Is competition in music a good thing?

Perhaps there is more to life than winning first chair, winning the gold medal in ISSMA Orchestra competition, or winning the Bands of America Grand National Championship. In my time as a musician from middle school through the collegiate level I often heard that music is not a competition. This has come from parents and teachers who want to believe that music education is solely about art. Several studies that indicate the study of music helps students become more creative, more intelligent, etc. (You can find these on our Monday posts titled “Truth in Music Education”). Artistry and intelligence is important, so is preparing for the competition that is everyday life. Perhaps artistry and intelligence are source of the “good life” but make no mistake that one must prepare for the stresses and strains of modern life. I fully believe that the competitive component of music education is one of the most important learning experiences every student can have.

Healthy competition makes us better as musicians and as human beings in the modern world. Everyday life is a perpetual competitive event. You have to compete against other students to get into the college you want. You have to compete against other applicants to get the job you want. You have to compete against other applicants to get the house or apartment you want. This is not an essay on whether or not such things are just but rather on preparing for everyday life. Participating in music gives you an extraordinary environment to practice for competition while building yourself up and building up those around you.

Competition in music performance and education is the perfect lab for exploring and developing skills for a competitive life. The study of music and preparation for auditions, competitions, and chair placement tests allows you to achieve greatness while simultaneously helping the people around you achieve greatness. Whether you win or not is not the point, the point is to get better at what you do—when you do this well, those around you grow and you will grow because the people around you will push you to grow. This makes everyone better, not just you and not just your competitors. In this system, everyone grows—it is nota zero-sum game—it is an infinite game.

To get the best benefits from this competition, make sure that you are focusing on how you are performing and carefully analyze how those around you are performing. Are you producing your best sound? Are you initiating each note well? Are you phrasing well? Are you playing your role in the ensemble well? These are just a few questions to consider. In individual competitions such as chair placement tests you need to know how the best player performs if you want to compete them. In group competitions, you need to know how well the best group is performing so you can come up with the right product and achievement level if you want to compete with them. Music competition exists to make every competitor better. Every time someone improves, those around them improve too, and the cycle continues with each “winner” setting new standards of performance.

Healthy competition is never about forcing your competitors (hopefully current or future friends) into making a mistake or believing that you better than them. Healthy competition is about raising the standard of performance for everyone and then setting out to achieve those standards and raise them again.

You cannot control most of your competitors in life: You cannot control an admissions board, the stock market, job market, the housing market and so many other things. Most of those things will appear only as the “market”. No matter the case, you always get to control the “Market of You.” I firmly believe music practice and performance provides you with incredible opportunities to learn and experiment with competition in a way that will beautifully benefit you through life and give you endless advantages in whatever life throws your way.

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