Making The Grade

February 23, 2008

Today, Sibylle and I traveled to Manhattan KS to participate in and watch the 2008 Manhattan Area Music Teachers Association Concerto Competition. Students competed in four age categories by performing concertos accompanied on a second piano by their teacher, who played the piano reduction of the orchestral accompaniment for the various pieces.

The adjudicator has four award choices for each category: no award, Honorable Mention, Second Place, or First Place. She or he may also award a tie or, and this is the interesting part, they may choose not to reward any performance.

In America most contests or competitions are geared towards finding the winner. In today's competition the students weren't competing against each other, they were offering up their performance for evaluation against criteria such as: ensemble, note accuracy, rhythm, tempo, technique, style interpretation, poise, and choice of literature. Each performance is evaluated individually against these criteria, and not against the other performances. Therefore it is quite possible for a category to produce only Honorable Mentions and no placing at all.

Today there was a category that produced only Honorable Mentions, no First or Second place awarded. With so much focus in America culture on winning, or being the best, I think we some times lose sight critiquing against a standard and not just determining who was better. Was one of the performances in the category in question "better" than the other? Perhaps, but neither was up to the standard of a First or even a Second place performance.

In my experience I think the only place where I have been regularly critiqued against a standard and not against my peers is in job evaluations. With just a single source, then, of individual performance based evaluations, I am not as comfortable with this form of learning as I could be. And I suspect that my managers who, although they perform this activity for their direct reports on a regular basis, aren't as comfortable with it either.

When I was competing in martial arts we had a saying, the gist of which was, "just because you won today doesn't mean you would have won yesterday, or will win tomorrow." In other words, winning, being first, is a temporal event. The winner was the winner on that day, under those conditions. It may or may not be a repeatable event. (The recent Superbowl loss of the New England Patriots comes to mind.) However, an objective evaluation of your performance against a standard gives you excellent chance to grow, particularly if the adjudicator is capable of writing lucid comments and suggestions for areas of improvement.

We need more standards based evaluations and less winner/loser evaluations, I think, in order to mature as a society. There isn't anything inherently wrong with keeping score and deciding a winner, however I think we would all benefit from more emphasis on standards based critiques. As today's performances demonstrated, just because one performance is "better" than the other doesn't mean it was good enough to be first.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.