To Compete or Not to Compete

Thousands of high school marching bands and color guard groups perform in competitions each year. But does competing help or hurt students and the school’s overall band program?

Think of a sports team—say, a basketball team. Basketball players spend hours practicing their dribbling, shooting and passing in order to ultimately challenge another team’s skills. When they win a game, the athletes are rewarded for their hard work. When they lose, they become better players by learning to avoid the mistakes they made.

Just as competition is beneficial to sports teams, it can also be rewarding for marching bands. “Competing is mostly a positive experience for me,” explains Bre’younga Jackson, a trumpet player in the Clinton (Miss.) High School Marching Band. “It boosts our morale when we receive a ‘Superior,’ and when we receive anything less, it makes us want to work even harder.”

Learning Experiences

Birch Wilson can’t wait to see his school’s new marching band, Raven Regiment, compete in the US Scholastic Band Association (USSBA) for the first time this September. As director at Robbinsville (N.J.) High School, Wilson believes that competitions are important because they allow students to see what their peers around the country are doing. “You’ll never have the opportunity to see 30 or 40 bands together in one place besides competitions, so get out there and watch,” Wilson says.

Not only does competing expose students to new ideas and performance styles, but it can also be highly motivating. According to Wilson, most students who watch a great performance by another band will say to themselves, “Oh, that’s so cool! I want to be able to do that.”

Wilson explains that competitions also can be highly educational because bands receive valuable feedback from music educators and other professionals. These critiques illuminate positive and negative aspects of their shows and help directors and students improve.

Ultimate Bonding

After spending weeks of rehearsal with the same group of people, forming countless memories and inside jokes, high school marching band students often find that participating in competitions is the ultimate bonding experience.

“Even if you are competing with people you have known for years, you build a bond with them that can never be broken,” says flutist Kassara Lu Brown from the Fremont (Neb.) High School Tiger Marching Band. “Band mates are teammates, just like in volleyball or football. Even when you are competing against someone, you bond with them because you both have the same passion. You both love to play and make people happy with music.”

Garrick Brown, who marched trumpet for Lucy Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C., holds a similar sentiment. “I have met many people from other schools [at competitions] and have kept up with them over the years,” says Brown, who is now a freshman at North Carolina Central University in Durham. “When you compete, you learn how to deal with all types of people. I made my best friends marching, which made competing worthwhile, and I learned a lot about myself.”

Under Pressure

On the other hand, high school students in the United States currently seem to be competing for just about everything—the best grades, the highest SAT scores and admissions to the highest-ranking colleges and universities. With all this stress heaped upon students, competing may not always be the healthiest method of keeping band and guard participants motivated to march their best.

The physical rigors of marching alone can cause students a great deal of anxiety. With so much to worry about—from group uniformity to personal posture—students can be extremely hard on themselves while training for a competition.

“You have to have a straight back with arms held up correctly,” explains Kassara Lu Brown. “Your flute must be parallel to the ground. It is stressful and nerve-wracking because if you slip up at all—if your instrument isn’t parallel to the ground or if someone doesn’t look like everyone else—it can cause your band to lose points.”

Many students also feel an extraordinary amount of pressure to win competitions because they believe that a high score is the best measure of their band’s success. When their band doesn’t come in first place, then some students can become deeply discouraged and forget to view the experience as an educational one.

Music for Music’s Sake

Director Parker Bixby, who has taught for 11 years at Mercer Island (Wash.) High School, chooses not to enter his marching band into competitions. Because he feels that his students are in an exceptionally high-achieving academic and athletic environment, he doesn’t want them to feel they need to be perfect in one more area. In Bixby’s band program, teens explore their creative ideas and challenge themselves without worrying about “failure.”

Bixby also wants students to focus on their music’s artistic and emotional value instead of on the band’s rank. “I think that music, at the highest level, is not quantifiable,” Bixby says. “To pick a winner among students who are doing nothing but putting emotion and individualism into their performances is not a valid assessment of their work.”

How, then, does Bixby motivate his band members to continue playing and marching to the best of their abilities? “Competition can be an incredible motivator for many students; however, nine times out of 10, all it takes is creating a relationship with the students,” he says. “If you give them a smile when they come through the door, they will do anything for you. Also, give them a glimpse of what their music could be by listening to another group’s music. If you give them a glimpse of that, they are going to want it.”

Similarly, Director of Bands John Kerley at Branson (Mo.) High School worries that competing may stifle students’ musical development. Although Kerley says that he loves competitions, he is particularly concerned that some band programs are so focused on marching competitions that they have begun to overlook the importance of concert band, a facet of band programs that maintains emphasis on musical precision.

Although he strives to teach his marching band the music fundamentals that he focuses on with the concert band, other directors nevertheless tell Kerley that, by simply having a marching band, he is hindering his concert band’s sound.

The Fine Line

Clearly, participating in competitions can have positive and negative effects on band students, directors and programs. However, the line between the two sides is blurry. How can your band balance out the pros and cons of competing?

If traditional competition isn’t right for your band, you may have the option of participating in exhibitions where students perform for a crowd without being critically judged or ranked. If your band wants professional judges to give constructive criticism and feedback without, again, being ranked against other groups, your band should look into judged exhibitions. Known as the “Festival Class” in many circuits, marching bands that compete in judged exhibitions are evaluated not against other groups but against a specific list of criteria as well as standards set previously by their own bands.

“As part of the Festival Class of the USSBA, we are only competing against ourselves, philosophically,” says Brian Timmons, director of the Bergenfield (N.J.) High School Marching Band. “Although we are not entered into first, second or third place, we still get comments from judges. It gives the kids critical feedback but doesn’t place them in a position where they are ranked. We are competitive, but against what we did last week or last year.”

If the Bergenfield High School band were to compete in traditional competitions in their region, they would take first place by default because of the band’s large size (about 175 members), explains Timmons. That situation would not be educationally valuable for his students. But since Timmons and his students want to hear what knowledgeable judges have to say about what they’ve done well or how they can improve their performance, judged exhibitions are well suited for their band.

Still, Timmons makes a point of reminding the teens in his band that judges’ comments are not an evaluation of any band member’s worth as a human being.

If your band is a traditional competition band all the way, just remember that competing is valuable when experienced in manageable doses. David Wenner, who has been director of bands at the Bee Band of Academy High School in Little River, Texas, for the past 5 years, feels that competition is great—in moderation. He believes that band students and directors must remind themselves not to “live for” competitions.

“Competition is an added facet to what your program is already doing,” says Wenner, whose band participates in competitions hosted by the University Interscholastic League (UIL). “I am a ‘Type A’ competitive person. My students will tell me that I am ruthless, but I am a wallflower compared to other directors who are adamant about competing all the time. If you go too far … you will lose kids.”

According to Wilson, overcoming the downsides of competing is definitely possible as long as a director helps his or her students have a clear sense of the band’s goals. “It’s not about walking away with a first place trophy,” he says. “Music is not about a trophy.”

About the Author

Janel Healy is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. She is a senior, majoring in communication and minoring in American studies, at the University of Southern California. She sings alto in her a cappella group, SoCal VoCals, and often jams with her musical family in Northern California.

Photo courtesy of Mercer Island High School Marching Band. All rights reserved.

Photo caption: Although the Mercer Island (Wash.) High School Marching Band chooses not to compete, they have a blast performing at great gigs such as this Seattle Seahawks’ game.

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