Educator Guide 2012 | Music Competition: An Oxymoron

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Music Competition: An Oxymoron

Any Oxymoron by Maud Hickey

The words music and competition should not be compatible in today's music curriculums. The subject is a controversial one indeed, and is usually a sure topic to be discussed in conversations at conventions and any other occasions that bring band directors together. In stating my "anti-competition" viewpoint, I will first define what I see as competition in music, and then will offer a philosophy which opposes music competition, and point out other problems which I feel are eminent on the "con" side of this controversial issue.

My teaching background includes work in a competitive marching band program. From 1983 to 1987 I taught high school band in Indianapolis. In Indiana, marching band competition is almost as crazy as the basketball hysteria! Invitational contests are held nearly every Saturday in September and October, followed by the "elimination rounds" of district, regional and state finals in the respective class divisions. To compete in the fall months is standard procedure for the majority of band programs in the state. In my fourth and final year, the Indiana School Music Association was also introducing, and entering into its second year of concert band regional and state competitions in the spring!

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to get a job in the state of Wisconsin where the emphasis on competition is minimal! I always have, and will continue to applaud Wisconsin's School Music Association's (WSMA) effort to offer "critique only" opportunities at all of their contests. I believe that this is a stand on their behalf to give us arenas to perform in without having to be "rivals" with the next band for a trophy. The WSMA Marching Band Festival in the fall may now be the perfect opportunity for bands to showcase their football shows for a different (and obviously more appreciative) audience, as well as get another professional's critique without having to worry about winning or losing.

Competition is a rivalry - only one person or group wins. WSMA solo/ensemble and concert group festivals are not competition per se - though once the ratings are displayed, this could be debated! These settings are for groups or individuals to rate themselves against a set criteria and not against another individual or group. When referring to music competition throughout this article, then, I am referring to the type of competition that ranks groups or individuals in order of "greatness" - where there is only one first place, one second place and so on.

One of the biggest problems with music competition is the incredibly subjective nature of music performance. In a competitive sports event, you have individuals scoring objective points. When the ball goes through the hoop, the team gets two points - nobody needs to decide or interpret whether the shot was stylistically correct in order to give or take away more points! A music judge relies on his/her best subjective judgment and this leaves open a good possibility that the interpretation of a piece of music by the judge and the director may be quite different. Should this result in a lower score? Does this mean that one group is better than another group because they had a more similar interpretation with the judges? How can we put a ranking on a musical performance when interpretations and personal biases are a varied as each person involved?

When a team loses a basketball contest, it is because the losing team members failed to get more baskets than the other team members. When a marching band comes in first or last at a contest, does that mean that it is because there are better musicians in the first place band than in the others? Or does it mean that the director interpreted the piece of music in a manner that was incongruous with the judges' interpretation? What does one/tenth of a point difference mean between two bands' scores? First place and second place? Why?

The students rarely understand or see this dilemma and become caught up in the "magnet" of competition! Their goals become only to win and be better than their rival, not to become better, more mature musicians who appreciate the music for its aesthetic nature. The sound philosophy of a good music education becomes lost. Besides the philosophical concern with music competition, one can also wonder whether competition in any activity is really "still a magnet for students." Successful competition might be a magnet for students, but as directors we must first ask ourselves what is it going to take in effort, hours, and money to be a successful competitive band, and is it worth it? Second of all, if we are going to compete, then let's be equal and fair and ask WSMA to set up guidelines and limits for "practice seasons" similar to the regulations set up by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association for school sports!

It takes more money and more hours to be more successful than the next guy. The "best" have more staff members, better equipment, practice longer hours, and travel to more contests. We all know that with the advent of the incredible drum corps shows (used as our models) it takes more and more resources to put on an excellent and exciting show. Is it really worth it (and justifiable) to fund raise all of the money from the community to perfect one field show? Is it really worth all of the hours of endless drill of the same music and/or moves month after month to risk burnout of students?

And if we're going to compete - let's be equitable. WSMA should set "official" starting practice dates in the summer, and limit the number of contests each band may go to during the "regular" season so that we all have a more equal chance at winning.

Again, through it is debatable whether competition is truly a magnet for students, we must ask if even a "successful" competitive band is worthwhile. Lamont Page states that "good tone quality, fine technique, balance, proper stylistic interpretation, sensible phrasing and correct articulation are indeed all emphasized to produce an enjoyable musical performance, whether on the field or stage." I would agree with that, except when the same three pieces of music are drilled beyond perfection over a four month period, as is the case with field shows, and some competitive concert band programs!

He also states that the other educational strategies that he tries during the school year such as bringing in clinicians, traveling and listening to other fine concert organizations result only in short term educational retention. Is this to imply that the competitive marching band scene is the only answer for long term educational retention? I must disagree. One thing that research consistently tells us is that students vary. Therefore the more variety we can offer in our curriculums over a nine month school year, the better chance we have of educating more students for long term retention! Even if used as only one of the year's activities, is competition boosting retention of music education values or of the competitive spirit?

To me it is sad if kids seem to think that it is more fun to keep score. If we are working as a profession to make music a respected and vital academic subject in our school curriculums - as it should be regarded by administrators, school board members, parents and students - and not as an extracurricular frill, then let's not use "score keeping" as one of the justifications for music in our schools! Let us instead justify (and teach) music for the aesthetic and powerful beauty that it has to offer. Let's give the students a diverse menu of teaching, listening, crating and performing experiences using a wide variety of music. Let's teach students to appreciate music for its own sake, and to strive to play and improve throughout their high school careers and beyond without the threat of winning or losing and burnout! Let's keep competition out of the music curriculum and leave the score keeping to the sports teams.

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