.

There are certainly many other useful ways to use a rubric within the performance class; as we look for ways to measure student success, we must remember that artistry is the ultimate goal, not perfection.

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