Local musicians and music instructors wary of standardized rankings

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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The horn section of the West High Varsity Band drowned out the flutes.

“You’re going ‘BAH,’ said assistant teacher Lucas Smith. “I need you to go ‘bah.’ ”

West High music teacher Rich Medd wove nimbly through the students, playing his trombone to help individual sections hear proper horn volumes. He is one of several local music instructors bearing mixed feelings about a nationwide proposal that would offer a standardized ranking for music students and teachers.

New York’s Carnegie Hall recently unveiled the Carnegie Hall Royal Conservatory Achievement Program, which would test musicians using 13 proficiency levels. Each rank, achieved through seasonal exam sessions, requires knowledge of music theory and performing three songs from a conservatory-designed list.

Music curriculum in the Iowa City School District has its own set of standards, though these are ranked solely by class level. While Medd said he supports having broad benchmarks as ways to monitor a student’s overall progress, he’s skeptical of a system that ranks musicians and music instructors relative to their peers.

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“I just think when you start to put the pressure of trying to meet someone’s standard on what music should be, because music is an art form — it’s hard to set that standard,” Medd said. “I think if we were to try to label and coerce everyone into a certain standard, it would do more harm than good.”

Carnegie Hall officials said the program does not follow common views on standardized instruction. Musicians under the Royal Conservatory Achievement Program can test into any level, regardless of age, and do not have to progress through levels one-at-a-time.

“When we talk standards, we associate that with fill-in-the-bubble testing,” said Sarah Johnson, the director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. “This is about understanding progression at musical levels. It’s a way to measure yourself and compare yourself with others across the country.”

But Jonathan Hansen, who teaches guitar lessons at Musician’s Pro, 702 S. Gilbert St., said musicians shouldn’t compare themselves with others because of broad differences in personal goals and learning styles.

“I don’t think we could standardize instruction and say this person is this far through his musical career or not, because those standards are going to be different for every individual,” Hansen said. “If we were to standardize them and make them all one thing, that would be like imposing a business-like model on a creative act.”

Hansen varies his instruction based on a student’s musical interests. Musicians learn more effectively when they’re playing the style of music they enjoy most, he said.

West High senior Justin Moser, who takes private alto saxophone lessons, said the ranks could provide motivation for musicians to match their peers.

“It makes students strive to get higher numbers. It’s almost like a tangible thing to achieve in the sense that you don’t know if you’re better than someone else unless you know what your number is,” said the 18-year-old. “But what’s the good in that, really, if you know you’re better than them? I don’t know if assigning a number to a person is really appropriate, just because it’s like defining you as a musician, and I feel that restricts you.”

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