The Trance of Measurement in Music Education

Our educational system often operates with the limiting belief that growth and achievement are testable and measurable. When this mindset takes hold of music education, we set a high bar for conformity and proficiency, but lose sight of artistry, expression, and courage.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Alberto G

I had the opportunity to adjudicate several music competitions this year. While these events can be amazing and transformative experiences for students, something about the posture of music-making always bothers me. A nagging question echoes in the heads of players and directors: “What will the judges think?” This worry immediately shuts down inklings of risk-taking because an error-free, middle-of-the-road performance feels safer than a courageous one.

The “Law of the Instrument” comes from Abraham Maslow’s famous quote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” When all we have is a grading rubric, everything looks measurable, but this isn’t the case. Who would win in a piano at adjudication – Oscar Peterson or Keith Jarrett? It’s an irrelevant question, because we can’t objectively measure unmistakable artistry.

Skills like technique, intonation, accuracy, and balance are easy to measure and compare, so they appear on adjudication rubrics. But so many essential traits of musicianship and mastery are challenging or impossible to measure:

  • Courage
  • Curiosity
  • Leadership
  • Empathy
  • Internal Drive
  • Determination
  • Resilience
  • Connection

When we only focus on the measurable results and polished performances, we can ignore the process of nurturing an effective, fulfilling, and lifelong musical practice.

Obsessing about comparison and winning gives a host of annoying problems that plague competitive sports. Some participants break the rules when they know they can get away with it, complain about judges, whine about the rules after the results are in. This is all a trap that takes us off the path of mastery and artistry.

Fundamental skills are essential to teach, but they are the gateway to artistry, not the destination itself. Receiving a trophies for competence deceives us into thinking we have arrived.

In The Art of Possibility, master conductor Benjamin Zander encourages us to “step out of the world of measurement and into the universe of possibility.” These rules, frameworks, and assessments are all arbitrary and invented. You have the choice to create your own frameworks instead of blindly accepting someone else’s invented rule book.

How do we advocate for high standards without turning music into football? It is possible, but there are not shortcuts or scaleable systems. We need to help each other tap into the intrinsic value of playing music, build connection and community, have empathy, encourage independent music making. External motivation of grades, awards, pleasing authority, and money can be effective in the short term, but ultimately kill internal drive and creativity. (See Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink, TED Talk.)

Winning awards feels great for a little while, but fueling the internal drive rooted in curiosity, mastery, passion, expression, and connection helps us stay on the path over the long term.

– ST

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