Marching band has dramatically changed in the past decade. Through the combination of music and elements of visual design, dance and theatre, we have created a unique artform that enables us to portray the range of human emotions. In the process we have grown as musicians, designers and teachers.

As we move further from our military origins and closer to becoming a medium of expression, we are faced with the dilemma of evaluating what we create. This issue of Today's Music Educator has posed the question, "Are there better alternatives to our present system of competitive ranking and rating?" Although this is a valid question, it neglects a more important issue of instrumental music education. The problem lies not in the present system, but with our attitudes about competition and its value in music education.

The use of competition in instrumental music education has grown to alarming levels. Music educators now place more attention on ranking and rating than ever before, and for many, competition has become an end in itself. We cannot allow destructive competitive attitudes to alter music education curricula.

Music education exists in the schools to provide our students with experiences that expand their aesthetic and emotional development and to help them develop an appreciation of the arts.

Unfortunately, our approach to marching band competition rarely considers these goals. The quest for perfection in marching band performance demands an extraordinary commitment to certain skills that , although somewhat beneficial, do not enhance musical or personal growth. It is imperative that we do not allow the development of these skills to override the essential elements of what we offer. The attitudes of competing only to "win", only to "rank" another ensemble, or only to achieve a certain rating, oppose the basic precepts of music education.

While competition, ranking and rating do exist in the arts, it is not their reason for existence. Artforms exist for expression. If we continue to emphasize "placement," we will continue to send a message to the public, our administrators and, worst of all, to our students, that we are not dealing with an artform, we do not deal with aesthetic experience, and we are nothing more than an extracurricular activity in the public schools.

With these attitudes so prevalent in instrumental music education today, it would be inappropriate to create another ranking and rating system. Instead, we need to re-define the value of competition in music programs. Rather than ask, "Are there better alternatives to our present system of competitive ranking and rating?", let's ask, "How are we utilizing the present system of competitive ranking and rating as part of the music education process?"

This question suggests that competition can in some way be an integral part of the curriculum. The key word "utilize" implies that "contests" are incorporated into the music education experience, but only for the purpose of further growth for our students. In other words, competition becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

By changing the emphasis of competition from one of ranking and rating to one of evaluation, we can utilize "competitions" as a teaching tool. This should not be done through a re-organization of the judging sheets, but by changing the way we prepare students for adjudicated performances.

In order for this to happen, we must first delineate between two different concepts: competition and adjudication. Competition implies ranking and rating, one group "beating" another, and one group labeled "first place" or "winner." Unfortunately, it also implies "last place" and "losers."

Adjudication can imply evaluation. This should be the focus of adjudicated performances. Putting the competitive attitude aside will allow students to approach performances with a focus on entertaining and expressing certain moods or ideas.

They will understand that the "judges" are there to serve as objective staff members for your organization and have a real purpose other than to place value judgments on your students based upon their performance. Consequently, they will be more receptive to the judges' suggestions for improvement.

Through the adjudication process we, the teachers, have the opportunity to receive evaluation from our peers, talk about problems and problem-solving skills in critique sessions and, if necessary, educate others as to what we are trying to accomplish with the marching band medium.

Delineating between adjudication and competition in performance is not a new idea. The drum corps and winter guard activities have sponsored "evaluation shows" for some time. At these events, outstanding teachers and designers comment on both performance and construction and there is no ranking and rating involved. Many times clinics are held afterward as open critique sessions and include everyone - teachers, designers, performers and evaluators.

The evaluation show should be incorporated into our marching band schedules. Not only does the concept agree with the fundamentals of a good music education philosophy, it supports our artistic endeavors.

Evaluation shows offer the opportunity to perform and receive input on how to make the intent of our programs more clear. These shows can be supported by school districts or universities that have the resources to plan, coordinate and run such events.

In order to keep music education as the primary goal of our programs and to keep growing as an artistic medium, we must begin to see competitions for what they truly are: opportunities for performance and evaluation. There are several guidelines that will help:

  • Demand that adjudicators serve as teachers, not simply placement-monitors. If certain people aren't willing to do this, or if you think they are unaware of what they are doing, clue them in. Inform them and your contest/festival organizer of your expectations.
  • Leave your ego at home when displaying your student's efforst and your own creation to the public. Our own pride cannot get in the way of our students' personal development.
  • Allow yourself to be open. Once you've created a program, stick to your basic preise, but let it develop. As judges, your peers will sometimes tell you things you won't like hearing. Let yourself be objective.
  • Only give your students material that is worth their time and effort. You wouldn't feed your own children junk food every day. Don't give your students a program that will not encourage their growth. Challenge them musically and mentally - give them substance.

How we choose to utilize competition is an important issue that deserves more attention than it has received. The value of competitive ranking and rating, its application and its results is our responsibility entirely.

Let's not lose sight of why we exist - music education. It is imperative that we remember the profound influence we have on our students. We are not here to help our students win contests/ festivals. It is our responsibility to positively influence our students' life-long relationships with music and the arts.

The competitive attitude of winning or beating other ensembles has nothing to do with real music education or artistic expression and must be put to rest.

Redefining the Value of Competition