"Why not take choir? It's an easy A!"
As choral educators we cringe when we hear those words, not only because we don't like the stigma of our ensemble being an "easy A," but also because we know how much work it takes for our students (and us) to put together a quality performance. And we know that, as in any "team sport," the choir has to work together to make those beautiful sounds, so separating "A work" form "C work" is an almost impossible task under such circumstances. But the thought of the easy A is probably even more distasteful to our administrators than it is to us, because they have to deal with accusations of grade inflation and the lack of measurable components for course evaluation. In extreme cases, they can even argue that since everyone is getting A's, there is no measurable learning going on, and therefore there is no need for choir to be a curricular activity. (In light of budget cuts to school districts and universities these days, that argument might look even more persuasive.)
So what components can we put into a grade for our choir that reflects a real learning experience, and not just an easy A? The simple and obvious answer is to find ways of measuring how well they have learned what we want them to learn, and the "what we want" will vary according to what we each feel is important. So there isn't, nor should there be, any one good way of evaluating. But why not at least examine some possible components we could include in our evaluation?
"Be There or Be Square."
Attendance is the first and most obvious component, because they can't learn anything if they're not there. The particulars of how many absences are allowable and how severely it will affect the grade must be determined by what fits each situation best, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where attendance isn't a fairly significant factor in the grade.
"I'm Not Home, so Please Leave a Message."
So you've got them in the seats, but are they paying attention? We try to hone our skills in engaging our singers and keeping them involved in rehearsal, but sometimes the best of our efforts don't reach some people. Due to daydreaming, talking, or just plain "bump-on-a-logism," some choir members seem to be difficult to keep (or even to get) on task.
If it's more than just an occasional problem with one or two people, a conductor can consider adding a "participation component" to the grade. He/she can let everyone start with an A, and only reduce the grade if efforts to maintain participation fall on "deaf ears." Or, he/she can take the trouble to evaluate each student individually for each semester (or marking period), which is the more difficult way, to be sure.
If the conductor has too large an ensemble to monitor individuals or feels that doing so is too distracting from the business of the rehearsal, he/she can leave the monitoring to section leaders within the choir. The section leaders know their people more intimately, and can see more immediately (unless in mixed formation) any off-task behavior going on within the section around them. In addition, if sectional rehearsals are held, the section leader can monitor the attentiveness there, where it would be impossible for the conductor to do so (unless the conductor can be in four places at once).
"Do I Know Cindy? No, But If You'll Hum a Few Bars..."
A critical question is, after a reasonable number of rehearsals, do they know their music? If they don't, not only won't the concert be successful, but it means the choir members haven't learned what you expected them to learn. So performing their music in quartets or octets is a reasonable criterion for evaluation, and to conductors who prefer music to be memorized, testing in small groups a helpful to evaluate memorization as well. A reasonably good recording device with reasonably sensitive microphones and some "pull-out" time during rehearsal is all that's needed.
For those that have sectional rehearsals with section leaders in charge, students can be pulled from those rehearsals in small groups while the conductor monitors the recording. In the absence of that capability, a trusted assistant could be in charge of monitoring the recording while the conductor is in full rehearsal. The level of nuance required to get an A and the penalty for each aspect of the performance that falls short is, of course, entirely up to the conductor. But as one who uses this component of evaluation, I can report two positive outcomes of small group testing: it helps to identify singers that are lagging behind who could otherwise "hide" in the full rehearsals, and it provides a motivation to learn the music in a timely fashion (for the test) that might not otherwise be there.
"Is This Going to Be on the Final?"
The last concert of the semester is usually over several days before finals begin, and conductors and students alike usually enjoy this brief interval of time to catch up on some things left neglected during the last push to the concert. But I know of one colleague, at least, who uses his slot for a final exam to actually give a written test to his ensemble. The questions cover some of the major points that the conductor expected his students to absorb and/or incorporate as they learned their music. Areas such as style, historical period, form, important aspects about the composer or the text, or anything else that was stressed as the choir learned the piece, were fair game for the exam.
While this practice may not be the norm, it certainly seems reasonable. After all, if we share such information with our ensembles, expecting that it will help them to better understand and perform the music, isn't it reasonable to expect that they might remember it after the concert is over?
"What Can I Do for Extra Credit?"
While I personally am not fond of extra credit (because I want choir members to know that I expect them to fulfill the normal duties without an escape hatch to avoid them), special assignments can be given to students who want to make up deficiencies with extra credit. The nature of such assignments is almost limitless, and the conductor's creativity can come to the forefront here. Research into a composer or genre that is being performed, critiques of concerts by other choirs and conductors, or some other writing assignment that you feel is worthy can be given. Or menial tasks helpful to the choir can be the assignment - helping the librarian disassemble repertoire from folders, organizing the library, checking in or organizing the choir "uniforms" or robes, or something similar. And if the conductor doesn't want to make the extra credit option very attractive, the more difficult or unpleasant the task, the better.
There are certainly other possibilities to the grade component, and to determine what they should be, return to the original question of the article: what do you want the choir members to learn or demonstrate, and how can you measure their proficiency in learning or demonstrating it? Although adding components beyond attendance to the ensemble grade is more work for you and for your students, it can enhance the learning experience, as well as the quality of your concerts, in the long run. And it can help to satisfy discerning administrators as a by-product.
Charles (Chuck) Livesay is in his 35th year of teaching at Spring Arbor University, where he has been the Director of Choral Activities and Coordinator of Vocal Studies since 1981. He conducts the Concert Choir and Chamber Singers there, as well as teaching choral conducting, vocal pedagogy, voice diction and private voice. A long-time member of ACDA and the ACDA-MI board of directors, Livesay previously held his current position on the board from 1985-89 before serving as President-Elect of ACDA-MI from 1989-90 and as President from 1990-93. Chuck was also the Publicity Chair for the 1998 ACDA Central Division Convention in Detroit before returning to the state board in 2005 as a district representative, and then serving from 2007-09 as Past President in place of Kirk Aamot, who left Michigan to take another position. He is pleased to return to the board in the office with which he started -- the College/University Repertoire and Standards Chair. He hopes that other college and university members will feel free to contact him with their needs, concerns and questions during his term of office.