Soapbox: The Language of Assessment

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If you spend any time assessing performance exams or adjudicating festivals/competitions, you end up having a lot of conversations with fellow assessors about what you heard. And you’ll probably have experienced conversations in which your fellow adjudicator turns to you with a rather concerned face and gives a laundry list of the things that were wrong with the performance.

‘The blend was very dicey.’
‘The sopranos had a hard, bitty sound.’
‘The basses were terribly muddy.’
‘The Palestrina really had no sense of style.’

Now, I’ve often found myself slightly uncomfortable at this point, and I think I’m starting to work out why.

It’s not about the accuracy of the judgements – they are invariably right that the shortcomings existed. It’s about the way they are delivered: they seem to invite you to nod sagely and agree that we eminent folk can hear all these basic faults that the poor benighted performers are emitting without realizing it, and that we are therefore better, wiser, cleverer and generally more worthy than the people we are assessing.

Now, you don’t get invited to make these assessments unless you’re reasonably experienced and competent as a musician. It’s precisely our perceptiveness that puts us in the adjudicators’ chairs. So it seems a bit cheap to frame our discourse in terms of our superiority over the people we listen to. The structure of the encounter gives so much power to the assessor compared to the performer, we really don’t need to jockey for more.

Of course, some of the performers we adjudicate are much better musicians than the assessors (and what a treat that is!). In these cases, the facial expression is deep and meaningful, and the game is to point out the most esoteric subtlety in the many things the performers did well to show how we eminent adjudicators share in the skill and insight of such artists. This is akin to the traditional musicological gambit of writing about the Great Works of the Great Masters: I can recognize genius, and thereby show that I partake of it as one of the initiated. This also I find a bit cheap.

The thing that really gets my goat about these conversational gambits is the way they make it difficult to celebrate the wonderful things that even the less-skilled performer brings to the situation without positioning yourself as an uncritical, unperceptive listener. That is, the discursive tactic of building status by pointing out faults makes it hard to articulate areas of success without implicitly adopting a lower status.

This drives me potty. It takes just as much musicianship and insight to recognize what people have achieved as it does to spot their faults - as well as a healthy dollop of empathy and generosity.

And it occurs to me that we can see similar dynamics in our rehearsal strategies. Listening out for the things our singers do well requires a more empathic mode of attention than listening out for problems to fix. It doesn’t mean that we can’t hear the things that could be improved, but it does mean that we are kinder and more positive in the way we deal with them. If we identify with our singers closely enough to intuit what they are trying to do, and so be able to acknowledge their achievements, we will also find ourselves participating in the responsibility for the things that still need work.

We may feel we lose power by doing so – and I guess we do in the sense of status. But we also gain power, in the sense of being in a better position to understand what the problems are and thereby having a much better chance of sorting them out.

Everybody wants to do well – whether performers in a competition, or singers in a rehearsal. If they don’t always manage it, it just doesn’t seem kind to blame them for it. Using someone else’s incomplete musical control as a means to build one’s own status is a bit mean, and, moreover, usually unnecessary.

How wise Liz!!

I have just spent quite a number of hours at the Wantage Music Festival listening to the adjudication for performers of varying ability - some superb and others not quite so good. The adjudicators all recognised that everyone was doing their best and were trying to perform at their highest level. Most of the adjudicators clearly found it very easy to give constructive and helpful comments, and the performers felt valued.

I think it is all too easy, when tiredness and an awareness of one's own shortcomings are all too present, to be critical and to forget that no one goes out of their way to perform badly. I am constantly having to remind myself of this when the performance of the chorus I direct is not what I want. It becomes all too easy to 'blame' them if I am feeling less that fully confident - and I know that is unhelpful and also unfair.

So thank you for this very timely reminder of the need to be very aware of, and to celebrate, the areas of success.

Thanks again for your insightful blogs - always great to read and take note of.

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