Thomas J. West
It’s an age-old debate – is competition for scholastic music ensembles helpful or harmful? The correct answer is simple: it depends upon the community your school serves and their expectations. Large affluent suburban school districts have the resources to hire the best staff, recruit the deepest talent pool, provide the best equipment, and create a rehearsal environment that minimizes distractions and allows students to hyper-focus on their competitive show. Anyone else without those resources who tries to compete with that are doing their students a disservice. That is not to say that a smaller school can’t strive for excellence, but directors need to keep their egos in check and keep their choices student-centered. Does the community support that kind of aesthetic and artistic elitism? Do the students really understand and connect to the repertoire and skills that they are investing so much of their life on?

I know what it’s like to spend three months, 24 hours a day, focused on a 10-minute presentation as a member of a championship-winning drum and bugle corps. The life-lessons learned there were invaluable, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. There needs to be a place in the world for that kind of activity. Where I diverge from this, however, is when high school bands and other competitive scholastic programs become a snobby, egotistical display of extravagance with a poorly-contrived attempt to be innovative or gregariously artistic.

Over this past weekend, I watched video of several of America’s top competing high school bands as part of our judge’s clinic for the Cavalcade of Bands Association. There were two presentations that stood out of the lot for two very different reasons. Both of them were large, affluent suburban programs with more in common with each other than not. The results of their efforts were also comparably excellent in execution and performance quality. The differences, however, were literally night and day in an odd, backwards and upside-down fashion.

The first band’s show was technically challenging (but not overly so – which is what probably cost them the championship), visually stimulating, and extremely emotional. The energy and emotion pouring out of the students was palpable, even on DVD. As the finale of the show was in progress, you could see tears of pure emotion on the faces of students in the band.

The second band’s show quite possibly cost the school district and parents over $100,000 to put on the field for the season. It had an extravagant amount of props, staging, and costumes. The faces of the students is this band was one of disengagement and rote regurgitation. There was little or no emotion communicated from that show.

Both bands had a product and a season that would leave long impressions on the students and families involved. Both bands had student musicians who spent countless hours invested in their participation. Yet, what would the students in those bands come away with from the experience? On paper, just about anyone would rather be a student in Band A than Band B. And yet, Band B is an all-too-common sight on the competitive field.

When design teams sit down to design a program for their competitive season, I believe that the guiding principle behind the decisions they make should be “who benefits?” Every decision made, from repertoire to color choices, should be made from a student-centered point of view rather than a mature music staff’s personal need to display their artistry. All of the arts are about communication. If the show designed does not communicate to the student, it will communicate nothing to their audience other than a sense of “what was all of that?”

Here is another example of a staff decision that was not student-centered from that same Band B from above. Part of the band’s show involved costume changes. The front ensemble (percussion pit) were not involved in the color change, but were garbed in a unitard that matched the theme of the show. From an artistic standpoint, the costume choice worked. If the looks on the faces of the students in the pit were any indication, there were students who were not comfortable wearing the unitard. Yes, part of the lesson of being involved in a music ensemble is that you have to sacrifice personal tastes and preferences for the benefit of the ensemble. But, there is something to be said for taking the age and maturity of the ensemble’s participants into account. For how many of those students was wearing that uniform a barrier to being able to completely invest in the show? Again, who benefits?

Repertoire selection is one of the most important decisions that a music teacher in any scholastic performing setting has to make. In the case of designing a competitive music presentation, repertoire selection is only the tip of the iceberg. Drill design, choreography, staging, equipment, and transportation all take a part as defining factors, to name but a few. Unlike many other scholastic performing settings, students involved in the competitive arena spend a significantly higher amount of time and attention on a comparatively smaller and more focused musical product. They eat, sleep, and breathe that work for months. If anyone is going to spend that much time and effort, it needs to be something they can intellectually and emotionally buy into. If the students fail to grasp the content of their competitive show intellectually or emotionally, it will take a large amount of extrinsic motivation on the part of the staff to get them to perform, and the end result is a student ensemble that performs an emotionally flat, over-rehearsed show with the demeanor of a group of prison inmates. But, the staff will have the artistic vision that they labored for.

Who benefits?

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.