Knowing when to stop

In a paper delivered at the 2010 conference of the European Association of Conservatoires (AEC) in Ghent, Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Music, spoke about the complexities of assessment in higher music education. His speech emphasizes the “centrality of content” in educational policy, particularly assessment policy.

Assessment at the higher levels must involve the language of the field; musicians in an orchestra, for instance, assess themselves continually as they play but have no need to document such assessment. (Samuel Hope is not disparaging documented assessment; he’s saying that in this particular context, at this level, it would burden the work instead of lifting it.)

Which aspects of musical composition and performance require highly advanced knowledge and judgment? Which are particularly resistant to standardized assessment? Hope draws attention to one in particular: knowing when to stop.

This means knowledge of when to stop doing something and begin doing something else and how to work effectively with relationships among stasis and change, and speed and time. Knowing when to stop is an aspect of mastering many relationships and balances in music. Mozart, Beethoven, and other great composers are consummate masters of knowing when to stop, when a chord or key or musical figure has been continued long enough, and when there is time for a variation or a change altogether. The performer of such music has thousands of choices about how to make the structural decisions of the composer come alive in performance. Great performers are also masters in this area. In many artistic dimensions, knowing when to stop is an essential determiner of the line between fine works of art and kitsch.

Knowing when to stop is important in all fields, but it isn’t a transferable skill. You may have a general sense of what is excessive (in art, music, or poetry), but you cannot make  fine decisions about stopping, or asssess the decisions of others, unless you know art, music, or poetry itself.

Hope points out that knowing when to stop is also essential to institutional review. You can establish frameworks for music instruction at the higher levels, but how detailed should they become? When should the frameworks stop and leave the remaining decisions to the individual institutions? It is essential that review and accreditation organizations such as AEC and NASM take on these questions, according to Hope, because they have the requisite knowledge and understanding.

One of the problems I see in K–12 education reform is precisely the lack of a sense of when to stop. Let’s take group work as an example. It’s one thing to say that certain kinds of group work, used in the right contexts, can foster certain kinds of learning. It’s another to require group work in every lesson (or even in most lessons). Similarly, it’s one thing to regard test scores as limited measures of intellectual attainment of a particular kind. It’s another to treat them like numerical oracles.

To know when to stop, one must consider the subject matter itself. For instance, the Common Core State Standards have specified a ratio of informational and literary text for each grade span. But the proper ratio depends on what the students are learning. The ratio should not precede the content; if the content is well planned, then there’s no need to worry about the ratio. It could vary from year to year, for good reasons.

Formulas are important, useful, even beautiful things, but they only do what they say they’ll do. You can somehow calculate a curriculum of 70 percent informational text and 30 percent literature, and that’s all it will be. It will not be, by virtue of this ratio, a good curriculum. It might coincide with some good curricula and conflict with others.

Back to music: in Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, there’s a syncopated passage near the end of the third movement. It is twelve measures long and has an evanescent, ethereal quality. When I was a teenager, I would listen to the sonata every day and wait eagerly for that passage. Once it came, I wanted it to go on longer but knew that it couldn’t.

But its beauty cannot be attributed to its length alone, or to its syncopation, or to its key changes, or to its place in the movement and in the sonata; it is all of these things and many more.

You can listen to this passage as performed by Jacob Lateiner. (It starts at 8:52, but I recommend listening to the full second and third movements, which are included in this clip). This recording and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s were my favorites for many years. Lateiner plays the first movement too fast, I’d say, but his rendition of the third movement has something like a third ear to it, a sense of something beyond the notes. I have started listening to more renditions of the sonata; Claudio Arrau’s has something remarkable as well.


  1. Stopping assumes that you are working from the bottom up. What does stopping mean in a top-down, hands on, real world, teacher as the guide-on-the-side environment. It means “trust the spiral” and not ensuring mastery of the basics. Can a deep level of understanding of the Waldstein sonata be achieved that way? My son played the first movement two years ago, but all of his training started with Hanon, Czerny, etudes, scales, and practice, practice, practice. He may have dropped Bastien after a year, but there were the Bach Inventions, Sinfonia, and P&Fs. The classic example I’ve given before was when his teacher held his hand low and told him that he was trying to have too much fun down here. Then he raised his hand high and told him that if he worked really hard, he would have much more fun up here.

    The world of music education is very interesting. England has the ABRSM program and Canada has the RCM program. RCM is trying to push into the US with its Carnegie Hall Royal Conservatory “The Achievement Program”. These are carefully-defined levels of skills and music that musicians pass through to obtain a certificate. It’s a guide for studio teachers. It’s overly pedandic at the upper levels and perhaps this is what Samuel Hope is referring to. Students try to find the easiest pieces to play at each level. However, ABRSM and RCM set high standards.

    In the US, there is no commonly-used national music certificate program, but that doesn’t mean that classically trained musicians don’t have rigorous requirements that are based on mastery of basic skills. In the music world, it has never been an issue of top-down versus bottom-up. The discussion is more about engagement and motivation versus rigor. The problem is that if you hope to achieve high levels of performance and understanding, you can’t gloss over and ignore mastery of basic skills. They are the vehicle for achieving deep levels of understanding and musical ability. It can never be a top-down process.

    However, nobody in the US is rushing to a strict ABRSM or RCM process. A good grade in level 8 of ABRSM means something, but that won’t substitute for your conservatory audition. However, these programs ensure that mastery of the basics does not fall through the cracks. You can’t get away with little effort in sight reading.

    There are two worlds of music education in the US. One is NAfMe (National Association for Music Education) with its state organizations that control music in the public schools. They are the ones who offer things like All-State and All Eastern. The other world is the private lesson studio teacher world. They are the ones doing all of the unrecognized and hard skill work that helps make high school and All State performances so good. However, our state’s Solo and Ensemble Honors Recital now prints the name of the private lesson teacher even though the sponsoring group and teacher is part of NAfME.

    What does all this (and stopping) mean for regular education testing in the US? It means that testing should work from the bottom up on basic skills and knowledge and stop before it even pretends to test critical thinking and problem solving. This is impossible if your approach is top down and if you think there is little connection between “rote” basic skills and understanding. There is also a difference between the appreciation of the Waldstein that I can have and the one my son can have. The danger in education pedagogy is to target the first and not the second. The goal in education should be to get kids on the stage, not the audience, especially when making decisions that could close doors in K-8.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      Thank you for this highly informative and insightful comment. As one who was told by each successive cello teacher (until high school) that i needed to relearn technique from scratch, I agree with you about the need for a curriculum in the basics. Hope, too, emphasizes that you cannot reach the higher levels without technical fluency.

  2. One of the problems I see in K–12 education reform is precisely the lack of a sense of when to stop.

    The underlying assumption being that we’re even within a country mile of the need to stop. And the “group work” example I see as nothing more then a red herring.

    The problems of the K-12 system run rather deeper then arguments about any particular strategy or tactic or praxis or rubric or any of the rest of the tedious, rhetorical speed bumps placed in the path of discussions about what’s wrong with the public education system and what needs to be done to remedy those wrongs. Fortunately, the political bulldozer of lost public faith isn’t much deterred by that sort of thing.

    It is interesting though that you’d attempt to use schools of music, and the world of music, as a means of calling into question reform of the public education system when music provides such a neat contrast to much of what’s wrong with public education.

    You know Beethoven’s name, and wax lyrical about his “Waldenstein” sonata but can you name the people who occupy analogous positions in the world of teaching and their particular, analogous, contribution?

    What happens to lousy musicians? Lousy composers?

    Is there much argument about who ought to decide the value of a musician’s artistic value or whether it’s a good idea to try to create an objective means by which such evaluations may be generated?

    In the world of music you know when you ought to stop doing something because people throw rotten vegetables. Either figuratively or literally. In the K-12 system vegetable-throwing, and the resulting feedback about the whether it is or isn’t time to stop, is missing.

    • “The problems of the K-12 system run rather deeper then arguments about any particular strategy or tactic or praxis or rubric or any of the rest…”

      Well, Allen brings us back to reality. I agree. My son was in a private school with bright kids who didn’t know the times table in fifth grade because of Everyday Math’s “trust the spiral”.

      In the past, I’ve called this issue “brain research misdirection”. Educators like to talk about complex brain and pedagogy issues to hide real problems of competence and responsibility.

      I like to look at the difference between art and music in schools. When you do art, nothing is wrong. It’s just individual or creative. In music, you may not like Bartok, but people will surely know if you can’t handle your instrument. Music is often the one place in school where kids learn the value of mastery of the basics.

  3. There are known pedagogues in music, but my son’s teacher is not one of them. In the extreme, they can be almost anal about process. Sometimes they might be right, but relearning technique from scratch may or may not be appropriate. (I’ve heard some of those stories.) Did you ever see how flat Horowitz held his fingers? My son’s left wrist droops. Gould looked like his chin was at keyboard level. There is room open for different fingering styles. However, not fixing real problems early can cause huge or unfixible problems later. I’ve carefully watched that balance or trade-off over the years with my son. Understanding of music will never fix bad technique, and bad technique will always limit understanding.

    One interesting problem is the conflict between depth and acceleration. Kids just love to show that they are playing a higher level piece than their friends.Even my son’s piano teacher talks about when he was young in Japan and kids all talked about what Yamaha level they were at. It’s the reason why people cringe when little kids play something like “fur elise”. Some teachers encourage this for competitions. They trade off excelling in one piece with the benefits of a larger and more diverse repertoire. But, if you try playing a piece that is over your head in a competition, the judges will spot you a mile away.

    However, there always seems to be an underlying rush to move on to the next level of difficulty. It’s true that at each level there is a point of dimishing returns. You can beat a piece of music to death. The downside is that the student never really learns to perfect any piece. Now that my son is up to the 8+ level, there is an improvement in the sublety and nuance of his playing, but setting higher expectations is new skill, especially when most people can’t hear the difference.

    I know that much of this is beyond many issues of public school education, but I’ve always harped on issues of bottom-up versus top-down and about the linkage between skills and content with understanding.

  4. I would suggest that the priorities of NASM, which mainly accredits college music major curricula, and K-12 education, are widely divergent. Very few kids are going to become music majors, and even fewer professional musicians. The details of musical judgment maybe aren’t that critical for the mass of students. Don’t we want them to become appreciators of music, understanding it better, and participating in community choirs and bands? Given that, wouldn’t we be better off focusing on concrete skills like fluent music reading and forgetting about aesthetic details like “knowing when to stop”? It’s the same mistake that’s led us to introduce set theory to elementary school math students. Great prep if you’re going to become a mathematician; useless otherwise.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      I wasn’t suggesting that “knowing when to stop” should be a focus of elementary music instruction.

  5. Just for clarification, once again: I wasn’t commenting on K-12 music education or curricula. I started with a musical concept and then moved away from that.

    My point was that “knowing when to stop” is important in education reform–that too often a good idea gets stretched to the point of absurdity.

    My examples were group work and informational/literary text ratios. There are many more examples–for instance, the teaching of metacognitive skills.