Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Rotary Music what?

Even though the two weeks of the Rotary Music Competition oops I mean Festival have now come and gone, the work as a teacher is by no means finished. The week following the festival, although less hectic in scheduling, is still stressful.

I am a liar. I didn't like doing it, but I lied to my students. I told them this wasn't a competition. And they believed me. That is until they performed, got some great feedback from the adjudicators, and then watched another kid get handed a trophy. This week I have had to explain to my students firstly, that I lied and just wanted them to do their best while not worrying about being competitive, and secondly, that no matter how they placed, they are worthwhile students and musicians.

I realize that I set my students up to be shocked. I simply figure that it is stressful enough for students to prepare a piece, memorize it, miss school, get dressed up, and perform (perfectly of course) in front of friends, family and a judge. Adding the competitive factor just doesn't seem right when you look at the long list of inevitable performing stressors. And really, how does one explain how music is made into a competition?

I thought I'd take a stab at seeing how the words in the title "Music Festival" came to inevitably mean 'Music Competition' as they do to us here today, in Medicine Hat. With the help of dictionary.com, I found the following:
  • MUSIC - an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and colour
  • FESTIVAL - a period or program of festive activities, cultural events, or entertainment
Wow! That sounds pretty great! A program of festive activities where you can express ideas and emotions through sound! Nothing about winning so far though...
ah ha! There it is. It seems like a stretch to make the arts into something competitive. Isn't the very nature of an art non-competitive?
  • ART - the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or more than ordinary significance

It follows then, that a music festival should be a place where people are entertained, hear something extraordinary, and share themselves and their talents. How have such innocent, beautiful and noble virtues become clouded by rivalry and supremacy? How are one person's ideas and emotions better than another's? How is one performance better than another? Sure, one kid may have missed a note while another kid didn't. One kid may have played Rachmaninoff and another played a C-major scale. Does a person really set out to learn Rachmaninoff, C-major scale, Schubert, the box-step, a flawless legato line, or even the meaning of a simple quarter note in order to be better than a peer?

At what point can we gather and build each other up? Why can't we inspire one another because of the commonalities that unite us; right now, it seems, that our commonalities pit us against each other. Imagine the day when kids can listen to their adjudications and feel comfortable accepting constructive criticism because they know there is no one in the room looking to be better THAN someone else, just be better themselves. The festival would be a place where the art of music and true friendships would blossom.

This whole business of a festival rather than a competition really came to a head for me when I was preparing a student for the RoseBowl. For those of you who don't know, the RoseBowl is a competitive concert featuring the best performers from the entire festival. The single best performer at this concert wins the RoseBowl, and is thus dubbed the best musician of the festival. While looking over the concert program, I read the following quote on the front page:

"In music festivals the object is not to gain a prize, not to defeat a rival, but to pace one another on the road to excellence." Sir H. Walford Davies

I was shocked. Who put that quote there? It's not about the prize or the competition? The RoseBowl has not one, but three adjudicators!!! Their sole purpose (and the sole purpose of the entire concert) is to decide who is best. What is going on here? Who is selling us these lies? (sorry again to some of my students)

The competitive factor seems to foster the worst in people: parents who live vicariously through their children (22 classes by one kid? seriously?), teachers who use the festival to increase their exposure and prestige (auditions to be accepted into a teacher's studio? that's a little backwards!), kids performing to win money and "hardware" (trophies, that is).

Perhaps my second most frustrating moment was when I found myself feeling tense while waiting for the adjudicator to reveal the results for one of my students. I now ask myself: why was I tense? Is it because my student may beat another teacher's student? And, it would follow, of course (hope you can hear the sarcasm here), that I would then be a better teacher. I am frustrated because I had fallen into the trap of the competition.

The blame can't be put solely on the students, parents, and teachers. We've been set up by the people who have gone before us: the past Rotarians, past parents and teachers, past winners and losers, and the now grown-up students. We've been set up by the rules and regulations. The Rotary Club prides itself on sponsoring the festival for 54 years and they have done a great job. It is truly an amazing feat to get this entire thing organized. Anne Carrier, the club, and all the volunteers are doing fantastic work. It is now time to change; it is not necessary to offer the exact same festival year after year. Arts competitions are an old-school way of thinking; from the stuffy, overly formal competitive atmosphere at each venue, right down to the signage, programs, and red blazers.

This is a call for change. Let's have a real festival - a festive festival. It means that there won't be a grand RoseBowl winner. You won't have a chance at getting a trophy. There will be no opportunity to gloat. It also means that there won't be eight RoseBowl losers, there won't be over a thousand participants trophy-less, and there will be no misunderstanding as to why one kid is or isn't better than another. Instead, the focus can be on the art and entertainment of music, our common talents and interests, and building one another up. If you want to compete, baseball season is right around the corner.

I wrote a lot. Probably too much. The Rotary Music Festival uses another quote on their website:

"Where words fail, music speaks" ~ Hans Christian Anderson

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