Walter Bitner

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Is Music a Sport?

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Winners of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (l to r) silver medalist Beatrice Rana, gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko, & crystal award winner Sean Chen ~ photo by Tom Fox

“I’m so bored. What is wrong with me? This is what I’ve always wanted. I won Nationals. I’m in charge of this committee. But it feels so meaningless. Do all teachers feel this at some point?”

~ (character) Will Schuester
Glee, Season 4, Episode 3: Makeover

Although advocates for music education – especially music education in public school settings – often speak to ideals about “music education for all children”, or the importance of the inclusion of music education in a well-rounded education, the reality of the state of music education in the United States is that music education is not for everyone.

Alongside the inequality of access and inclusion already being discussed by many throughout the country, the role that competition plays in the activities of music education presented to our children has become so pervasive that by their very nature, these activities exclude and discourage many children, who as a result are not receiving a music education, or are receiving an inadequate and impoverished music education.

The Competitive Environment of High School Music Education


I am an instrument student in orchestra at Typical Example High School.

In my orchestra class at school, I am required to compete for the right to sit in the chair that designates my position in the orchestra, which in turn symbolizes my rank and value to the ensemble. If I win the right to sit in a “higher” chair, I achieve greater status in my orchestra community (class), but also a greater level of insecurity. Those sitting in “lower” chairs are encouraged to try to challenge my right to the position I hold by playing my part better than I can, shaming me in front of my peers. The goal of my experience in orchestra class is to strive to sit in the first instrument chair and once I have won that position, successfully defend it.

In the fall, I am encouraged to audition for Mid-State orchestra, which involves learning scales and excerpts for instrument, and sight-reading. One Saturday late in the fall, I will report to a local high school and compete against other instrument players from across the state for the right to participate in the elite Mid-State orchestra at a weekend festival in January.

If I succeed in winning a chair in Mid-State orchestra, I earn the right to do this all over again and compete for a chair in All-State orchestra.

If I make a good impression on my orchestra director, she may nominate me to receive the right to audition for my school district’s honor orchestra, which involves competing against all of the other instrument players in our school district who have been nominated by their orchestra directors as well.

I spend much more time preparing for these competitive auditions than I will spend actually rehearsing and performing – actually making music with others – in these honorary ensembles.

In the spring semester, my school orchestra will participate in a Concert Performance Assessment festival in March. We spend most of January and February preparing repertoire for this event, which is not strictly called a competition, but our performance is judged, scored, and compared to others nonetheless.

Later in the spring, I am encouraged to participate in the Solo and Ensemble Festival, which similarly is not called a competition, but like the Concert Performance Assessment, my performance will be judged, scored, and compared to others.

If I play a band instrument, I will participate in all of the competitive activities my friends in orchestra participate in, and more.

Band students at Typical Example High School are required to participate in marching band if they wish to participate in concert band. Marching band season begins in the summer, with long days of training and exercises to prepare for marching band competitions which occur regularly on Saturdays throughout the fall. I am proud when my band wins these competitions and less so when we do not – my impression of the value of my musical activity is based on how much better I can do it than others can.

All of this time spent competing has strong consequences on the quality and thoroughness of students’ musical training. For example, we may practice the scales required for Mid-State auditions a few times in band rehearsal after marching band season is over, but we are only required to learn major scales so it’s not too difficult. As there isn’t time to learn minor scales because of the amount of time we spent competing in the first half of the year, these are not required, even though learning minor scales is integral to any kind of comprehensive musical training.

Choir students in many choir programs will also compete in similar events to those of their classmates in band and orchestra , although choir is traditionally a more egalitarian ensemble with more emphasis on collaboration and teamwork than band and orchestra, and the stress on competition may be less pronounced. (More about this in upcoming posts.)

Students in show choir (as opposed to traditional choir), however, will participate in competitive activities more analogous to those their friends in marching band engage in.

GLEE: The Glee club wins Nationials in the second hour of a special two-hour “Props/Nationals” episode of GLEE airing Tuesday, May 15 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Adam Rose/FOX

The Perception of Music-making as a Primarily Competitive Activity is Reinforced By the Media

Television shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, and others promote the perception that the purpose of musical activity is winning.

On the immensely popular Glee, which ran for six seasons, the show’s protagonists are the intrepid show choir New Directions at a fictional high school. The structure of each season follows the ensemble through the annual calendar of competitions, beginning with Sectionals, then moving on to Regionals, and finally Nationals.

The business of classical music – especially – is fueled by the calendar of competitions. Most classical musicians hoping for a career as a professional soloist devote countless hours of their teens and twenties to preparing auditions and competing in these events. If you peruse the biographies of most active classical soloists, you will often find included among their accomplishments the names of the competitions they have won awards at.

It’s not impossible to build a successful career without participating in competitions, but it is difficult and rare. A notable exception to this general trend who is slowly building a successful career as a recording artist and performer in Europe and Asia is the Russian/German pianist Olga Scheps. Olga’s very personal and expressive style of piano playing features a remarkable degree of emotional intimacy and rapport with the audience, but does not stress extreme tempi and the almost mechanical rhythmic and technical precision popular with some competition judges.

Olga Scheps performs Chopin. Competitions tend to award musicians who only exhibit a certain set of skills popular with competition judges. Olga has built her career mostly without participating in the competition circuit.

The Primary Activity of Local Professional Music Education Organizations is to Organize Competitive Activities

My experience of participating in professional music education organizations taught me that their primary raison d’être is to organize and execute competitive activities. It is clear that any child who participates in a school music program as described above will spend most of their time in music class preparing to compete and competing: against their own peers within their ensemble, and against ensembles and students from other schools.

My own experience as a child and my observations as an adult convinced me quite early in my career that a natural result of all this competition for many children is the experience of fear and shame: emotional states that discourage many children from participating in music education activities.

For this reason, for most of my teaching career I attempted to create a different teaching environment that did not emphasize competition. It is also the reason I did not begin to participate in professional music education organizations until late in my teaching career, after observing in college the unhealthy emphasis on competition these organizations promote.

It is my belief that making music should be its own reward, not something that is done in order to win status, money, or medals.

Competition in music education is not restricted to competition among students, either. Teachers who belong to professional organizations jockey for position within those organizations largely by the reputations they acquire through the performances of their students at the competitions these organizations sponsor.

In public schools, rigid schedules and the many requirements placed on students generally make it all but impossible for a student to take more than one art class. This sets up an environment where music educators within the same school may feel that they have to compete with each other to have students participate in their programs, as it is not possible in most cases for a student to participate in both band and choir, for example. I have personally witnessed (and heard stories of many more cases like this) a music teacher actively attempt to undermine and sabotage the program of another music teacher who worked at the same school, out of fear that if her colleague’s program was successful it would threaten her own program.

The Rightful Place of Competition in Music Education

The reasoning behind the use of competition in musical education activities is ostensibly that competition is necessary to promote artistic excellence. And in fact, it is an effective means to do this.

However, competition is not the only way to achieve artistic excellence. (Examples of alternative strategies for achieving artistic excellence through collaboration and community will be topics of upcoming posts.)

Competition is an appropriate activity for students who wish to pursue music as a professional career – being a professional musician is a very competitive business! It is also an appropriate activity for students who wish to “test themselves” against each other. Some children thrive and flourish with competition – the challenge calls them to achieve things they never would otherwise.

However, this is not the case for all children. For others, competition creates a threatening emotional situation which they would prefer to avoid. As music education is in most schools a voluntary and elective activity, these children will often choose not to participate, even those who already know they love music and would benefit from the many positive aspects of musical activity.

I am by no means advocating the elimination of competition from music education. I strongly believe that competition has an important place in what we do. In fact, two very important programs I oversee in the department of Education and Community Engagement at the Nashville Symphony are extremely competitive: the annual Curb Concerto Competition and our groundbreaking Accelerando program. Both of these programs are designed for children who have already self-selected as “pre-professional”.

But it is clear that the use of competition as an element of a child’s experience of music in school is out of hand.

Competition has become so ubiquitous in music education that it interferes with the goals of music education – participation in our most social art form for all children in order to deepen their experience of their own humanity, sense of community, and understanding of themselves and the world – and the spirit of music itself.

Next: My Secret Experiment in Music Education

*       *       *

Related articles:

Is Music a Commodity?

Wholehearted Attention



Four Practices

What Kind of Human Being Do You Want To Be?

What Your Students Will Remember


  1. Jay Bitner says:

    It has been this way as long as I can remember and I was made to play in marching band if I wanted to play in Concert Band and Jazz Band. I had to compete for Chorus, solos, quartets and repeatedly…that is over 60 years ago.

    Good article

  2. I believe real music education takes place in the elementary general music classrooms. The bulk of my 26 years in public music education was spent with that age group. You are correct about the importance “competitions” have taken. That, however begins in middle school years and becomes extreme in high school. I doubt that culture will change, but I hope elementary music classes are not sacrificed. It was a constant battle during my teaching years to maintain the music programs. My colleagues developed a strong rapport with parents. Their voices were louder than the teachers when budget battles began.
    The idea of competition is inherent in our society. Everyone would like to be better than someone else. Some philosophy about the value of music for children needs to be added back to the curriculum.
    I apologize for the length of my comment, but this is something I feel quite strongly about, and I have felt so for a long time.

    • walterbitner says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. The importance of strong elementary school music programs is something I have written about here and have plans to write a lot more about – in my opinion, our entire music education system is upside down. Most public school music students don’t begin to receive real musical training until they are in high school, when the best time for them to acquire musical skills has passed.

  3. rmichaelw says:

    Of course we have music competition. We have competitive yoga now. What’s next, competitive meditation? “I sat longer and more still as can be seen on the laser enhanced instant replay” What is valued in these events reflects th skewed priorities of our culture. Art, i believe, needs to come out of deep play. What is being encouraged, however is deadly serious. People who are drawn to make art suffer because of th alienation they end up feeling. The larger culture suffers because it doesn’t benefit from th collective wisdom of these frustrated artists. Art as a kind of social psycho therapy,where the artist revealing themselves encourages self exploration in th recipient is short circuited.

  4. Jerry Pannone says:

    Adolescents are naturally competetve. That’s not a bad thing. We make it bad by not putting our emphasis on making “music,” but instead winning competitions.

  5. […] environments, and even seem to need the motivation of competition to rise to their best, for others these kinds of activities are a burden to be suffered as the price of making music in a social environment. For others still, […]

  6. […] Is Music a Sport? […]

  7. […] Is Music a Sport? […]

  8. […] Is Music a Sport? […]

  9. […] This design for music education in our schools produces the current atmosphere of competition that dominates the entire music education culture, and perpetuates the myth that musical talent is a kind of giftedness reserved for a lucky minority of the population. The competition design is maintained, supported, and promoted by our professional music education organizations, whose primary activities are organizing competitions. (see Is Music a Sport?) […]

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