Music as Competition

September 16, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Posted in Music education | 4 Comments

How Music is like Football, and Why It Shouldn’t Be

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from popular culture, it’s that music is all about the competition.
It started with Star Search, but that show was way ahead of its time. Not until the 21st century did we really get to the meat of musical competition: American Idol kicked it off, spawning The Sing-Off, Grease — You’re the One That I Want!, The Voice, The X Factor, and now the upcoming Duets, Star Next Door, and VH1’s in-development 60-Minute Superstar. And I’m pretty sure I missed a couple.

And that’s the way it’s supposed to be, right? Unknowns battling note-for-note for their musical lives for the entertainment of the masses? After all, that’s how they did it in ancient Roman times, only now, instead of raging gladiators we get hopeful teenagers, and instead of Caesar giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down we get Steven Tyler’s signature scream.

That’s what music is all about, right?

Unfortunately, this is the message that seems to be reaching young people from the beginning of their musical development. But I don’t blame the music competition shows — that’s a natural capitalistic outgrowth of what has already been established. No, I believe the biggest culprit in the shift from music as cultural and artistic expression to music as competition is the rise of the marching band.

One conductor tells this story of practicing James Barnes’ arrangement of selections from Porgy & Bess with the high school all-state band:
As they were talking through the piece in an early rehearsal, the conductor pointed out that, when they got to the “Summertime” section, they weren’t going to hear the slow, sultry “Summertime” that they were used to hearing, but an upbeat, triple-meter rendition. He was met with blank stares.

“You all know the tune from ‘Summertime,’ right?” he asked.

More blank stares.

So the conductor went to the keyboard and tapped out the melody. No reaction.

He returned to the podium and asked, “How many of you know what Porgy & Bess is?” No hands went up.

He was frightened to ask the next question, but he had to know the answer: “How many of you know who George Gershwin is?”

One hand went up. It was the pianist, and the only Gershwin tune she could name was Rhapsody in Blue.

Bear in mind that these weren’t a bunch of sixth graders just learning to make noise on their instruments. This was an all-state band, a collection of mostly high school juniors and seniors who were supposedly the cream of the crop.

And they didn’t know who George Gershwin was.

How does this happen? What are these students being taught?

I believe that students have been taught a skewed vision of what music is, what its purpose is, and why it’s important.

Most of the people who read this blog are in some way involved in music themselves, so really consider this question before you continue reading: Why did you want to get into music in the first place?

There will be many varied answers, from the mundane (my best friends were in the band) to the over-the-top and probably revisionist (I wanted to create something beautiful). But I bet not one of you wanted to pursue music because you enjoyed competition.

But what awaits student musicians today? Not long after they get the basics under their fingers, they start preparing for contest. And by prepare, I mean spending every rehearsal (five days a week) working up a single concert that they can take to contest in the hopes of outscoring the other schools, who have all been doing the same thing. The purpose of rehearsing and of making music then becomes to get a high score. Forget talking about the history. Forget explaining the nuance. Forget the culture, and the art, and the teamwork. Forget actually learning about music.Focus on the goal: winning.

Avon Black and Gold Marching Band from Avon, I...

Avon Black and Gold Marching Band from Avon, Indiana perform at a Bands of America Grand National Championship in the RCA Dome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It gets worse in high school. Marching band tears down all pretense of art for art’s sake and becomes the musical analogue to football: Practices start in the summer (if not at the end of the preceding school year). Once school begins, after-school practices start going, and the players have to memorize their formations and learn to adjust what they’re doing based on those around them. And then the competitions start. The teams take the field, they do their best, and they get scored. There are trophies. The winning teams celebrate their success, and the rest moan about every little mistake that cost them precious points.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t what music is supposed to be about. This isn’t why Beethoven composed his Third Symphony, or why John Adams wrote The Death of Klinghoffer, or why the musicians kept playing even as the Titanic went down.

I’ll leave the whole conversation about what music is and why it’s important to your own thoughts (and maybe to a later post). What I want to focus on is the real effect that this focus on competition is having on the world of music.

Concert bands and orchestras around the country are having a horrible time. Audiences are staying away in droves, leaving as many empty seats as filled ones. Attempts to get younger audiences — the future of music in the United States — into the auditoriums are failing. As ticket sales fall, groups large and small are having a hard time making financial ends meet and are looking at dangerous ways to save money and cut corners.

Sure, some of the drop-off can be attributed to the economy. People don’t have as much money to spend on tickets. But that isn’t the only problem.

Take us, for example. In the Indiana Wind Symphony, we routinely send letters announcing our concerts to a few dozen band directors in the area. Those announcements are somehow not reaching the students. We’ve even offered masterclasses and blocks of free student tickets, hoping to get a busload of music-loving kids to a concert, but we’ve gotten unbelievably few responses. We’ve even programmed pieces that we knew local schools were working on for their upcoming contests. Nothing.

Band and orchestra teachers, and therefore their students, don’t seem to care about what happens with their musical instruction after high school. They don’t care that there are groups like us, and like the many adult concert bands and chamber groups in central Indiana, just waiting to give them a place to continue their musical journey after high school. Not to compete, but to challenge themselves, to make friends, to enjoy themselves, and to be a part of the musical continuum that stretches back through the centuries.

Instead, students compete. And then they go home and watch other competitions. They listen for the mistakes, the “pitchiness,” the nerves sneaking through that make one singer not as good as another. Then they phone in to vote for their favorite one. And that’s what music is.

I don’t intend this as a wholesale condemnation of high school band and orchestra directors. Of course there are some music teachers doing outstanding jobs of giving students well-rounded musical educations. But it’s unfortunate that they stand out for doing what all music teachers should be doing.

Enhanced by ZemantaPosted by Andy Hollandbeck
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