American children are inundated with standardized tests, so much so that their curricula are specifically designed to generate good test scores. Their assignments usually come with a detailed rubric, spelling out exactly how their work will be evaluated. On the surface, this is an excellent way of providing clarity of purpose, fairness in grading, and accountability for students and teachers. It works well enough, and students seem to find comfort in being able to "tick the boxes" as they do their work. Ultimately, they can hold their finished product up to the standard model and predict with good accuracy what their grade will be. The goal is a product that meets the specifications of the rubric. Our high school students are very well prepared for this kind of outcome orientation.
Here at the university, my teaching is too complex for a rubric, at least when we get beyond a certain point. I can assign points for using the correct fingerings, for accurately executing rhythms and dynamics (in itself, a subjective matter), and so on. But here is the crux of it all:
I teach making beauty in the air.
There you have it. Show me a rubric for measuring beauty and I will show you how it is flawed a dozen different ways. Sure, the Westminster Kennel Club can use a rubric to identify a dog that most resembles the standards of their version of perfection, but try and tell me that you have never seen a beautiful mutt that touched your heart in some inexplicable way. The standard version of perfection will simply bring us closer and closer to the standard version of perfection. My students are expected to paint on a canvas of air and time, and approaching some standard version of perfection has very little to do with what touches the hearts of listeners. Great art is almost always unique. The best art is so unique that we are forced to go to certain artists because they are the only source of their particular brand of beauty.
Music is filled with examples of high art that burns the rubric to the ground. An easy example is Thelonious Monk. His technique is not anything that would be taught in a conservatory, his phrasing can be disjunct and even jarring, and his compositions are anything but standard. With all that working against him, it is fair to say that he is universally accepted as one of the great geniuses in all of jazz, and perhaps considered one of the most important artists in American history. Using the standard model of assessment, Thelonious Monk *the student* would never be admitted to a top shelf music school, and yet we study Monk *the artist* with great reverence. Other examples include Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and countless others. These artistic "mutts" are far more rewarding than any show dog.
The problem with preparing students for this kind of academic pursuit is that the work has little to do with product-related expectations. Study at this level is almost entirely oriented towards process, and our students have little experience with such things. Sure, I expect all my freshmen to be able to play 37 different scales at a particular metronome marking. I require them to prepare a certain number of etudes each semester, and to perform compositions from the standard repertoire at regular intervals, but none of that accurately predicts which students will make the leap from competent craftsperson to artist. Only those that excel at the process, only those that can cobble the various elements of craft into something that transcends the rubric will become something more than just a box-ticking automaton. Thelonious Monk is a process, not a product.
I am still wrestling with the challenges of helping students to adapt to the slow motion progress and jagged learning curves associated with pursuing artistry. I am trying to create assignments that favor curiosity and perseverance over the simplistic completion of tasks. Above all, I am trying to meet my students where they are, to listen to their concerns, and to engage them in the long haul of our work together. It's all a work in progress.