Placement in Instrumental Ensembles
Southern Lehigh High School Band & Orchestra
Music is a very subjective thing. Each person has their own taste in the music they choose, or do not choose, to listen. Ten people can listen to the same work and give ten different impressions of what the composer was trying to communicate, much as ten people looking at a piece of abstract modern art would give ten different interpretations of what the creator of the art was trying to depict. Music is about expression, creativity, feelings, mood, and many other intangible aspects.
Music can also be very objective. Pitches are either right or wrong, note (values) are correct or incorrect. Yes, there may be varying degrees of “rightness or wrongness” but modern audiences, accustomed to hearing almost flawless performances on recordings, do not tolerate music played with many errors. Viewed this way, music is reduced to something that can be described as technical, mechanical or almost sterile. As much as it seems to be a paradox, music can be very expressive when the performer follows all the directions given by the composer. Correct pitches and rhythms are combined with dynamics, articulations, tempo changes and other musical elements to create something that is truly expressive. That is why music, which has its origins in mathematics and physics, is considered an art and not a science. The composer has worked all of that out in his/her plan - the music on the paper - and it is up to the performer to follow the composer’s directions as closely as possible.
In an attempt to measure musical achievement, somebody has to listen to what is being played and come to an intelligent assessment of the player’s ability. Usually this is accomplished through an audition. Like music itself, a player may be heard by ten different sets of educated and highly trained ears and those listeners will (and frequently do) return verdicts with often different and sometimes contradictory opinions. That subjectivity is inescapable - it is based on the background, education and personal preferences of the listener. Hence objectively evaluating a musicians degree of skill can be more difficult than objectively evaluating music.
There are very few published measures of musical achievement that are objective. One of the few is the Watkins-Farnum Performance Scale (WFPS) developed in the 1950’s by Dr. John G. Watkins. This original version was developed to evaluate the musical skill of Cornet/trumpet players in 1942. In collaboration with Dr. Stephen E. Farnum, this work was later adapted and revised to provide a similar measure for players of woodwind, brass and percussion players. Dr. Farnum later created a version of this performance scale for the stringed instrument family - it is known as the Farnum String Scale. While the administration of this test leaves a certain small amount of judgment in the hands of the listener, the directions that were developed to guide the administration of this test make the WFPS the most objective assessment tool that is available. For this reason the WFPS is the tool that has been adopted for use in placing students in Band or Orchestra based on their musical achievement.
One of the chief criticisms of the WFPS is that some music educators deem it to be a “sight-reading test.” While that is debatable, the intent of the test is to find out what level of technical and musical demands the student can handle comfortably. It has also been pointed out that many student musicians perform better as a member of a section as opposed to playing by themselves. While this may be true, it is also equally true that the results from the WFPS will be relative, i.e. the better section players will also turn out to be the better solo players. In any case, it is not advisable to take the result of the WFPS for any one student and interpret this as an absolute measure of musical achievement, but it is as valid an assessment tool as can be found for comparing the achievement of student musicians.
The test itself is not a scale in the usual musical sense. It is a set of exercises of progressively increasing difficulty. The first few exercises pose few musical challenges, consisting mainly of long note values and pitches that are easily playable even by students with only a year or less of instrumental instruction. As the player proceeds through the subsequent exercises, the composer places increasing technical and musical demands on the player. The objective is to find the place in the set of exercises (the “scale”) where the player makes more mistakes than the exercise is worth (point value).
Each exercise is worth a specified number of points, usually ten. Some exercises are valued a bit higher if they are more difficult, and a few of them are weighted a bit less. Most of the values for each exercise are ten points. The objective of the student player is to play each exercise as accurately as possible to acquire the greatest number of points. The examiner is to mark errors in pitch, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, tempo, timing and other elements as the player performs each exercise. The performer is permitted to go on to the next exercise in the series so long as he or she has performed the preceding exercise and made fewer errors than the exercise is worth. It should be noted here that multiple errors in one measure are considered as only one error in the scoring of the exercise.
All tempos are specified for each exercise, and the examiner is to use a metronome to set the tempo for the student, however the metronome does not remain running during the student’s performance of any exercise.
Types of Errors
a. A tone added or omitted constitutes and error.
b. A tone played on the wrong pitch constitutes and error. Fuzzy attacks or minor irregularities are not counted as errors, provided most of the note is played on the correct pitch. If the student strikes a wrong pitch when attacking the note but correctly fingers it and immediately adjusts the lip/embouchure to the correct pitch without retonguing the note, no error is counted. If the note is fingered wrong, for example F instead of F# and then immediately changing to F#, an error is counted.
a. Any note not given its correct value is wrong. A sustained note must be held to within one count of the correct beat. Thus a whole note held for three full counts is marked wrong. It must extend over into the beginning of the fourth count. If it extends past the end of the fourth count and into the beginning of the fifth count it again becomes wrong. The examiner is to count to him/herself and mark an error if the tone stops before saying the word “four” or after the word “five.” This rule is to be applied to sustained tones; half notes, dotted halves, dotted quarters in 6/8 time, etc. The student should be sure that the difference between the time any sustained tone is held and the correct time for that note is less than a full beat.
b. If there is a marked increase or decrease in tempo, ALL measures played in the incorrect tempo are wrong. Increases/decreases in tempo within an exercise of less than 10% are not considered wrong. A return to correct tempo at any time does not constitute an error. If the increase/decrease in tempo is gradual, the point or measure at which the 10% threshold has been exceeded is marked wrong.
a. Failure to observe any expression mark constitutes an error. The fact of the response, not the degree of response, determines whether or not an error was made.
b. Failure to observe a crescendo, decrescendo, accelerando or ritard constitutes a single error which is ascribed to the measure in which the sign originates.
a. All pitches are to be tongued/separate bows unless otherwise indicated.
b. A slur that is omitted/broken, a tongued note slurred or a slur carried onto notes which should not be slurred are all counted as errors.
a. Ignoring a rest or failure to give a rest its correct value is an error. The same criteria as for sustained tones will apply also to rests.
Holds and Pauses
a. Holds written or indicated with a fermata must be held longer than the note value to which they are attached.
b. Pauses between pitches or between measures are errors.
a. Failure to observe and take a repeat where indicated is an error.
b. In those exercises having repeats, only the first playing of the repeated section is judged. In those exercises having a repeat and a first and second ending, the first rendition of the repeated section is judged, plus the first ending. Scoring does not resume until the player reaches the second ending. The exception to this rule is when there is a change of expression on the repeated section.
Administering the Test
The test is designed to be completed in one session. From the time the test has begun there should be no interruption of any kind until the player has completed the exercises in which he or she has earned no points. The directions that come with the test are very specific (see “Errors” above) and will be followed consistently. Some alterations have been made in administering this test to Band and Orchestra students at Southern Lehigh H. S. but the majority of those alterations give the advantage to the student.
Students should be sure that the time they have for taking a seating test is “open ended,” that is, the test may take anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. For this reason seating tests are best scheduled for a time after the school day. Please use lavatory facilities before beginning a seating test. Students should turn off all cell phones, beepers or pagers, or leave them elsewhere for the duration of the test. Students should take 5-10 minutes to properly warm up/tune before taking a seating test.
In all cases the student player should have familiarized themselves with the rules for scoring as outlined above. The teacher will briefly review these prior to the start of the test. It is the responsibility of the student to be sure their instrument is in good working order PRIOR to beginning a seating test (e.g. valves oiled, good reed, etc.). Should a chronic problem occur during the performance of the seating test, the test will be immediately terminated and the score to that point is null and void.
The player may sit or stand. The player may adjust the music stand so the music is clearly visibly and he/she is in a comfortable playing position. The player is provided with the booklet containing the exercises. The teacher scores the players performance on a separate sheet which is a copy of each of the exercises. Instructions are given to the player. The player will be asked if he/she has any questions. The following final instructions are given to the student:
“In this test you are to read each exercise exactly as written. Be sure that you hold each note its correct value, and observe all markings and signs. The grading will be quite strict, so do your best. Please take a moment to look over the first exercise.”
1) The player has time to look over the exercise about to be played. The time period ranges from 30 seconds for the first few exercises to about 75 seconds for the last few.
2) The player may NOT play any of the exercise during this time period.
3) The player MAY hum, sing, whistle the exercise during this time period. The player may “air play” e.g. do the fingerings, bowings, slide position while doing so. The player may request to hear the tempo (metronome) for a moment or two.
4) When the time to look over the exercise has elapsed, the teacher will turn on the metronome at the tempo indicated for the exercise. The player may begin when ready, but not longer than the initial time for looking over the exercise.
5) Once the player has completed the first measure, the teacher will turn off the metronome. The student should continue playing without altering tempo.
The student will continue steps 1-5 above until he or she performs two consecutive exercise in which they earn no points. At that point in time the test is ended. The examiner will total up the number of points earned, and that is the students score for that particular test.
The examiner will the go over the exercises in turn with the student, pointing out where errors were made, the nature of the error and suggest strategies for improvement should the student decide to take another seating test at some point in the future. There is a four week (calendar week) waiting period for any given student between seating tests.
The score in a seating test belongs to the student and the student may elect to share or not share their score with any other member of the Band or Orchestra. The examiner will tell the student the new placement for him/her in the section, but will not reveal any other student’s score. This score does not factor into a students quarterly grade.
If a student takes a second test, and the results for the second test are lower than the first test, the student maintains the older/higher score. Thus the student will not move down in his/her section based on a lower score. A student may be “bumped” down in the section if another student takes a test and passes the first student. Should this occur, the student who has been “bumped” has the right to take a seating test provided the four week waiting period has elapsed.
Use of Scores
At this point in time, students in Band or Orchestra are not required to take a seating test, but are encouraged to do so. This type of assessment is valuable for a student who 1) wants to know where they stand in relation to the musical achievement of their peers, 2) wants to know if they are improving over time, or 3) wants to become more comfortable and confident in an audition situation.
For the teacher of a band or orchestra, the aggregate scores from students in the ensembles are a great source of information. Based on the spectrum of scores the teacher is able to determine what level of music can easily be mastered by the majority of the students, and can choose music of that level if needed for a performance in the very near future without requiring extensive rehearsal time. Often the teacher may see patterns in that certain keys, time signatures, rhythm patterns, etc. are missed in a broad cross section of students taking a seating test. This is a clear sign of content and/or skills that need to be addressed in choosing music for rehearsal and/or performance in order to facilitate growth in all the musicians of the band or orchestra.
As noted above, scores are the property of the student. They are not shared with other students, teachers, school officials, or even parents - except with the permission of the student. Students who score a level of 100 points or greater will be given a pin to signify their achievement, and also will have their name engraved on the perpetual plaque in the instrumental room “Wall of Fame.”