This weekend I hear there’s a big sporting event happening in the U.S. I have a gig that night, so I won’t be hanging out at a viewing party like many folks here do, but it did get me thinking a bit about music competitions.
At least in the U.S., competitive music festivals are regular and popular events for music students to participate in. In North Carolina, where I live and teach, there are several different types of festivals with different levels of competitiveness involved. For example, there are All-County, All-District, and All-State ensembles for middle school and high school music students. A student needs to audition to be placed in these ensembles, so in essence these groups are similar to how a professional ensemble might select its performers. Each student competes against other students and the best student musicians are chosen.
There are also music festivals where schools will bring students to perform as ensembles or even solos. Some of these festivals will be non-competitive. When I coordinated college jazz festivals I always insisted that they be non-competitive. The students will sometimes perform for a rating (sort of a grade) or even just perform for clinicians who will then work with the students to help them improve. These are my favorite sort of music education festivals for reasons I’ll go into in a bit.
Then there are the competitive festivals, which have been around in the United States as early as 1923. Each school ensemble will perform for a set of judges who at the end of the festival rank each school. Sometimes there are “playoffs” where a certain number of ensembles will perform a second time. Prizes for these festivals can range from bragging rights to trophies to performing on a featured concert.
These competitions are a double edged sword. There are pros and cons to participating in them, but often times the motivations directors and administrators have for them miss the point of music education, in my opinion.
- Generates interest in the music program.
- Promotes high musical standards.
- Provides an effective motivator for middle school and high school students.
- Provides extra incentive to directors and students to prepare better than for a standard concert.
- Undermines balance of music programs by overemphasizing certain specialized aspects towards winning.
- Conceptually leads to what Alfie Kohn calls a “mutually exclusive goal attainment.” One person or group succeeds while the rest do not.
- Emphasizes an extrinsic goal, rather than the intrinsic enjoyment of music for its own sake.
- Leads to student and director burnout.
Over-scheduling for competitions is a serious issue that I think deserves a bit more attention here. Lynn G. Cooper notes in his fine text, Teaching Band & Orchestra: Methods and Materials, that the grueling schedule of marching band competitions results in beginning to prepare music for each season in March or April, starting the drill design in March or April, and beginning rehearsals in July. Add after school rehearsals in the fall semester, weekend commitments at football games, and then 6 to 8 Saturday competitions are a monster that once begun is expected by parents, students, administrators, and the community at large. This leads to a high level of burn-out.
Every bit as important as the concern for teacher burnout is the problem of student burnout. Many students drop out of programs that over-emphasize competition (with its attendant 0ver-commitment) at the expense of music education. College band directors find that many students who come from such programs do not continue to play their instruments in college or later in life – they are tired of all the activity and lack the intrinsic motivation needed to continue to play. But students who know about music, listen to fine music, love music, and possess the skills, techniques and understandings to be mature, independent musicians will continue to participate in music even after they graduate from their school music program, because music has become important to them.
Remember balance. It is important in the ensemble, and it is important in life.
- Lynn G. Cooper