Should Music Be Competitive?
My high school music program didn’t compete at all. My first music competition was as a third year teacher taking my very first marching band to a contest. I don’t remember much about it really. I didn’t make a conscious decision at that time about whether or not I thought going to contest was good for my students. It was simply on the calendar I was given when I took the job and my band went. I don’t even recall spending much time thinking about what my students reactions would be regarding scores or placements at the contest would be. I guess it all turned out fine.
Over time I came to recognize that the role of competition in our school music programs is a hotly debated topic and a complex issue. There are those that believe that competition has no role in school music programs, there are those who believe that competition can play an important role and there are those who fall somewhere in between. There is certainly not one accepted answer to this issue.
My thoughts on music competitions have evolved. As a guy who didn’t even know they existed while I was in high school it isn’t hard for me to make the argument that they are unnecessary. I loved making music and that was enough to keep me motivated in my music courses. I have no idea whether being involved in music competitions would have increased or decreased my passion for being in band or choir.
During my teaching career I have accepted the fact that competition is part of the music education culture in Iowa (and in most other places). Is it good or bad? I think the answer to that lies largely in the hands of us as music educators. I have seen it become the driving force for some programs in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I have also seen it used by great educators as a way to motivate students and provide them with experiences that are not replicable in any other environment. Over time I have seen my students have too many truly special performance experiences at competitive events to be able to say that these events are bad for them. Those experiences aren’t about winning, they are about growth and the achievement of goals unrelated to points and trophies.
I have come to see competitive events as an opportunity to get feedback from great educators and musicians. The best events use evaluation tools (ballots) that provide some valuable information for my students and myself. I have also come to use these events to set achievable goals for my students, most of which they can self-assess. By this I mean that the goal is not to win or score a certain number of points, but the goals are things that they can evaluate themselves during and after the performance. I’ve also come to embrace the idea that these events are competitions. Competition is part of life. Job interviews are competitions, our students are facing competition to get into college, and businesses compete with each other every day. Competition isn’t bad. Competition is only bad if it becomes the driving force for success. Businesses aren’t successful because they “know how to compete,” they are successful because they do something very well and are rewarded for that. Greatness in a business, a classroom, or a band occurs because a group of people chooses to work together and do something at the highest level.
There is no one blueprint for how to handle competition in a music program. At different points in my career it has served different roles. There have been times when it has provided a challenge for my students, at times it has been a way to help them feel successful, and at times it has served as a way for the groups to assess their development. I think it is important that music educators constantly evaluate how they are using competition to enhance their program. I believe that those who are troubled by music competitions have seen it used poorly by teachers. We’ve all seen it misused, but I think that’s the exception these days. I certainly respect teachers who choose to find other ways to provide great experiences to their students. In recent years I have been the part of the development of a series of events that use the best elements of competitive events but are not scored or ranked. My students would tell you we prepare just as hard for our non-competitive event as our competitive events. They are all opportunities to share our learning and get constructive feedback.
I do believe there is a place for competition in our music programs when it’s done right. The key is to keep our students focused on what is important. Are they getting better every day? Are they creating great moments for their audience? Most importantly, are they creating great moments for themselves through music? I recently had a student tell me that she wasn’t going to miss her clarinet, but she was going to miss band. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, but I think that she meant that the experiences she had in my class went far beyond the notes and rhythms. It all starts by teaching the skills that allow our students to have those special experiences; those two things can’t be separated.
I encourage music educators to continually monitor what role competition is playing in their program. Do your students understand how it is being used? Don’t be afraid to talk to them about what you hope to gain by going to competitive events and allow them to have some input in what role it plays in your program. If they are learning and if they are having great opportunities to share their music then you must be doing something right.