“Ma, We got a II at Contest”


·         A Story

It’s late on a Saturday evening. Ma has been dozing off as she watches television, waiting up for her son Paul to get home from the band contest. Ma was never in band, but she is real proud of Paul. Paul is a junior this year and has been moved up to “Percussion Section Leader” for the band. Ma never quite understands Paul when he is talking about band, as she hears him speak a great deal about the virtues of Yamaha [which she thought was a motorcycle] versus Pearl [which she thought would be nice to have on a necklace]; the “battery” [which she thought you put in flashlights] and the “pit” [which she thought was a nasty place for snakes]. But Ma is a proud parent and tries to support Paul as best she can. Sometimes, she can attend his band contests, but today she had to help serve at the church spaghetti supper and was unable to go - but has been waiting up - eager to hear how the band did at contest.


Ma sometimes has trouble understanding Paul’s pronouncements after a contest; sometimes it seems if the band doesn’t receive a I, all hope is lost; but last weekend they seemed giddy to get third place in their class. It puzzles her. The new band director seems to be doing a good job - it is his second year - the kids seem to like him - and the band sounds good - but Ma remains mystified about much of this band contest business.


A car door slams in the drive - Ma wakes up on the couch noticing that it is 11:30 - she hears the porch door open and Paul runs in and breathlessly says, “Ma we got a II at contest.” Ma, being wise - waits for further information - as she wonders - “is this II good” - “is this II bad” - “is the band happy with this” - “or will there be extra practices next week”?


·         The Dilemma

This seems to be the dilemma with the contest/festival experience - PERSPECTIVE. A “II” can be the great accomplishment in the season of a band or it can be a mark as insidious and invidious as the “Scarlet Letter.” Second Place in a class can be something that causes great rejoicing or the general gnashing of teeth. As Richard Bach says, “Perspective - use it or lose it.”


·         The Issue

Contests or festivals in and of themselves are benign entities - they are neither good nor bad. Proponents of the contest experience speak of the many possible advantages, which may come as a result of contest participation:


            1. maintenance of standards

            2. motivational device

            3. school/community public relations

            4. esprit de corps

            5. expert feedback and advice regarding program accountability

            6. opportunity to see and hear other ensembles

            7. “fun” opportunities for band members.


Antagonists towards contests and festivals - who oft view them as “evil” - stalwartly decry every aspect of the activity citing the following possible problems as a result of over-emphasis on contest participation:


            1. reduction of the arts to an “athletic contest” mentality

2. a “tail which currently wags the dog”

            3. over-commitment of limited financial and time resources to this one end

            4. inexperienced, inadequate or inappropriate adjudication

            5. “burn-out” of participants and teachers

            6. limited amount of literature learned or covered

            7. extreme/unnecessary pressure on band members and directors alike.


·         The Situation

There can be no doubt that there are possible advantages to contest participation and possible disadvantages as well. Whether we prefer it or not, contest and festival participation is an integral part of our band programs of today - a trend which goes back nearly seventy years at this juncture. Starting with the first band festivals of the 1920’s and greatly increasing, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s until we reach today, where on a given Saturday in the fall there might be literally dozens of contests or festivals for high school marching bands in each state - contests are a fact of life. Today, “success” [or a lack thereof] in contest or festival venues often defines a given band program and establishes or negates the credibility of the band directors or teachers of that program.


·         The Problem

Too often in our band rooms, the “W” word is used and used often as in “We must WIN this weekend.” - or the “B” word is bantied about as in “We must BEAT the other six bands in our class this weekend.” Modern society seems to mandate a dumbing down of our program goals and a moving to the lowest common denominator as we immerse ourselves and our bands in this “cut-throat” approach to the contest or festival experience. By definition, this puts our programs in harm’s way - when we reduce the overall contest or festival experience to an assessment which is gauged in the pounds and numbers of trophies which we might [or might not] “win.”


·         The Solution

As the contest or festival itself is neither good nor evil, it is the way we shape the overall experience for our students, which is the key. Participation in any contest or festival, no matter the outcome, may be a great success for our program and our band members if we take the time and effort to “style” and “keep in perspective” the total experience - which includes the “design phase” the “rehearsal phase” and the “performance phase”. And from the outset, all members of the school community - students, parents, administrators - must be “onboard” with our overall goals and objectives. It is we, the teacher and “trained” professional, who have it in our ability to shape the overall school community’s mindset regarding contest and festival participation. The “W” word [win] must never be used, as instead of it, we might end up having to use the “L” word [lose]. The “B” word [beat] should be avoided at all costs, as another “B” word might come into our lives, as in “beaten”.


We must use the contest or festival setting for the growth and improvement of our programs - never allowing our students and ourselves to be used by the system. We should strive to take advantage of the motivation, discipline, accountability and focus which participation in a contest might engender for our programs, without succumbing to the “win-lose” mentality. We must take a leadership role in our school communities, focusing on the great potential advantages which festival participation might foster for our students, while at the same time down-playing the “beat or get beaten” mindset. We, our students and our programs, need to remind ourselves and be reminded that when honest effort, growth, progress and development are involved there can be no “losers,” only “winners.”


No band is going to “win” at every contest if winning is based upon receiving a trophy for “best in class.” however, every band can and may win if the performance is a little stronger this week than last, and the overall performance level of the band is a little stronger this year than last. No band is going to “beat” all other bands at every contest if beating is based upon receiving a trophy for “grand champion,” however, every band member can and may beat their performance of last week or last year. No director will achieve personal acclaim and satisfaction at every contest if this is based solely upon receiving a Superior or Distinguished rating, as our best teaching and personal growth might occur during the year when we have a younger band or are “stretching the troops” to a new level of performance and musical responsibilities. Again, “Perspective - use it or lose it.”


·         The Goal

We should strive for excellence in all facets of life pertaining to our bands, remembering a judge’s “snapshot” view of our band is necessarily limited. We should strive for musical growth with our programs knowing that is “why we draw a paycheck” - for our students and our programs to constantly improve. We should strive for and toward the ongoing learning and understanding of our school communities, helping them to know that though trophies and plaques are nice, of much greater import is the level and degree of participation which our programs represent, and that when our students find true joy, love and happiness with making music, everyone is a winner.


Is this idealistic? Probably. Does this represent some impossible, ivory-tower mind-set, which neither can nor could work in a public school? Absolutely not! When we as teachers shape the contest or festival experience in terms of growth and progress, instead of trophies and plaques, everyone can and will win, and Ma will always know that when her son, Paul, says, “We got a II at contest” that it was a great day for everyone involved.