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Singing Tests - What do you do? How do you defend the test?

Please share any information on how you conduct singing tests with your students.  Also, how do you defend the validity of the test if a parent/guardian says their students shouldn't have to take a singing test .....for example if the student is just in the choir to get their fine arts credit???
Replies (18): Threaded | Chronological
on October 17, 2011 7:38pm
Hi, Pamela.  Could I ask what you mean by "singing tests"?  Do you mean auditions to get into an auditioned enemble?  Or do you mean voice placement tests for those who are already in the ensemble?  Those are very different, but either one has perfectly obvious face validity, and neither one should bring parents into the process, should it?  In neither case should the student's motivation come into the equation.
Now questioning WHY someone didn't make it into an auditioned ensemble is a different animal.  And that's one reason why I always wrote personal form letters to the ones who did NOT make it, and gave them suggestions for improvement or comments on what they had done well.
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 17, 2011 7:57pm
This would be a quarterly singing test or singing evaluation. It includes sight-reading, singing a scale pattern, and one song they sang on their concert. In each section I grade them on their individual performance - the sight reading they have done before in class, the scale/pattern they sing has been sung nearly every day, and one piece they have performed.
on October 18, 2011 9:38am
Thanks, Pamela.  That makes  your original question clear.
Looks to me as if you are using your evaluations as an objective means of grading. You are preparing the students through class work, you are helping them learn through practice, and you are evaluating their learning.  Absolutely valid!  And necessary if we're going to keep our status as in-school, evaluated and graded learning classes and not just "fun time."
And sounds to me as if any parents who question your procedure ARE thinking of choir as "fun time" and "extracurricular," and not as an academic class.  And that's your answer (always assuming that your administration backs you up).  Ask them whether they think their kids should be exampted from taking quizzes and exams in math or English because theyr'e taking them "just to satisfy the requirements in math or English"!!!!!!  Surely your school has to meet some kind of state standards, not to mention the ill-conceived No-Child-Left exams.
As long as you are not evaluating their voices per se--which WOULD be unfair because some kids have beautiful voices and others simply don't--you're on solid ground.  You're evaluating their LEARNING, which as a teacher you're supposed to do.  I don't do anything similar at the college level, but our public school music teachers DO, because they really need to establish academic standards and objective assessments.
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 18, 2011 5:34am
I'm not a music teacher, nor have I ever really taught for any length of time in a formal circumstance, BUT as a lifelong student and with several degrees, it all boils down to this:  teachers must have a mechanism for progress, and ways to provide direction and guidance to students to continue to progress in their learning.  Tests, as unpleasant as they can be, serve this purpose.  If tests are seen from the beginning as punitive, no amount of explanation will change minds.  Irrespective, whether it's a "formal" test or an informal one - it's still a test.  And we can only grow as human beings, regardless of the endeavor, if we "test" ourselves against a clear, identifiable set of standards.  You seem to have that in your test as you describe it; it's not apparently punitive (and I doubt it is really punitive); so the parents need to grow up - this is truly less about their son or daughter than about their own view of testing.
on October 18, 2011 6:47am
As teachers- music, math, metaphysics, or marketing- it's our job to evaluate our students on what we attempt to teach them.  I imagine you teach your students rhythm, pitch, dynamics, phrasing, vowel placement, consonant articulation, and any number of things I probably forget to do.  You should test them on those things.  You can do that individually or with relatively cheap digital records and recorded accompaniment.  You can even record the choir, have the student listen on headphones, and record their singing.  The bottom line is teachers should evalutate what they teach.
on October 18, 2011 6:55am
I teach at a liberal-arts college, and I give parts tests once per semester.  The students form subsets (usually SSAATB or thereabouts) and I give them three or four excerpts from current repertory to rehearse on their own in their groups, then each group comes in for 10 minutes and sings the excerpts (one attempt only) in any order they want.  I can easily follow and assess everyone's performance in a group of six where that would be impossible with forty, no one has to sing completely alone, and I can grade everyone in the span of a single rehearsal.  The students get excited and give their groups fun names and arrange rehearsal times on their own.  I don't use a stated rubric, although I probably should.  (My grading is not based on an absolute standard, by the way, but rather on what I already know if the student's level and ability.)  
My syllabus states that poor performance on the parts test can drop a student's attendance-and-attitude grade an entire letter.  (Excellent performance on the parts test does not raise the grade, however.  That's my philosophy: You can't make up for absences by singing all the notes right when you are there.)  
I can't imagine getting complaints from anyone about such tests.  You are in school or college, you chose to sing in the chorus for whatever reason, so you follow the rules and get graded for your work just like anything else.  Would students complain that they shouldn't have to take a math test because they only took the course to fulfill their math requirement?
on October 18, 2011 7:55am
Hi Pamela,
For the past 18 years I have had a category in my gradebook for "Music Mastery" where students sing for me music that the entire ensemble has down reasonably well.  I grade them on five areas - Accuracy, Independence, Musicality, Strength, Memorization.
I have never had a parent question why their child is tested on their singing.  Calling it "Music Mastery" rather than "Singing Test" may have something to do with why this may be.
Good Luck,
Ken ahlberg
on October 18, 2011 8:21am
I love the rationale here. "I'm only taking physics for my science requirement, so I shouldn't have to take any tests." "I'm only taking English to satisfy my Language Arts requirement, so I shouldn't have to write any papers." I'm only at school because of my attendance requirement, so I shouldn't have to do anything. And later: "I'm only at this job because of my paycheck requirement, so I shouldn't have to do any work." Actually, there are people who seem to have this attitude.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on October 18, 2011 9:27am
I'm now retired from many years in high school choral music. Since all our choirs were considered credit bearing classes, I was expected to justify the difference between a grade of 89 and 90, etc. This was the same expectation for every teacher. Part of the deal in my choir classes was that during each quarterly marking period students were required to do two sight reading tests, generally at 5 week intervals, and one "part check" which involved singing in quartets a couple excerpts of music we had been working on. SR tests were to de done during times other than regular rehearsal classes, and I set aside blocks of time throughout a week so that kids could come in during a luch period, between classes, after school. Some time during the testing week, they needed to show up for about two minutes to do the test. I usually did the quartets for the part check during a regular class, since that was the best time to be able to find kids to cover all the parts at the same time.
These singing tests made up a total of 30 points out of the possible 100 points each quarter. They were fully explained in the syllabus, and the older kids always were helpful in expalaining how things worked when freshmen entered the program. Parents, colleagues and administrastors were always very supportive, not just for the overall program, but very specifically of the assessment procedures. I could always explain how a kid arrived at the grade he or she earned in language that even the non-musicians could understand.
In addition to providing kids with important feedback, it certainly helped me to see where I needed to adjust my teaching. It also helped me to know which kids might need a little extra attention.
on October 19, 2011 5:35am
Pamela et. al.:  I think there's more than enough ammo here to disarm any parental "concern" about why there are graded tests.  (I particularly like Allen's dismissal of the thinking involved with "I'm only doing this to satisfy this or that I shouldn't have to do anything or be tested about anything").  Much more importantly, I think there is an incredible statement of purpose and fact here, which needs the widest possible dissemination - to teachers of other subjects, school administrators, school boards, and politicians of every stripe - all of whom tend to denigrate not only the importance but the intellectual rigor involved in the performing arts.  There is here an arsenal to put paid to all the snide and thoughtless remarks about the usefulness and academic value (as though that were the end state of the exercise) of the arts.  In addition, a fair question to all the others is - okay, guys, other than basic math and basic English, how many of your subjects, considered SOOOOOOOOO important for students to struggle through, get used by them for the rest of their lives?  But people sing all the time; so if frequency of use is any measure of the value of a subject, music would win hands down as the most useful academic skill to acquire - and in Alzheimer's patients, it is the LAST skill to be lost.  It is truly a lifetime skill - and isn't that what academic endeavor is supposed to be all about?
I've been reading Gordon Wood's "Empire of Liberty" lately, and he makes a stunning point about the arts in America in the late 18th and early 19th century:  that ever since that period, we have found it necessary to justify the arts (on any level) as being utilitarian or building morality - not valuing it for itself or for any other purpose, but because culturally we were building a society that only focused on how useful anything might be.  Nothing has truly changed:  look at all the debates about the arts (plastic and performing) in elementary, middle and high schools - and how the arguments all focus on utility.  This is the curse handed us by the Puritans, who viewed almost ANY artistic endeavor as utter frivolity and uselessness; even as morally dangerous.  Their descendants from New England (sadly in this instance, my original neck of the woods) carried their views to the parts of the Midwest they settled - Ohio, Indiana, Illinois - and the emphasis on making money in the nation's early history precluded much time or interest or willingness to become involved in the arts at any level, except the most perfunctory or silly.  I for one argue that it's long past time we speak truth to power, and stop apologizing for being artists and promoting the arts - and your arguments here have the power to speak the truth.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 19, 2011 7:53am
Hear, hear, Ron!!!  Well said.  I've mentioned this before and will mention it again (while noting that I did not myself read the report):  Back in the '60s, when the debate in academia was about the "brain drain" and the importance of going "back to the basics" in eductation, my parents were still actively teaching, and loved it when the Carnegie Commission Report came out in the late '60s to speak to this.  And the quotation I remember was, "Yes, we much conentrate on the basics, and the arts are basic."
And I've always maintained the the performing arts teach EVERY lesson that organized sports are lauded for teaching, including (unforunately) the need to sing or play through pain, with one huge difference:  there never has to be a loser!
I do, however, have to question music as the "most useful academic skill to acquire," just from personal experience.  The skill I learned in high school that I really have used almost every day of my life was typing!!!  Of course I was allowed into the typing class a year early BECAUSE I was a musician (better coordination, don'cha know!), and I've BEEN a musician since I was 4 years old and have pictures to prove it, so my outlook might be just slightly skewed!
All the best,
on October 20, 2011 6:53am
John, I may have fallen victim to the very problem I was fulminating against, the utility argument.  Still, we sometimes do have to pitch the argument in ways that make others who are boxed in by their thinking (or lack thereof) review or, at least, refute a counterargument pitched in their own language and from the same starting point.  Your point about music being indeed a team effort - whether choral or instrumental - but without losers, and all being winners, is an example of what I'm trying to say - if those around us will not hear us in our own language and through our own thinking, then we have to find the way to sell the argument in their own language and through their own thinking!
on February 25, 2016 2:13pm
Regarding your last sentence, Ron, one blunt way to speak truth and stop apologizing is to point out: "During national emergencies, like 9-11, do we call on the spelling bee champions or the AP math students to recite words and formulas, or do we call on musicians, artists, poets and architects?"  This is not to trivialize the importance of spelling and math, only to put music and the other arts in their proper place.
Perhaps we should start a new thread: "How the most important events of our lives could be improved" or some such.  How about---
   We could have watched physics professors calculate the mass of the Berlin Wall rather than listen to that same old Beethoven symphony.
   We could recite the Star Spangled Banner instead of bother with that unsingable melody.
   We could outlaw music at funerals--they're too long anyway.
   We could reassign our military band and choir personnel to some more productive task like kitchen duty.
on October 19, 2011 11:09am
I can't say anything any better than those before me, but I do have something to add.  I do a range check with each student once a quarter, and then graph it!  I use Microsoft Excel and put in their high note and their low note as well as their speaking pitch (which I have them count backwards from 20 and get the pitch they recite).  I have set F2 as pitch #1, and go from there.  I also display the chart (very big) in the classroom, and it shows the students what their ranges are.  It is especially effective on boys!  It creates competition for who has "the most notes" not on "how high or low" they can sing.  For boys, I relate their ranges to Cooke's classifications of the changing male voice, and they can see how their voice is changing while experiencing it!  Girls get mad if I do it only for the boys, so it creates a positive outlook on the test instead of the traditional "uh-oh" feeling of a test!
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 24, 2016 9:27am
I find that quality quartets are very useful! Randomly select four students (one from each section) and have them sing a selection you're working on a capella. Have a guide you can use to adjudicate their vocal quality, intonation, resonance, reading, retention, posture, etc. Use a rubric! In the area of defense against parents, I would say to just be open about it and truthful. Students are in this choir class to grow as musicians and learn. Many are not here for the credit only and we cannot let the few who are hold the group back at festivals or what have you. 
Hope this helps! 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 25, 2016 4:08am
Great idea Pamela!  Also, there is lots of new technology out there.  I LOVE Music Prodigy.  Students sing into their phones (day or night) and the program assigns a grade based on accuracy.  It's a huge time saver.  There is so much you can do with it.  Check singing parts, sight singing ability...the list goes on.   It has a super app.
There is a flat fee to join it, and everyone in your music program (band/orchestra/chorus) gets access regardless of the size of the program.  Our school has 900 students in our music program, and it's just amazing.  Can't say enough good things about it.  Here is a link:
Dale Duncan
Creator of the S-Cubed Middle School Sight Singing Program for Beginners
on February 26, 2016 7:23pm
I'm sure the likelihood that anyone will read this is small, but I do have something new to add. Everyone who has posted so far believes that singing is a learnable skill. The assumption is that a complaint by a parent or student means that the complainer does not value music very highly.
However, many people believe that when it comes to singing, you either can or cannot. If that were true, then a test serves only to validate those people who can sing and mock those who can't.  Make sure you tell your students that singing is a skill that can be learned and that you believe all of them can improve. It will stop many complaints before they start. Many of those who do complain need to be told singing is a skill. Only once they see that singing can be learned will they respect the need for tests.
on February 27, 2016 6:17pm
  When, early on in my new job, I realized that having horns and marching were the only valuable musical attributes worthy administrative interest or real support, I sought to make big and small changes. Each summer, there were elaborate plans for lessons...ah...except for singers. SO, I decided on a scorched earth policy. The audition model which excluded students or put them into "training choirs" because they weren't "good enough" simply fed into the band supremacy.  Don't blink, you have all been there. I needed a new recruitment/audition process and philosophy to guide me.
  I needed a new process of auditioning. I wanted everyone to have a place in the choir. First, ALL Choirs are Training Choirs,  period. There would be three choirs, SATB Concert Choir, an new Women's Chorale and Chamber Singers. All the guys came to Concert Choir and  most of the younger guys' voices were, at least, changing by Fall. The other choirs could be "balanced" by many of the young women in the new Women's Chorale which quickly formed a strong identity in itself. Chamber Sings grew a bit and there were a few singers also in one of the other groups.
  This, then, was a model for growth and improvement built upon a core of pride with the expectation of vocal and musical advancement. If a singer wanted to sing a solo for me , I was happy to hear it. But I really could tell much more by hearing simple vocalizes which I regularly used but asked the guys, all guys, eventually, to mindlessly recite backwards from 20 to find the "chanting tone"--the pitch area in which the counter settles on a pitch from which I could tell where the singer was in the changing process. Sometimes, rarely, I asked a female to ascertain if she was really singing too low for whatever reason. After this, I never lost a guy
  At no time was I ever challenged on the validity of the finding but I once had three singers who, for some reason, refused to sing in any choir but chose to sit and get "F". THAT, is a different answer. 
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