Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pursuit of excellence

Today I attended a meeting of regional string teachers with two of the members of the board running the regional Festival of the Arts.

For years I've skirted around becoming involved in the festival. It has a competitive mandate written right into its statement of purpose, and I'd heard stories about kids humiliated by adjudicators and parents and students lording "victories" over others. I've worked very hard to instill in my children and the local violin students the idea that music is a gift performers share with their audience and with fellow performers. It is an art, not a sport, and should not be competitive. Even the hint of a competitive mandate at the music festival was enough to turn me off.

The people running the festival are at a bit of a watershed and want to adapt and re-build the strings division according to what the local string teachers want, which is clearly and resoundingly a non-competitive focus. If this were to take place, I'd feel good about whole-heartedly supporting it.

It was a good meeting and I think our concerns were taken to heart. It looks like changes will be made, and immediately. There were a lot of fairly mundane issues discussed, but the big issue was how to implement a non-competitive focus while still allowing the festival to serve its role in funnelling the students demonstrating exemplary mastery into the Provincial Music Festival.

One of the suggestions floated by a couple of the other teachers was to separate the children who were willing to be considered for recommendations to the Provincials from those who wanted a non-competitive atmosphere. I couldn't figure out why this was sitting wrong with me. Eventually I figured out what didn't jive for me. Being willing to be considered for recommendation to the Provincial Festival does not necessarily mean that one is competing. Competing is a mindset, and it is one I don't want my kids to have in the context of their musical performances until they're well through adolescence. But I'd really have no problem with them accepting an opportunity they're being offered based on the quality of their performances. How does their willingness to accept an honour make them competitive? I don't think it does. Being willing to be recognized for your excellence is very different than "trying to be better than everyone else."

So eventually we hashed out what I think are some excellent solutions. I'm feeling good about supporting the festival.

But the whole discussion made me realize that people often confuse the pursuit of excellence with competitiveness. They're not always the same thing. Sometimes they can be very distinct entities. At this stage in my kids' musical lives I'm trying to encourage their pursuit of excellent, and discourage their competitiveness. The distinction between these two seems very clear to me. I don't think I'm alone in this.


  1. I am not sure I understand your distinction regarding competition. Choosing to be considered for a recommendation to the Provinicial Festival means some of the children will be chosen and some won't (assuming I understand your post correctly). That means there will be "winners" (get a recommendation) and "losers" (don't). To me, that is a competitive environment.

    I agree that pursuing excellence does not mean that one is a competitive person. However, in my experience it is hard to avoid being judged in a competitive way and still pursue excellence be it in music, sports, drama or even academics. You have to audition for the orchestra or part in the show, try out for the sports team, or take the test for admission to the special program. The result is that some will win and some will lose, and hence is a competition. To accept an honor based on performance means somebody with power judged your performance worthy of that hone and that that someone else did not play well enough. While you may feel it is simply accepting an honor, the kids that don't receive a recommendation are going to think your child won and they lost.

    How do you think the music festival can be structured to avoid competition and yet still send the best students on to the Provinicials? Or are you simply objecting to the term "competitive environment" without objecting to the process?

    I lurk alot and enjoy your blog and like your perspective and thought-provoking posts. This got me wondering.

  2. Hi Sue. I think it has to do with the numbers and the format of the festval, which I didn't explain very well.

    It's not a case of "some chosen, some not." There are dozens of classes in the strings divisions. A 12-year-old, for example, could easily be entered in five to ten different classes (Canadian composition, duet, ensemble, concerto, baroque, romantic, own choice, own composition, concert class, sonata, Bach, etc.). Most of these classes will have in them several students who have decided they do not want to be considered for Provincials, and perhaps a couple who have decided they will. Whether one is or isn't is a totally private affair, just a declaration on the registration form, so one has no idea whether one's fellow performers are keen on Provincials or not. The classes themselves consist of performances by the entrants, verbal feedback, often with workshop-type hands-on work to reinforce it, and a written feedback form. The feedback form does not include any marks, grades, specific commendations or awards. Out of all those classes and all those entrants, only one string student under 15 (of those who expressed a willingness to go to the Provincials) will be asked to be a participant in the Provincials. That person will be notified a couple of days after the all the classes have completed that they are being recommended.

    The suggestion from a couple of teachers was that the presence of students willing to receive that recommendation in a particular class might somehow contaminate that class with a competitive atmosphere. I don't see how that can happen, given the format and the numbers. The Provincial festival thing is a private, individual choice, and only comes to fruition (or not) long after the classes are finished.

    Erin was in fact recommended to the Provincials on piano 2 years ago. There was no tick-box on the registration form to state whether she was willing to go to the Provincials, and her being recommended was a possibility we'd never really considered; it was totally outside our realm of consideration when she registered and there was no hint during her class participation that students were being compared and judged with this in mind. Intellectually we knew that funnelling a small handful of students into the Provincials was one of the functions of the Festival, but that had nothing to do with the motivation or the practicalities of Erin's participation. As it turned out, she chose to decline the invitation, but if she'd accepted I don't see how this would have made the classes she'd played in into a competitive experience.

    This time around she's older and more adventurous with her travelling and performing and is craving contact with more advanced students, so I think if recommended she would likely agree to attend (and obviously this year, this is a choice she needs to make before participating, since it's on the registration form). But absolutely nothing in her motivation or attitude to the classes she's playing in will have changed if she opts for "yes". She won't be there to compete. She'll be there to participate.


This blog is moving to archive-only status. Please consider posting comments instead at the active version of the blog at nurturedbylove.ca/blog

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.