Competition in music

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since this afternoon’s discussion. Truth in advertising: I’m definitely in the “competition is destructive “ camp in spite of my long association with jazz and its deep tradition of cutting sessions. I’m a real fan of those when they are old-school and about having a lively conversation with everyone speaking their piece. In recent decades I have felt a shift in the energy that is more like something I hated as a youngster.

I grew up in upstate NY in the late 60’s and 70’s, so I endured the NYSSMA system with all its juries, festivals, etc. I was trained in the European style, so there was always pressure to play “more difficult Level 6” music but less encouragement to play easier music more skillfully.

I also started performing professionally when I was only 13. I developed a whole other perspective from my friends and colleagues with whom I performed. It was mostly country or rock n roll, so few of them were formally trained. My own father spoke of them with disdain, based in his background in “legit” music. Needless to say, even when I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in music, he had many of the same thoughts about my colleagues who performed jazz (this was before most colleges had jazz programs). I maintain to this day that, despite their lack of formal training, many of those musicians were downright talented and excellent at both their craft and their art.

So, who really is to say any one is better than another at music? I can’t form a single set of criteria that would work across genres. Even within a genre, music is so personal for both the performer and the listener that it is hard for me to imagine a concrete set of criteria that doesn’t include the emotional state of the listener. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood to listen to the Gymnopedie; other days, I can’t tolerate Foxy Lady. Yet, I love both.

Bottom line... yes to cutting sessions and good natured back and forth, but never with a winner or a loser, just (in the words of Charlie Parker) “worthy adversaries “. One of my most influential early mentors, who was in every way a “ better player” than me once told me that he liked performing with me because I was “a good foil”; He said that I spoke my piece nicely then supported him and always made him sound great by comparison. He meant it as a compliment. I got cut every night but I loved it.

But, a hard and resounding NO to a session that comes from a competitive standpoint like the NYSSMA festivals used to. Olympic style judging, where two marks are given (one for the difficulty of the maneuvers and one for the execution) that are bound into a composite score makes no sense in music to my way of thinking. A simple piece, perfectly played, is a thing of beauty that I feel cannot be exceeded on an artistic level. A complex piece played moderately well is less appealing to me even if it requires “a better musician” to play it.

I like to listen to music, not musicians.

Yes, there is room for both complexity and musicianship in my world. For example, I have known Orrin Evans since he was about 13. Orrin has grown up to love really complicated music. But, he plays the living daylights out of it in spite of its complexity; even in that style, he still cares far more about the performance being good, vibrant, and carrying forth the legacy and traditions of the masters that came before him than he does about executing the complex dive from the high board (he does care about that, which is obvious in his recent work, but it isn’t his focus). ...and, not for nothing, he will swing you into bad health if you dare to go head to head with him on an F blues, medium tempo... been there, done that, great fun... total win/win. Is he a better player than me? Yes. Absolutely. In a thousand ways. But there’s not a single way in which that matters on the occasions that we play; it’s just two friends having a conversation about something that we both know one of us knows more about. Not a competition. If it were that it would ruin it for me.

I don’t like competition.

...just my two cents. Ok. Maybe fifty cents or so. :)

Access: Anonymous


I agree with you, i don't like competition. I would add that competition has replaced emulation in many situations, which is a quite different thing. Competition : you try to be bettr than another guy. (me too i cannot understand what it could mean in terms of music, but let's accept the word)
Emulation : the other guy, playing well, makes you try to be the best you can, but not to be better than him, just that, do your best. I love emulation, i hate competition. I don't need to be or be considered better than another guy to feel good , but knowing i did my best to improve the quality of what i'm doing makes me feel good. Emulation has some space for humility, competition develops killer's instinct, and i don't play music with any violence in mind. As you say, ...peace !

I think I agree. The only thing I gain from competitions (whatever prize aside) is having a goal. They really make me work on something a lot and try to perfect it, and I think this has actually done some great things to my playing. However, recently I've discovered that there are other ways to have goals that aren't competitive. Tony's facebook livestreams I play on, for instance, give me a sense of purpose and goal-setting where the goal isn't to be better than someone else, but just to be as best as possible.

I also think if you're trying to be better than someone else, it's a waste unless it's one of the greats like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gary Burton, Milt Jackson, (Tony Miceli?), etc. Because you'll probably learn a lot more trying to be better than one of them than you will trying to be better than another entry in a competition.

Admiration and respect, coupled with imitation will serve you well, however, trying to be better than someone is a destructive path that will leave one to feel frustration. Be yourself above all. Art is very much an individual expression of beauty. As someone once said, there are two kinds of music, good and bad.

I really don't think it's inherently destructive. Everyone is different and is motivated by different things. I'm actually very motivated by sounding horrible at a jam session, or having someone else sound better than me. Others might not be. It's not like I get sad or depressed -- I just want to practice. The feeling I get is a good one -- there's no negativity involved. And if I'm not rude to anyone along the way -- if the competition stays inside my own head -- then I don't see any issue. And admiration, respect, and imitation go along with all of this.

It does leave me to feel frustration sometimes, but I LOVE this feeling. It feels motivating and alive and wanting to learn. Anyway, my point is everyone is motivated by different things, and competition might be a healthy motivator for some people, and not for others, and this diversity is fine and the proof of its existence is in the fact that we're even discussing this.

Also, if you're saying art is individual (which it is), then how can it be sorted into good and bad? I think that quote is mostly used to show why trying to pin everything into genre boxes is silly. But I think it kind of contradicts the idea of art being an individual beauty thing.

To take a different view, I don't really have an issue with competitions in classical music. I look at classical music as having a compositional standard unto itself and a competition serves to allow students to hear each other interpret through-composed pieces plus the usual meet-and-greet. In my younger days, I enjoyed this a lot even when I didn't score in the top three. I also like the reality in that there are only a minimum of professional job openings in the world of classical music in any instrument and competitions can serve to narrow the field.

However, I think jazz is a different thing. Jazz is more about the individual's expression/interpretation/approach rather than playing through-composed pieces, so a potential Ornette of the future would be squashed in a competition where judges score based on their own preconceived ideas of what jazz is supposed to sound like. I know I'd hate to be in a competition where the adjudicators were moldy figs by the more-progressive standards of the day.

To this end, it is absolutely true that European concert music has had a few extra hundred years to codify and establish some standards as to what is a "correct" or "incorrect" way to perform a piece. Also, that genre of music benefits from a distinct separation of the composer and the performer as you point out, so a judge is not called upon to judge the composition as part of a jury, but rather only how the performer executes it.

Of course, even within that genre, there is the problem of "Olympic Style Music" where the final evaluation includes both an assessment of the difficulty of the piece and the qualities of the performance. The world of European art music has largely addressed that by created sub-genres, so there is a Mozart festival, a Bach festival, etc. A person cannot "win" such a festival by simply arriving with a highly complicated and technical piece and performing it adequately; they must stay within the parameters of the festival and perform brilliantly.

For me, the trouble begins when the attitude of those Olympic Style assessments hits the bandstand and players begin to joust rather than converse. Further, it becomes problematic for me when they start using vocabulary that they don't understand simply for the sake of using "more advanced" language (to attain a "higher score"). Yes, I am willing to entertain the highly likely possibility that it is I who does not understand the language, but I also know that I have heard others use that same vocabulary and I have understood what they were trying to say, so my initial gut reaction is that they are likely engaging in obfuscation.

Okay, I had to go to to look up obfuscation. You got me on that one!!

Hitting the bandstand on a classical gig is pretty different from hitting the bandstand on a jazz gig, and I've found it pretty funny when a jazz player uses Italian music terms to explain something when English could do the job just fine. That was probably cool in Paul Whiteman's day when half the band were violin players.

I learned that word from a friend's bumper sticker. It read: Eschew Obfuscation.

TLDR - But I glanced at it and will come back later.

For the record. I am strongly for healthy competition. Especially for young players. We talk about players as better than me or not better than me. (Randy you do it above).

Competition is important and makes great players. I know it freaks out some players and I get it. But comparing yourself and having targets and goals are important. Being as good as someone else is very important, striving to be better and win the audition in your big band in high school is important.

I have lost gigs to other vibe players and won gigs from other vibes players because someone thought I was better than or not as good as. Young players who want to play professionally better know how to be competitive and work hard to beat out the next guy for college big band, a gig, a show, a teaching position etc.

It's everywhere. I do the PAS keyboard committee where we choose who will play at the next years convention and who won't. Do you we pick someone on how well dressed they are? No, we pick them on the best and the worst (is that how you spell that?)

My only thing is competition needs to be healthy for the most part. If you are better than me, just don't be an A-whole about it. And now I'm old enough to tell you to screw off if you are an a-whole about it.

I did refer to someone as being better than me. In my world that is a comparison. I’m not competing with that person. I may observe their excellence and seek to emulate it. I may seek to make myself a better player to rise to a level such as the one they are on, in whatever ways that manifests.

I may or may not get a gig because somebody prefers what another does (I guess that is competition, but not really if I don’t see that as a win or a loss.) Back in the day, I certainly never won any of those festivals. So, maybe my attitude is fueled by sour grapes over never meeting the model of what those judges considered to be a “good player”. Not sure about that. My career as a musician hasn’t been super stellar, but I’ve had enough great gigs and done enough really good recordings to have the self confidence to say that those judges must have been missing something. I’m not a killer, but I can hang with the big dogs. :)

In the last two decades, I have shifted my focus from how I play to issues surrounding why I play. Granted, I still shed for hours every day on technical and compositional issues that are essential to how I play; I don’t mean to minimize that. However, it’s far more important to me why I play these days. I spend an equal amount of time working that end of the equation. My main teacher is a yogi, not a musician (and an amazing teacher of improvisation). In that world, competition is counterproductive.

So, yes to what you are saying. It is much a part of what I do, but we name it differently. What I call competition, it appears you call “unhealthy competition”.

Yes a hot topic. I keep thinking about it.

Competition is healthy and good especially if you are going to make a career of this.

Sports analogies are also GREAT, esp if you are a pro. BECAUSE, from the get go you are training like and athlete does. Hours a day, working your ass off, tons of repetitive motions, muscles moving, fine tuning your aim like an archer. Ok, let me go with that last thing! Fine tuning your aim like an archer, learning to swing your arms and wrists like a baseball player at bat works on his arms and wrists, focusing like a tennis player. You are rubbing your muscles because they are sore, you're putting band aids on because your calluses have broken open.

That's what college students are doing to prepare for their careers in a very hard and competitive environment. They WILL be hired on the basis of how good they are and if they ARE better than the next guy.

Honestly I think people who are against being competitive are also a little afraid of competition. I say that because I am very afraid of competition and I would love to say competition is bad for that reason. I assume I'm not that unique.

Every documentary on jazz, every movie, every book you read about a great player in a cutting session, or working hard.

Nobody has persuaded me yet about this! And the more I glance at all this (TLDR) and catch. this and that the more I think no way!

The final thing is like my dad said, opinions are like a-wholes, everyone's got one. I realize that and realize some people will think I don't know what I'm talking about. All this is good!

I understand what you are saying, which is true in a specific environment and for specific goals. If you are depending on others to get jobs (be hired by a band leader for instance), you are living in a very competitive environment, then you have to prepare yourself for that competition, and it's the case of the majority of the players. But if you are in a free position about economics, you don't really need competition. Here in France we have a lot of exemples of guys who have created their own economical environment and made a great career. They have created their own "hole", nobody does things like them, and the quality of what they are doing is enough for them to get gigs without to have to compete with anybody. (jazz festival's programmer just cannot avoid to hire them because whithout them the program would lack something). And i think it's great, because each environment attracts a specific kind of people. Competitive environment will attract competition-minded musicians, but what about different people with a great musical potential ? What counts at the end is the music made, independently of the conditions of its production. I think about artists like Dexter Gordon, who spent decades in North Europe. In Denmark he had no competition to face, and did great music , his musicality didn't drop at all. If you are in a competitive environment and like it, knowing how to deal with it, it's great, nothing wrong, but it's not the only way to go, and there is place for another kind of artists who have also something to say in music. (and maybe the "different" thing they have to say partly comes from being non-competitive guys...just think about women who generally don't feel this inside need to comfront others). And i understand that for you, as a teacher, it's important to prepare your students for the battle...

Okay. I have a lot to say on this topic and have read all the comments here a few times to make sure I’m not treading water. It will get a bit heavy, so brace yourselves. Here we go.

Short version:
-IMHO formal competition has been and continues to be problematic; even in a well-intentioned competition unconscious biases affect results, and even more importantly, accessibility needs to be part of the conversation. Who has access to competition, who is left out? We can say “This is just how it is” and accept the cycle, but IMO we each should be doing something to help break it. Accessibility in all its forms matters.
-IMHO inner competition, emulation, imitation, etc. can all be healthy and beneficial with the right mindset. Rock on.

Long version:
I am competitive. I love playing sports like softball and rugby and the atmosphere that on-field rivalries create (with exceptions; I have been in plenty of toxic sport environments). I play to have fun but also to win. Same with board games and even music competitions...I have a good time if I do my best and lose, but I get such a rush if I win. So, I am competitive. Being competitive has been a pro and a con. Like David shared last week, I too have battled a toxic mindset because of competition. Experiences in middle, high school, and college led me to feel like if I wasn’t improving as fast as or faster than others around me, I wasn’t good enough. In fact, that attitude is partially why I’m in grad school for ethnomusicology rather than jazz right now; I wanted to go for jazz but didn’t even try because I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough. Six years into grad school, I can now say I have successfully moved past that debilitating perspective, but perhaps without early experiences plantings seeds, I would never have felt that way in the first place. And that started with formal competition.

Re: Formal competition: I am not a fan despite having benefited. Like Oliver, I’ve been motivated by formal competitions to work hard at achieving goals, but I agree that there are other ways to find motivation. Like Randy and Denis (Babu) mentioned, what does it mean to be “better?” How does NYSSMA decide what differentiates a score of 97 from 98, meaning the difference of getting into All-State Band or not (true story…I was so close)? I competed in NYSSMA festivals throughout middle and high school and volunteered as a room monitor, meaning lots of interactions with percussionists and judges. If you got a lenient judge you might score 97 on a performance that a strict judge would mark as 95. Close to lunchtime? A hungry judge might unconsciously mark scores lower.

More pressing than those points, the big buzzword I want to bring into the conversation, which forms the base of why I find many formal competitions problematic, is ACCESSIBILITY. What does it take to be part of the competition in the first place? To name just a few factors: Disposable income to pay registration fees; transportation to get to events; access to instruments to prepare on outside of school; a competition’s willingness (or lack of) to accommodate your physical or mental “limitations;” a support network; any part of your outward presentation that may create obstacles (maybe the judge is racist, homophobic, sexist, has an unconscious bias against “exotic” names, dislikes your appearance, body size, accent, etc. etc. etc.). If we ignore these factors, what happens? The same kinds of people have easy entry to competitions, some of those people win, they are given more opportunities, they become role models, players see them and say “He looks like me; I can do this too” (or the opposite), they are invited to organize future competitions and don’t always consider factors they never dealt with, and the cycle continues.

There are hidden roadblocks too. As a female I have faced not-so-obvious obstacles. Maybe the band director stands way too close to the 8th grader when she plays her NYSSMA snare solo, so she avoids going to the band room to practice during lunch even though she wants to, losing time she could be working on her competition piece. Maybe in high school all the guys prepare for a competition together, sharing resources, motivating each other, but in a “boys’ club” fashion. While they support and learn from one another, the token girl guides herself. “Mom and Dad, can I play this for you? Sounds alright? Okay, you’re not percussionists but I’ll have to trust your guidance.” Then comes the competition itself. Wow, there are 45 guys and three girls. Our token female has her men’s dress shoes and slacks on because that’s what she’s comfortable in (so she won’t stand out so much?) but the confidence she worked to build is waning. The guys all hang and wish each other luck while she stands in a corner and plays paradiddles to relax. Then college and more unseen barriers. Now she’s heard one too many “Just smile and wear a tight shirt” comments and is conscientious that what she’s wearing affects how she is perceived. Maybe she won the competition but questions whether it was a true “win” after a friend says “You played fine but everybody was staring at your butt the whole time.” Maybe she’s not as good as she thinks? Another time, maybe she lost but the judge seemed to dismiss her from the start, only talking to the boys. Would she have won if she was male? Maybe there’s a chance to take part in a state-wide percussion event, but she’d have to sleep in a mixed gender room and she heard about stuff that sometimes happens…maybe skip that one. Etc. etc. etc.

I have only lived the experience of a white, middle-class American female. I cannot speak for all females, and I also know full well that there are percussionists facing way more obstacles than I ever will. As long as those obstacles exist so prevalently, is any formal competition healthy? There are certainly individuals and groups working to address these factors (shoutout to PASIC’s Diversity Alliance, for one), but we can all do more if formal competition is going to remain part of the music world. A band teacher can keep an eye out for moments when individuals are left out of performance prep and provide spaces to combat exclusion (and act as a role model for middle schoolers who might not even realize they’re being exclusionary). Festival organizers can plan events with universal design in mind from the start rather than on case-by-case bases later, maybe even creating a rideshare board to help expand transportation access. Etc.
I have had amazing competition experiences which I have loved and benefitted from, but I strongly believe I’ve benefitted DESPITE obstacles rather than because of them. Plus, I got to show up in the first place. That’s not to be discounted.

Re: Inner competition: That’s a different story. At the coffeehouse last Sunday Dan mentioned a gamelike mindset. I’m all for that. I was driven for a long time by inner competition against a social construct (let’s be real, I’ll always be driven partially by this). I am also driven by competition against myself. “Yesterday you played that lick at 72 bpm, let’s see if you can get it to 75 today. Woo, level up!” I like what Denis and Kenny mentioned about emulation, imitation, admiration, etc. In that sense has been great; I hear all these players (pro and amateur alike) and am inspired to learn new things and improve my playing after I see and hear them improving theirs. That provides a huge amount of motivation.

Likewise, I love the idea of playing for ourselves that many people mentioned in their comments. If you’re not starting with yourself, that’s a slippery path. It’s cool to take personal pleasure in playing things that are different, or even playing things that everyone else is playing and acknowledging yourself for being a badass rather than comparing yourself to others.

On another note, some informal competitions are toxic. Is an informal cutting session excluding anyone? Why are they excluded? Were they invited in the first place? What message does that send? Does that exclusion mean missing out on opportunities to be noticed, to improve, to be invited to jams? Does it have to be that way?

The world is the way it is, and to succeed in the music industry there are obstacles that will always need to be overcome. Sure, I know that. We each battle our own inner obstacles too, and we get to decide to what degree we want to play for ourselves and to what degree we want to rise up in ranks and gain fame. Regardless of what we choose, we don’t have to say “that’s just the way it is.” We have an opportunity (maybe even a responsibility) to think carefully about all sorts of factors of accessibility in formal and informal competitive interactions and to make sure those factors are acknowledged and addressed.

I stated earlier in this thread that I didn't mind competition in classical music where the parameters are more traditionally established. However, in reading about your experiences with regards to gender discrimination as well as adjudicator bias, I've changed my outlook. I've never encountered that and not due to its absence, but more due to simply not being aware of it.

Thanks for bringing this out; it's a valid point.

John, thank you for your acknowledgement and willingness to consider my perspective. It is greatly appreciated. There may be other hidden obstacles that even I am unaware of; there are so many layers, and starting by acknowledging their existence is a crucial step in creating change.

I'm currently on both sides of the fence regarding this issue. I see the value of younger students having something to strive for within a competitive framework, and Tony has a point that for certain gigs like session work or playing in an orchestra where job openings are few, competition is the reality. But here is one idea that might be productive:

We use the phrase "a jury of your peers" in the world of law, and I wonder if student competition or college juries should take that cue and and aspire to that standard by having one's peers be the judges rather than faculty. After all, faculty could hardly be called a student's "peers." It may not solve the discrimination problem, but it would level the playing field considerably if jazz students made up the jury pool for other jazz students.