Is Competition the Answer?
A cluster of articles on the experiences of four band directors who were regularly taking their bands into competition was presented inThe IAMA Journal twelve years ago. While we as Adventist educators have shied away from competition for religious and philosophical reasons, these teachers responded at that time with enthusiasm over the effect of competition on their programs. Those articles are reprinted below, along with an update, from the perspective of twelve years later, on how that experience affected their programs and their careers.
Portland Adventist Academy
We have been competing for five years. I had thought of doing it before, but had been afraid. The band director at Lewis and Clark College was aware of the Adventist schools and invited me to compete in a festival he was doing. We accepted, got third place and qualified to go to state competition. We didn't go, however, since it was scheduled on Sabbath. The kids were frightened the first time and it didn't help that my baton was shaking, either. It was unnerving. I was really probably as nervous, or more so, than they were.
In the second year, the competition was moved to Friday instead of Saturday because a school, Columbia Christian, that had placed first the year before, asked them to change it for us. They happened to be in the same league that we play basketball in so they knew us. The competition, which was something fairly new in Oregon, had gotten so large that they couldn't do both the large and small schools all on the same day. We qualified that second year by taking second place in that festival and earning a score above the maximum needed to qualify for entry at the state level.
That was the first year we went to state. There were only three bands in our division that had qualified. We went there with the attitude that we'd at least get to bring home a trophy since there were only three bands and they gave three trophies! We didn't feel we had played particularly well. We did Greensleeves and the march from the first military suite by Holtz.
When they called the third place band, we knew we had either taken second or first. Only some of the students were there, because we had played in the morning and the awards weren't given until later in the day. I think our kids screamed more when they announced Columbia Christian second, than when they announced us. They were so excited, totally surprised. In all the times we had competed against Columbia Christian, we had never beaten them. They had always finished ahead of us.
There were fourteen students in the band the year before I came. Kids would skip the concerts. In the spring concert held the year before I came they had only one trombone player and he went to a ballgame the night of the concert instead of coming. They were just barely hanging on.
I came and started visiting homes in June, knocking on doors, visiting as many as I could during that summer. We started a summer band with adults and kids, which also helped get the program off the ground. We ended up with 35 when school resumed.
We went to a small school band festival that Columbia Christian College sponsors. It's not a competition, except that if you want to play first chair you must audition. Our kids walked in the door and just went and sat at the end of their sections. They didn't think they had a chance to have first chair. Finally, one of the flute players decided she would audition. She walked back into the room just beaming from ear to ear - she had gotten first chair. Some of the other kids decided to go ahead and try. We ended up with six or seven first chairs.
These successes affected how the students felt about themselves. One boy went home, amazed and proud that they were going to have uniforms and look good. They began to feel pride in the organization.
The competition started my second year. We had about forty students in the band by that time. We've increased from five to twenty every year since. This year's group is ninety members strong.
Competition made quite a difference in my program. The members are willing to work on harder music because they have a reason to learn it. Before they would never have tackled some of the harder works. They also like to play light popular things, but they don't ask to spend much rehearsal time doing that because they've got a goal. I never could have tackled Holsinger's Prelude and Rondo last year if they hadn't had a reason. They would have just laughed. Now they take pride in attempting a really hard piece of music and learning it.
I'm also involved in the sports program here, so I don't have a problem with competition. There are some downsides. If you win, everybody expects you to win and the first time we don't, I think is going to be really hard on the kids. We've now won three straight years.
Last Friday I went to the hospital to eat, and somebody that I don't even know, said, "Well, are you about ready to win again?" I get comments like that all the time. It's never, "How is your band," or "Are they going to win?" And that comes from the adult community, not from the kids. The kids realize that they might not. But it's now expected and that, for me, has been a down part. I will feel really bad for those kids who don't win for the first time, particularly the freshmen who will tend to blame themselves for having let the others down.
Someday, one of these other high schools may have a really fine bunch of players and do better. We might play as well or better than we have in the past, but that doesn't mean that there isn't another band out there that is experiencing a really good year that could win. We might go and have a bad day. Our solo trumpet just might be off. There's learning in that, also.
The successes of our basketball team and of the band have made the kids feel like our school must be offering just as good an education as any other school. Enrollment has increased at the school. We aren't losing kids we lost in the past. I would recommend competition for every academy program where it is possible. Most adjudicators are educators and so, along with the criticism, you get a lot of compliments, which helps the members feel good about what they are doing. Lots of times the judges tell the band things that I have said a hundred times, but when it comes from somebody else, it seems to click; it's a different voice.
Portland Adventist Academy had a reputation of being a big city school. As more and more people have become acquainted with the band, and come to band concerts, it has changed the image of the school in the whole community. They started to come on campus. They see the kids are neat and clean. We always get high scores on our appearance
It was hard for me to start in competition because I think in our minds we have the same doubts kids do. Am I good enough as a music teacher to take my kids out there and compete? You're being evaluated. If they fail, it can be difficult, but if they succeed, there are many dividends.
And today . ..
Linda Neel continues to teach at PAA, where she has conducted the band and choir and taught physical education classes for seventeen years. As she now reflects on fifteen years of competition, she has mixed feelings
Winning in competition, be it music or sports, can be an exciting and morale-building experience. After you've won, however, nothing is quite as good as being first. When we began to compete in my second year at PAA, I was in the process of rebuilding what had been a program that was struggling when I had arrived at the school. As we began that year, we had a band of forty. Taking first place that year and in subsequent years led to a band of over ninety, five years later, at the time of the article. It was heady stuff for the group and for me personally.
Over time, however, the programs feeding the academy have gotten smaller and the band has suffered in both instrumentation and quality. At the same time, more bands began participating and it become much more competitive. This past year we earned fourth place. The decline in our standings has had an effect on morale and, of course, there is talk about "what used to be." We will compete again this year, but are seriously thinking about not doing it in another year. We would like to close the chapter on this experience with a higher standing.
In more reflective moments, I have had some regrets about having competed. Yet, having said that, I have some very pleasant memories from the experience, some of which were shared in the article twelve years ago. It was an exciting musical experience as we met the challenge of mastering difficult compositions and successfully competed. It certainly helped the program grow.
The students were willing to master and ultimately enjoy music they might not have, but for the competitions. And for many of these same students, there are irreplacable memories of personal and collective triumphs as they met the challenges of preparing for competition.
Auburn Adventist Academy
I first became involved with competition while teaching at Shenandoah Valley Academy where we played in the Apple Blossom Festival. It is a national contest held in Winchester, Virginia, at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. Our first year we didn't place, but were given an "excellent" rating, which I was pleased about. I would have preferred a "superior" but as we sat there and listened to some of the bands, we were blown away by how good they were. It was amazing.
We were listed as a class C school which included high schools up to a thousand. There were some phenomenal groups. My students weren't disappointed since we rated better than over half of the groups in our classification. We went back the next year and got third place. The students were really excited about that.
The band that won in our classification just missed being the overall best band by about a tenth of a point. We hung our award in the band room. Prior to that we had put up signs in the band room saying "We can do it at the Apple Blossom Festival." They were really excited about how well they had done. Unfortunately, that was my last year at Shenandoah.
There were only thirty-nine band members when I started at Shenandoah. By the time I left we had reached in the 70's. I think that competition helped. Of course, there were many other things. We had finally established a band, that toured and played some fine music.
When I first came to Auburn, we didn't get involved with the local music league, the Pierce County League competition, for various reasons. But the third year, I decided to go ahead and get involved. Auburn had been in it prior to my coming, under both Allen Mitchell and Bruce Wilson, and they had received "Superior" ratings.
It was a pressure situation and I was very nervous, especially since I had never done a sight-reading portion of a contest before. So we worked hard. I had no idea what the high schools were like in the area. We just went in hoping to do well since that contest does not award first, second or third places, not officially, anyway. Even so, total points are given by the judges and posted.
We left after playing and didn't see our score. I didn't know how we'd fared (aside from the fact that the judges had given us a standing ovation after the performance) until I called up the person who was hosting it. When I asked how we had done, he said, "first place." I was really surprised. We were one of 17 bands from 14 high schools in the A and AA category, up to 1200 enrollment. Four others received superior ratings. We will do it again this year. The directors who didn't hear us, and found out we'd gotten first, want to be there to hear us. I do feel more pressure.
I have found competition to be beneficial to my program. It helps the students find out how they compare with other students their age. It also helps them see that the education their parents are paying for is worthwhile. Obviously it doesn't tell them anything about math or science but it lets them know that our music department is providing a program that is at least as good as a fairly large high school, if not better.
And today . . .
Brandon Beck left AAA to accept a position as band director at Southern Adventist University in 1997. He returned to the Northwest as band director at Walla Walla College in 2000.
Participation in competitions during those years was crucial to my professional growth, important in developing morale in my groups, and a priceless personal experience for my students. The spoken and written evaluations of our playing by other directors, which were shared with the students, helped both them and me become more sensitive to all aspects of performance. The challenge of playing for someone who would be more critical than mom, dad, and friends was a wonderful motivator, a great stimulus for getting serious in rehearsals.
As we added participation in solo and ensemble contests and auditioning for playing in the regional honors and all-state groups, my students not only worked harder, they gained a healthier view of where they stood in the overall scheme of performance at that level. In retrospect, all of these experiences broadened both their and my musical horizons.
Unlike competition in sports which creates winners and losers, that in music consists of meeting standards, not in beating someone or in preventing someone from doing their best. While it is true that your score may result in your being rated in a comparative way with others, and being the one with the highest score is gratifying, in the end, the experience, if done in the right spirit, can be positive for all, a chance to learn how to improve and meet a higher standard. Conceivably everyone could receive a "Superior" rating and be a winner. No one has to "lose" for someone else to win.
Without question, music competition helped prepare me for the challenges of working with the band at the college level. More importantly, however was what it did for my students who, having gone through that experience, became more confident about themselves, learned about the importance of commitment and practice, and, in the end, became better persons as well as better musicians. Many of these students felt their experience had prepared them well to move to college groups and meet the challenges they presented. Looking back, I have no regrets or second thoughts about the experience.
Shenandoah Valley Academy
Competition is one of the most important things we do as a group. Brandon Beck, previous band director, started it when he was here and I've continued it since my arrival six years ago. The band has been doing it for eight years.
The competition is a three-day event called the Apple Blossom Festival. Bands come from all over the country, with some coming from as far away as California. Although we participate in the concert band category, there are also competitions for jazz and marching bands.
We usually compete in the class C level, which includes schools of up to 700 students. A total of thirty bands participated in levels A through C. There are four ratings given ranging from four, inadequately prepared, to one, superior. Five judges evaluate and the three middle scores are factored, as in the Olympics.
They do give the lowest rating. Every year the local high school band gets that rating and tenth or eleventh standing, depending on how many bands are participating.
We received our first superior rating this year, having gotten excellent the year before. We also just missed first place. A band from Michigan beat us by one tenth of a point.
The judges talk into a recorder the whole time you're playing. Typical comments include such observations as "That's nice phrasing there," "You need to do this," or "Watch the third of that chord; you need to pull it down or up a little bit," etc. And we bring the tapes back and listen to them. It's been very beneficial for us because we've become very picky and, as a result, continue to improve. Our score's gone up every year.
The score includes a hundred point range. Each judge evaluates on intonation, rhythm, balance, technique and other fundamental areas for a total of up to a hundred points. With three judges you can get 300 points. The Lake Bradick High School band from near
Washington, D.C. was just at the Chicago Midwest this year and were phenomenal. They used to go every year to the Apple Blossom where they would score around 290. The group with the highest score gets recognition as first place.
It has been a very positive thing for my group. Although it is a plus in our program, we do enough other touring, such as travel to Norway last year and California this year, that it probably would not be missed. But we do enjoy going and listening to other groups. The judges' observations would definitely be missed if we did not participate.
I haven't really experienced a downside. Our kids were terribly disappointed in missing first place by one tenth of one point. But even so, there was a big write up in the newspaper. The local people were there and they thought we were the best band there. It was one of the best performances we've had under pressure. The phrasing and total musicianship were the best I've ever had.
And today . . .
Bruce Wilson continued at SVA until 1998, when he accepted a position as band director at Columbia Union College.
Looking back, my immediate reflections about competition led to wonderment of why competition was regarded as such a bad thing in our schools 20 years ago when today it is accepted and even encouraged by many principals and school boards. I think you certainly have to consider who the teacher is and what his/her reasons are for being involved in competitions, and just as important, what is the impact on the total program of the school. I think many times athletics tend to become bigger and more important than academics, and it has hurt many school programs as a result.
My initial reasons for going into music festivals/competitions were to find out how my group stacked up against other bands, (was I being effective as a teacher, or did I need to continue to grow?) and to continue a program that had been previously started.
As I look back now, I see that my growth as a teacher was helped by looking for good quality literature, and then learning how to take it apart and analyze it in rehearsals with the students. The sounds started cleaning up and tuning within chords started happening. Students started listening and hearing things that they were able to correct on their own. I tried to keep the process an enjoyable one for them, and they got hooked on playing well.
Very little emphasis was put on the actual competition itself, but rather on playing musically. We started singing phrases, and singing notes for an out of tune player to listen to. The basic music fundamentals became our bible for all rehearsals, and before any concert, we made sure we were doing things right musically.
Did we all grow as a result of being adjudicated? Absolutely. We are seeing an emphasis now in public schools on teacher assessment and evaluation. The adjudication's were doing that by getting us motivated to think about what we were teaching, and how to possibly to do a better job of it.
Another valuable result for me has been the fact that it helped me prepare to move to the next level at college. I felt confident stepping into a college rehearsal on day one. I am also adjudicating festivals myself now, and feel that the years of participating in them gives me an insight that I wouldn't otherwise have.
Thunderbird Adventist Academy
My first experience in a competitive situation was with my band at Laurelwood Academy where we played for three years in a festival sponsored by Oregon State University. There were no overall winners. The band members enjoyed it and really got up for it. It was really rewarding when we went, were always the smallest school with the biggest band, and ended up with as good a score, or better, than anybody else.
At Thunderbird the event is sponsored by the Arizona Band and Orchestra Association and is done at two levels, regional and state. In the years we participated, we received a superior rating. When I first brought up the idea to the band they were a little apprehensive but, overall, very positive. They were scared they might be blown away by the big schools. What we found was quite different.
Out of the 130 to 140 bands statewide that enter, thirty to fifty are chosen to go to the state competition. The groups are evaluated by composers and band directors. This year the band director from Northwestern University was one of them. There are four judges; each has a cassette player and sheet they fill out. I play the tapes for the kids and read the comments. After you've played, one of the judges comes in and does a clinic with you.
There are seven marks altogether, one for sight-reading and six performance marks for interpretation, tempo, and so on. The first time we did the sight-reading two years ago, we got a three on a scale of five, which disappointed us. We have worked hard on that and received ones since.
Of the three numbers we do, one is required. You pick from a list that they furnish. We perform grade three and four and some grade five too. Sight-reading is usually at grade three. You enter at the level of music you play at and not according to school size. Most schools compete in the grade three to four category.
I've learned a great deal from what is expected. When you know in September that in May you're going to be playing for State, you tend to take things a little more seriously.
We have a band of sixty and an overall school enrollment of 160. The principal is very supportive and has come to all our performances at the festivals. The experience has been very good for us. There is value in getting a realistic evaluation of what you're doing.
And today . . .
In spite of invitations to apply for college positions, and an offer of a position at that level, Dan Kravig continues at Thunderbird Academy, a school that has changed dramatically since the above was written.
Much has changed at Thunderbird Academy since the original article was written. Our current student body is almost half the size it was 12 years ago, and instead of being predominately a boarding school we are now a day school with a few dorm students, most of whom are non-Adventist ESL students from Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
Our current enrollment is 93, with approximately fifteen to twenty ESL students. I now teach at three local elementary schools as well as the academy, with a total of about 75 students in the elementary band programs in any given year. The problem is that a greater number of these students are choosing to attend public school each year. It is very frustrating to see so many that you have taught to play go and be part of the band at another school.
When we went to festival 10 or 15 years ago we had a band of 60 or 70 and full instrumentation that was often the equal in size and ability to the bands from the large high schools. That was a lot of fun! Our band today is about thirty with not so complete an instrumentation and without the depth of experience and talent that we used to have.
Twelve years ago the schools in the Arizona Conference were not yet involved in league or varsity sports. Competition between schools was a new thing and we caused a little bit of controversy at first. Now even some of our elementary schools are doing league sports, so a band competition has lost some of its excitement. But we were first this year, for whatever that is worth!
Initially it helped to dispel the Adventist inferiority complex, the idea that everything at the large and wealthy public schools (this is Scottsdale, after all) must be better than at our small academy. Competition built a great deal of pride in the band program. Now that our football, basketball, volleyball and soccer teams are also doing very well the band's achievements are no big deal.
At least we are in there with schools of all sizes, even 5A. Our sports teams only play teams from other small schools! I am also proud of the fact that we have never failed to qualify for State.
In my opinion the greatest benefit of doing festivals and competitions is the pressure of having to prepare and perform music to the highest standard possible. Having to sight read for a judge is really good for the band as well. The kids tend to be more willing to work on the building blocks of sight reading, scales, arpeggios and rhythms, when they know that they will be judged on the results!
Another huge benefit is being able to hear other bands, both good and bad, and getting the kids to think about and hear the differences between strong and weak bands.
Overall our involvement in festivals and competition has been very rewarding and worthwhile. Our performance level is always improved by both the preparation involved and by the comments and adjudication of the judges and clinicians. Originally our participation and success was a great boost to our esprit de corps, but because of the changes mentioned above it does not have the effect that it used to. It is still an extremely valid learning experience, however, for both students and director; sometimes it is even fun!