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Saturday, August 20, 2016

How to do Playing Tests

If you've read a lot of my blogs or seen my articles in the NAfME blog, you know that I do not believe in using practice cards.  One thing I do instead is bi-weekly playing tests.  My students know that I will listen to them play individually every other Friday.

On the Monday before playing test day, the measures are announced so students can begin practicing and preparing.  Every day class, we spend a little time drilling those measures and providing practice tips to help students overcome any tricky parts.  On Friday, students are given a worksheet to do while they wait their turn for the playing test.  The worksheet involves theory items we have been working on in class...rhythm, note-reading, term, etc.  I make my own worksheets much of the time, but I also use the String Explorer worksheets from the teacher pack.

As I listen to individual students play, I am very careful to keep the atmosphere of the class friendly and non-threatening.  Students get nervous and it takes a great deal of bravery to play alone.  I believe it is good for students to face the challenge of performing alone. It strengthens their performance ability and they gain confidence for our concerts.  For my playing tests, students stay in their seats when it is their turn to play...I don't have them stand up or come to the front.  That would just add more stress.

Using a playing test rubric, I quickly grade each my 45 minute class period, I can listen to about 45 students, but I have to be quick!  In my beginning classes, playing tests are only about 8 measures long.  In Intermediate and Advanced classes, playing tests are longer.  I write comments on the rubric to help students improve.  If students receive 50/56 points or lower, they must re-take the playing test.  Any student may re-take the playing test as many times as they like, but not on the same day because I want them be practicing and preparing before each attempt.

There is a great video on YouTube about how in music class, an A is not enough.  For a superior performance, we need tremendous accuracy.  He explains it so well...check it out:

That is why I want students to keep re-taking playing tests to get perfect scores.  I want them to master the music and reach their potential.  It is possible!  This year, to encourage students to aim for perfect playing tests, I have little incentives.  Each year, I design my own orchestra folders that go with a yearly theme, and this is on the inside pocket of the folders:

For the term 2 'name on a classroom brick' award, I bought chalkboard tape and chalk markers and will place a piece of tape on various bricks in my classroom (my walls are all brick) with their name brightly decorated.  I will forever keep their name on a brick if they get that award.  It doesn't cost much, but students really want to be remembered so that is a huge incentive.

To help encourage students on continually improve and progress, I am starting a new thing...I put this survey/goal sheet on the back of every playing test form.  After I listen to each playing test, I give the student their scores on my playing test rubric form.  I don't want them to just glance at it and throw it away....I want them to reflect.  Students will be required to turn this in after their playing test. 

This system has been working well for me over the years.  There are many ways to do playing tests.  Sometimes I have my students send me recording or I let them take the test using SmartMusic.  Technology is great!  Even so, it is helpful to listen to each student live in person.  It helps me gauge my teaching and gives me direction to meet students' needs.  There have been times when I thought all students had mastered dotted quarter notes for example...then heard a playing test and realized only 1/2 were proficient and the rest were 'followers.'  I was then able to re-teach and help all students acquire the necessary skills to further their abilities.  


  1. I do a lot of things the same way you do. I am moving away from practice records this year in favor of weekly goal setting and playing tests--maybe every other week. I have about 200 students divided evenly between 5th and 6th grade with 7 45 minute classes. I'm curious about your rubric. I think mine is too detailed and takes too long. Are you sharing yours anywhere? Teachers PayTeachers maybe?

    1. Yes I have my form on teacherspayteachers -

  2. I am also trying to do something similar in my classroom this year and loved your ideas. I have been trying to figure out ways to get my high school students to invest more time on practice outside of school. Have you tried this with high school students? Did you modify it in any way? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    1. Yes I have done this with high school students. I didn't see my high school kids every day (they were on an A/B schedule), so I didn't want to use class time listening to playing tests. We still did a test every 2 weeks, but students emailed me recordings or sent me recordings using google classroom. I also sometimes hooked up a microphone to my laptop and had students take playing tests during class by going into a practice room and playing for the mic.