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So Why do Losers Compete?

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Over on From the Front of the Choir a couple of years back, Chris Rowbury posted a thought-provoking piece on the theme that competitions are for losers (i.e. that, by definition, the majority of people who participate can’t win). He identifies two particular problems with the idea of competition in the arts. First, that they encourage extrinsic rather than intrinsic values – doing things for external rewards rather than their inherent worth – and are therefore artistically shallow. Second, this makes them psychologically disempowering, as participants are handing over their sense of self-worth to somebody else’s judgement.

These are both compelling arguments in my view, and articulate well why many of us in the arts experience a degree of discomfort about competitive events. On the other hand, contest is rife in all walks of musical life: from the institutionalised systems of brass bands and barbershop, to the local festival circuit, to the annual cycle of competitions and prizes in conservatoires, and their grown-up analogues in Cardiff and Leeds. Competition may be problematic for musicians, but it also clearly offers something that is valued widely enough to make contest a normal rather than aberrational behaviour.

This is something I’ve done a certain amount of thinking about, as I have found myself spending a surprising amount of time adjudicating competitions of one kind or another over the last ten years. (Surprising to me, since from a standing start I would have seen myself as being more in the art-for-art’s-sake camp.) I still recognise that the risks Chris identifies are real risks, and ones that need managing – indeed, this is part of the adjudicator’s job – but there are also two main areas where competition offers positive value to offset them.

The first is in the way competition affects rehearsal. I have written as a musicologist about the way the contest cycle structures the emotional shape of the barbershop year, articulating times of rest and times of intensive work. Seasonality is a psychologically meaningful experience for a community’s shared endeavours.

Even for the more ad-hoc contest experience - the competition as special project – it provides a focus and goal that gives structure and meaning to the work running up to it. For sure, other performance goals offer this too, although preparation for a contest will usually involve a smaller range of repertoire than a concert, and thus commensurately more intensive work.

There are those, of course, who find this focus unduly narrow and get bored of the repertoire, but I tend to think that the problem there is more that the range of rehearsal methods is too narrow. Intensive work has a particular pleasure, and the opportunity to really polish a particular collection of pieces can be the means to raise your performance level on everything you work on after the competition. Of course, in theory you could do all this work without the competition experience, but in general people don’t: goals and deadlines are useful for getting things done.

The second thing that contests offer is the opportunity to negotiate shared artistic values. On the face of it, you might think that whoever decides the winner is imposing their values on all the competitors, but if you think about the experience of the contest occasion, you see there’s a lot more than that going on.

To start with, the audience is typically made up of other competitors and their families and friends. They are all avidly drinking in what each other have done, comparing it with their own offering. Choice of repertoire, approach to style, technical strengths and weaknesses, presentational skills – all of these form subjects for lively discussion during and after the event. What music did they do that we want to learn? What skills didn’t they display that we can? What should we aspire to next? Competitions are particularly suited to getting people performing back-to-back with their peers and thus both influencing them and learning from them.

And the competitive dimension adds a particular edge to these conversations. The value of the contest judge is only marginally in the wisdom and insight of their decisions. The fact is that the majority of people interested enough to be there at all are probably experienced enough listeners to pick the winner. The point of the adjudicator is to provide a yardstick to which everyone else can compare their opinions. Listen to the conversations after contest results are announced, and it’s full of people saying, ‘Well, she picked the right winner, but do you really think that 5th placed competitor was really better than 6th placed competitor?’ and ‘Oh I’m glad they got 2nd place – they weren’t quite as polished as 3rd place, but they performed with more feeling’.

A good adjudicator is thus one who comes to decisions that reward the performers that their constituents - the audience and the other performers – would wish to see rewarded, and can also articulate why everyone reached that decision. There is scope for differences of opinion – there always is in artistic pursuits, and there will be differences within the adjudicator’s constituency – but the decisions need to be at least plausible to the audience if the adjudicator is to be invited back.

When this social function is working well, the contest occasion stops being about one lonely winner and a hoard of miserable losers, and feels more like a shared acclamation of what it is to do well the thing we all care about. By the time the results are announced, the competitors are already invested emotionally in each other – in what they learned from each other (both positively and negatively), in what they are going to take from each other to develop their own performances. They are ready to congratulate each other. And that’s why losers compete.

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