From the podium we constantly assess our ensemble's performance. Students may have only played the first few notes and we are already asking ourselves, “How can I help the band play this better?” This question is fundamental to assessment that takes place in the middle of learning — assessment often referred to as assessment for learning or formative assessment. How we provide feedback to the students directly affects their potential for improvement.
When you hear something in rehearsal that could be played better, it’s likely that you cut-off the group and address the problem. What needs improving? Is your feedback to the ensemble specific and descriptive? Tell students directly, or engage in a quick discussion, to pinpoint what should be improved. Then go one step further and check that students know how they can improve. Isolate the rhythm or check an accidental, then take the ensemble back to letter C to play that section again.
When you do individual performance assessments, how specific and descriptive is your feedback? We tend to provide feedback as a number score or letter grade. This is the system of grade books, and yes, a number provides some feedback, but it doesn’t help students improve. It is adequate feedback if students scored ten (out of ten) points because they know they met the objectives. And yet, many times these students can still benefit f rom a written comment. Tell them what you were thinking as you heard their performance. Keep in mind that comments are not praise, and while “Nice job!” might feel good to the student, it doesn’t provide any concrete information about their performance.
And what about the students who scored eight points? What did they miss, and more importantly, how can they improve their performance? Here a number score is definitely not adequate. More specific, written feedback is critical for each of these students, comments such as “Low C#s were sharp. Be sure to use your 3rd valve slide so the C#s are in tune.” You can encourage students to use your feedback and continue to practice by 1 “How can I help the band play this better?” The Power of Feedback by Wendy Barden expecting them to replay the assessment—for full credit. Jan Chappuis reminds us, “It isn’t [just] giving of feedback that causes learning gains, it is the acting on feedback that determines how much students learn.”
One key to maximizing the performance of the ensemble is to help each student maximize his or her personal achievement. Towards that end, specific feedback is powerful and essential in both rehearsals and individual performance assessments. It is difficult to improve at anything in life without feedback, including playing an instrument.
Barden, Wendy. Performance Assessment in Band. San Diego: Kjos Music Press, 2009.
Chappuis, Jan. “How Am I Doing?” Educational Leadership, 70, no. 1 (September 2012): 36-41.
Dr. Wendy Barden received her Ph.D. fom the University of Minnesota. She taught music in the Ossea Area Schools (Minnesota) for over 30 years, and served as K-12 Music Coordinator for a department of 55 music educators. In 1992 she was named “Band Educator of the Year” by the Minnesota Music Educators Association.