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.