Competition often inspires excellence. I have been teaching in the public school system since 1999, and I have routinely witnessed students increasing their efforts and on-task behavior in the weeks and days leading up to specific competitions. Music festival competitions, sports competitions and anything with a grade or a score that has the potential of being compared with a classmate or students at other schools can lead to improved effort during rehearsal, practice and study.
On the other hand, I am aware that too much competition in everyday situations can lead to stress, fear, and exclusion. Constant competition seems to engage in young people the same fight or flight responses found in the wild especially at the middle level where the quest for popularity and acceptance becomes a driving force.
When I was teaching middle school choir, I noticed that often the stress and competition for social status that was happening at the bus stops, in the hallways and in the lunchroom was making its way into our rehearsals. It would come out in mean comments, cold stares, scoffs and that wicked, sneaky laughter that some middle school students mastered. This was the laugh that said, “You’re gross, or you’re stupid, or you don’t belong here.”
Each year in choir there would be at least five or six opportunities for the singers to audition for solos. Sometimes, when a student who wasn’t popular outside the classroom auditioned for a solo, they would be hit with that meanness that emphasized the “us/them” of the situation. In this circumstance, competition did not result in excellence. Competition was stifling to creativity and it limited our opportunities to learn from each other.
One day, I took the members of my girls choir (about 15 girls) into the bathroom where the metal, porcelain and concrete of the room created the most amazing acoustic space. We had to huddle in a little bit so everyone could fit. I had them sing a couple of the songs we were working on and some random songs we just liked to sing. The girls were amazed with how good they sounded in that space. They were smiling and laughing and everyone was all in. No one was “mean mugging” or being stand-offish. No one wanted to leave.
I realized that, in that moment, everyone in this group of middle school girls was more concerned with how great we were together than about who had the best voice, or clothes or boyfriend. I wanted to recreate this experience for all of my classrooms and, with this in mind,I created a competition-free zone around our classroom piano.
Most of our rehearsal time was spent with the students on the risers facing me and watching me for cues and instruction, but whenever I said, “Come on down around the piano,” it was a signal that we were going to relax and sing for the joy of singing and we were going to be in it and improve together. Usually during our “Around the Piano” time, we would work on easy songs that had a strong character message. We would sing with freedom and work together on building confidence in individual singing as well as the group connection. During regular rehearsal, if one section of voices was struggling with a part, I could have those singers “come on down around the piano.” They would huddle up, and we would work on the part together without any feeling of shame or blame. It was about “us” getting it and sounding great together. The work we did as a full choir in our competition-free zone transferred to our sectional work, and I hope some of that team spirit and good will made it out into the hallways, bus stops and the lunchroom.
In the competitive world of secondary school, there is true value in purposefully creating situations in which there is no fear and we are all “us.” I have seen schools come together around a variety of “us” building activities that don’t require a “loser” or a “ them” to be anywhere in sight.
Following are some ideas you might try in your schools:
- Teach everyone at your school character-building songs and having them sing all together at an assembly
- Create a piece of artwork or poetry that every person in the building is invited to contribute to anonymously. Then display the finished work someplace where only students in your group can see it (this keeps it from being compared to other schools or groups).
- Teach everyone at your school moves to a dance/flash mob and have them perform the dance together at an assembly or celebration
- Toss a ball from person to person in your classroom with the goal being to have every single person in the room catch the ball before it drops. From here, count how many times you can make it through the roster. With this activity, it is very important to instruct against blaming the person who threw or missed the dropped ball. It becomes the job of the group to figure out how to make it work.
I have had the opportunity to teach students from a variety of age groups and socio-economic settings. I have taught in standard classrooms, music classrooms, after school and summer programs, as well as in-school suspension. I have worked with very small groups as well as with large ensembles. I have come to the conclusion that some competition definitely does inspire excellence. However, young people and the adults who teach them can enjoy significant benefits from establishing moments and places where improvement of the group (rather than defeating the competition) is the measure of success. When team members begin to buy into the idea that having a comfortable and happy teammate allows all of “us” to improve as a group, and when the risk of going for the high note or creating a new move doesn’t feel like such a risk, amazing things can happen.
Once you start looking, you’ll probably find hundreds of competition-free activities that you can use, and you’ll know your implementation was successful if at the end of the experience you hear students saying things like “Man, we’re getting really good at this!”
Interested in integrating character into your music curriculum? Check out Around the Piano: Character Building Songs for Teens & Preteens in the Character.org webstore.