Choir competitions allow for the giving and receiving of inspiration. As much as conductors work to motivate, encourage and inspire choirs, peer inspiration is even more effective. In short, children inspire children, and most effectively through live performance. Making progress in any endeavour requires having a goal. But a goal to improve requires knowledge of what an improved performance is. Choirs can acquire this knowledge best by listening to and modelling themselves on competent choirs, thereby learning a new sense of musical possibility. Visit a competition and watch the intense engagement of the listening choirs. You could hear a pin drop! Children think along the lines “if they can sing as well as this, then so can we”. Conversely, having the skills and capability to inspire is an important responsibility. Such choirs can contribute to a general rise in the quality of choral music by allowing other choirs the opportunity to hear and to see them. Choirs that are inspired one year become the inspirers the next. I know of a choir that stopped participating in competition because they were regular winners. One could say this was magnanimous in giving other choirs the opportunity to win, but on the other hand, they had a great capacity to inspire. What is more valuable?
Conductors need inspiration too. The greatest factor in any choral improvement is the increased skill and musicality of the conductor. A choir will not advance significantly without conductor improvement. In a sense, adjudicators adjudicate conductors, not choirs. Therefore, watching and learning from other conductors should be a priority for any conductor. Competition creates opportunity to liaise with others. For example, conductors can set up opportunities to observe one another’s choir rehearsals.
The decision to enter a competition provides an immediate goal. Choirs must have goals to work toward. In a broader sense, having a goal is inherently positive and promotes wellbeing and excitement for the future. Committing to a competition places an added element of pressure which can in turn give the conductor an excuse for being extra-fussy in the pursuit of excellence. Seeking excellence is important to children, as they like to distinguish themselves through their abilities. Like us, they understand that there are certain opportunities, certain experiences and certain jobs that only excellence can partake in. Excellence begets excellence and the rewards of excellence include a transformation of the self, a new sense of possibility and greater personal self-esteem.
In the past, a shared responsibility for our children centred on a tripartite concern involving family, community and school. Today, this three-legged stool is imbalanced. Competitions allow for public recognition and acknowledgement outside of the immediate school domain, providing an opportunity for community engagement. Recognition and appreciation are fundamentally motivational because it is a human need to feel important, special, and valued. Another reason children find public performance thrilling is because they love to impart their unique interpretation of aesthetic beauty to others. The power of music in this sense is due to a) its interpreted emotional consistency and b) the intrapersonal knowledge that comes from an emotional encounter through music. Even if children can’t explain this in words, they appreciate the importance of their musical offering. Public performance provides special opportunities for recognition and sharing.
Great learners seek learning opportunities, and opportunities to learn abound in competitions. Choir competitions and festivals allow participants to listen to one another. Implicit in the nature of competition is the impetus to be evaluative, to compare, and to make judgements. These higher-order thinking skills are essential for personal progress. To turn competition into an explicit learning experience, teachers can assign students a project to evaluate choirs based on set criteria. In a choir competition,
I ask students to comment on the following:
- Is the singing in tune?
- How well are the parts balanced?
- Can I understand the words? Is the text uniformly articulated?
- Is there sufficient word-painting or emphasis on important words?
- Is the emotional intention of the piece being conveyed?
- Are the dynamics appropriate and sufficiently contrasting?
- How engaged is the choir with this song?
- How engaged/interactive is the conductor with the choir?
- What is noticeable about the posture of the choir?
- Does the choir work as one at the beginning and end of phrases?
- Do the ends of phrases finish accurately?
- Is the piano accompaniment balanced with the choir?
- What do I like about this performance?
- What would I do differently?
Competitions are a place to hear new repertoire and to appreciate new interpretations. Mind you, one doesn’t need to be a competitor to attend as an audience member.
Feedback received from an adjudicator will hopefully be constructive and taken as such. Feedback is essential for progress and for the continual re-setting of goals. Feedback needs to be consistent and accurate, but presents a potential for conflict as some aspects of performance evaluation may be construed as being subjective. Some people don’t like feedback, and indeed don’t seek it, but like it or not, we all need it.
When I ask children if they would like to enter choral competitions, the overwhelming response is affirmative. If there is reservation, it usually comes from the conductor. For some conductors, the word ‘competition’ has a negative connotation. But competition is in the eye of the beholder; how we contextualise it, and how we present it to our choir. The noble and honourable purpose of competition is to seek excellence together, not to destroy one another as some sporting contests would portray. Psychologist Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi discusses competition in Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
Indeed, the roots of the word ‘compete’ are the Latin ‘con petire’, which means ‘to seek together’. What each person seeks is to actualize her potential, and this task is made easier when others force us to do our best. Of course, competition improves experience only as long as attention is focused primarily on the activity itself. If extrinsic goals—such as beating the opponent, wanting to impress an audience, or obtaining a big professional contract—are what one is concerned about, then competition is likely to become a distraction, rather than an incentive to focus on what is happening. (p.73)
Most choirs entering competitions have experienced a disappointing decision that might, on another day, have favoured them. Nobody agrees with every decision, and this replicates the reality of life, providing opportunity to learn how to accept perceived unfairness or defeat. This invites conductors and choristers to build character; for they must then take the step to congratulate the successful choirs.
Well-intentioned adults will sometimes try to protect children from failure. Naturally the definition of ‘failure’ depends on pre-conceived expectations, but children will not learn how to handle failures if they are prevented from experiencing them. Life is full of competitions, failures, and tests of character. Some conductors (and schools) have reputations that they are protective of. In his defence to decline participating, a conductor once said to me “I have everything to lose and nothing to gain by entering this competition”. This fear of failure and protection of reputation is symptomatic of what Stanford University’s Carol Dweck calls a fixed ability mindset. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck says that deep down, this type of person doubts their capacity to improve competency. They have a deterministic view of their intelligence probably from long held beliefs that their musicality is attributed to genetic rather than effortful factors. Dweck’s fascinating studies clearly show that the way we praise children generates this fixed-intelligence mindset. When we praise children for being ‘gifted’ and ‘natural’, they exhibit regressive learning behaviour such as avoiding feedback and avoiding uncomfortable challenges. They give up easily when obstacles arise, take fewer risks and are desperate to preserve an image of being talented. In short, fixed-intelligence mindset children peak early in their career and are less likely to fulfil their potential. Conversely, a growth-intelligence mindset is shaped by praise for work ethic and effort. “I am who I am through my own efforts” said Beethoven. Growth-intelligence mindset individuals accept failure as a necessity for improvement. These people seek challenge, seek feedback, and often venture out of their comfort zone in order to learn. Praise is a strong behavioural modifier. As teachers and responsible adults we should understand how it works.
From ‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’ by Michael Griffin
New – 2nd edition with 25% more exercises.
Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 123 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.
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Also by Michael Griffin
Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Fundamentals of Notation is a unit of work for general music middle school classes. Designed around the mastering of practical skills, it integrates theory, aural and history, and allows students to progress at their own rate. View Table of Contents. “This has been a great buy; the books are just superb! Interesting topics with a wide range of pieces. Great content with clear progression of learning. Fascinating teaching philosophy! BRAVO!” -The Grieg Academy, London. Available at Amazon.com
Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Let’s Get Creative! is the fun and creative extension to ‘Fundamentals of Notation’.
View Table of Contents. “We have been using your keyboard course and the results have been amazing!” – St George College, Australia
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Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony (Third Edition, 2013) is a clear and well organised text suitable for students of arranging and composition, and for classically trained musicians wishing to grasp the beautiful logic of jazz harmony. Essential understandings include chord selection, voicing, symbols, circle of 4th progressions, extensions, suspensions and alterations. Included in the 107 pages are explanations, examples, exercises and solutions. The course can be started with students in year 9 and worked through to year 12 musicianship, composing and arranging. Available at Amazon.com