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.