Objective Vs Subjective Music Education

The goal of this piece is not to tout the correctness or incorrectness of either objective or subjective music education teaching styles. Rather, its attempt is to clearly depict their differences and the situations in which each, individually or in conjunction, may be beneficial for the education of students with autism. Music is, of course ultimately, an art form which is driven by a performer's ability to emote and interpret a piece of music. Assessing an artist's performance is, perhaps, the definition of a subjective judgment, but we are not dealing with artists...yet. We are dealing with students of an art form. A student's performance needs to be shaped and more clearly defined, eventually allowing them to relate to the instrument as a conduit for his expression and exploration. To a certain extent this is an ever continuing process since we are all growing and changing as human beings. In respect to the early education of students, though, each response can be objectively measured and analyzed. "But, why do you need to objectively measure their performance?" you may ask. First, let's define what objective and subjective measurements are and how they are used.

An objective measurement is one which is independent of the teacher's individual perception of what the answer is. For instance, two separate piano instructors may listen critically to a student's performance and ultimately come to two, very different conclusions in respect to the student's interpretation and adherence to the fundamentals of piano performance. This is not so much a misunderstanding or radical divergence in the teachers' knowledge of core piano education principles; rather a personal and subjective assessment of the student and what constitutes a correct response. To be clear, all teaching is based on shaping and having teachers accept approximations made by a student. Teaching is very subjective in nature, while assessing the results of these teaching efforts should be objective in nature. The question then arises, "How can teachers objectively assess a student's performance if art is fundamentally a subjective form of expression?" The answer, of course, is that the focus of early music education is much more associated with execution as opposed to interpretation. Therefore, it can be clearly and objectively measured whether or not a student independently depressed a particular key of the piano or identified a musical note correctly.

The reason that objectively measuring and analyzing a student's early performance is so vital is twofold. By not initially being objective, teachers may be inclined to 1) assign unrealistic goals and objectives for a student or 2) create an unchallenging and stagnating teaching environment by withholding more difficult material. In this discussion, concerning students with autism, both situations are possible but the latter is much more of a likely phenomenon. For many teachers, without prior special education experiences to draw on, it is quite understandably common to base a student's future curriculum on certain challenges that the student has currently. For instance, if a student has not yet learned how to read, exploring the skill of reading musical notation may seem out of reach for them and is then withdrawn. Alternatively, another student may display fine-motor challenges which could inhibit his dexterity at the piano. In both of these scenarios the student very well might not be able to execute the skill in question at first, but this should not effect the teacher's decision to begin instruction on that skill and measure the response.

As previously mentioned, when teaching (as opposed to assessing progress), instructors correctly use a subjective analysis of factors to help the student succeed. This practice is often based on a teacher's intimate knowledge of the student, his environment, his behavioral and comprehension challenges and previously successful teaching methodologies. For instance, after objectively determining that a student has met the criteria for the current phase of instruction, a teacher decides that the next and more difficult phase of instruction should commence. Ten minutes into the lesson, the student presents behavioral challenges and the teacher subjectively determines that this more difficult phase would increase the student's frustration level at this point and delays the introduction until tomorrow. In respect to another student, this inappropriate behavior may be related to task avoidance and the determination to continue with the more difficult phase of instruction would be made. Both decisions may be appropriate, it simply depends on the student and the situation.

Objectively measuring the early performances of a student at the piano is very plausible; it can be clearly determined whether or not the student depressed a certain key of the piano or played a particular note with his left hand for example. As the material systematically becomes more difficult, though and variables such as dynamics, tempo and artistry become more of a factor, it is more and more challenging to objectively assign a numerical value to the performance - which is based on the execution of each variable. This should not be surprising since the student's performance is now (at least in part) approaching an artistic expression. At this point, a teacher should use their experience and knowledge of the instrument to make a subjective analysis of the performance. Here, the student is guided by the teacher's individual perception of what constitutes a correct response. This determination is not only made based on the factors above, but also on the current skill level of the student, the difficulty of the piece and the environment (is this a music recital or a practice session?). An expectation of absolute perfection from a relative beginner at the piano would, of course, be counterproductive. Therefore, as the pieces increase in difficulty the subjective criteria relaxes. In early piano instruction students are being taught core concepts which are mutually exclusive. For example, the skill of identifying a note on the piano is required before teachers can begin instructing the student to play a song with correct fingering. Because these skills are mandatory and used in every piece they will learn in the future, the criteria can (and should) be set as high as possible. Later, typical music instruction involves the introduction of multiple trials of similar pieces of music. The goal is not, necessarily, to perform each one perfectly; rather to present similar pieces and develop the student's ability to generalize the concepts which are presented in each song. By initially using the objective performance measuring techniques described above and transitioning to a more subjective analysis at the appropriate point, instructors can effectively introduce the piano to individuals from across the spectrum of autism.


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