What the Queen of Soul Can Teach Us about Performance

Stepping Away from Language Acquisition

For a moment, let’s examine the application of performance rubrics to another field to illuminate the strengths and limitations of tightly defining performances. Below is a rubric sample from the Spokane public schools; a cursory search on google will reveal many similar vocal performance rubrics across the U.S.


The Sum of the Parts

The reductionist nature of rubrics places value on the individual parts of a performance with the hope that it adds up to something. In reality, they may fail to capture an effective performance. (Bull, 2014).  One purpose of a vocal performance is to move listeners viscerally to emotion. Does this rubric capture this idea?

Capturing Will-o-wisps

Effective performers may surpass the rubric language and end up with a failing score. Transcendent performances will invent new ways of expression that are impossible to define in advance. Also, the reductionist language will encourage students to focus on component skills – perhaps to the detriment of the purpose. Technical precision does not guarantee a riveting performance. Like the mythical will-o-wisps, we are grasping at sparkles in the air.

Aretha Franklin

When Aretha Franklin took the stage for Luciano Pavarotti, she had 5 minutes to prepare. She spontaneously performed a flawless rendition of Nessum Dorma….in Italian. (Moye, 2018) Aretha Franklin would have blasted past any rubric that a school can make. We can define all the objectives we want, but she is hitting a target that none of us can see. She combines a four-octave range, mastery of melisma with subtle embellishments of timing – all while playing the piano. (Cochran, 2018) She conjures emotion, like a dragon from our hearts.


Bull, B. (2014). The Benefits & Limitations of Grading Rubrics – Etale – Education, Innovation, Experimentation. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from http://etale.org/main/2014/04/10/the-benefits-limitations-of-grading-rubrics/

Cochran, N. (2018). Aretha Franklin’s best performances show why she was the Queen of Soul - Vox. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/8/16/17688488/aretha-franklin-legendary-performance-queen-of-soul

klbmaxwell. (n.d.). iRubric: Vocal Music Performance - Individual rubric - G5442A: RCampus. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.rcampus.com/rubricshowc.cfm?sp=yes&code=G5442A&

Moye, D. (2018). Aretha Franklin Subbed For Luciano Pavarotti At The Grammys And Killed It | HuffPost. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/aretha-franklin-opera-1998-grammy_us_5b759309e4b02b415d765f8d

Derivative work Bettman Archive Getty Images