Blanka Pesja

Senior Art Educator - Conservatorium - Amsterdam University of the Arts

Month: March 2016

Competition, is Music Education the loser? The three myths

Extract from Competition, is Music Education the loser by James R. Austin published in Music Educators Journal February 1990 vol. 76 no. 6 21-25

Why do we compete?

Frank A. Beach, one of the founders of early school music contests in the USA, suggested that the purpose of contests was “not to win a prize but to pace one another on the road to excellence.”

Is competition a worthwhile educational tool, or does competition, by its very nature, undermine the learning process?

Does competition provide all students with a healthy experience, or are some students destined to flounder under such setups?

If structured contests and other forms of competition are not the answer, to what other educationally viable alternatives can music educators turn in their daily efforts to attract students to music courses, to motivate students to practice, and to maximize student achievement? (Austin,

The myths of competition

The expression “A little healthy competition never hurt anyone” mirrors our common belief that competition is an effective means of generating student interest, stimulating students toward higher levels of achievement, measuring students’ achievement in relation to that of other competitors, and preparing students for the eventualities of winning and losing in the real world. Surveys of public attitudes toward music competition confirm this; contests and other forms of competition are perceived as being valuable, if not essential, experiences for music students, and many directors feel a pressure to be competitive in relation to other school music programs. (Burnsed&Sochinski, 1983)

Kohn argues, however, that many of our beliefs about competition are based more on folk wisdom than on scientific fact. Among the myths that he attacks are the ideas that

1) competition is inevitable as a part of our human nature;

2) competition motivates us to do our best;

3) learning to compete builds character and self-confidence.

(Kohn, 1986)

The inevitability myth

The more avid proponents of competition often point to the pervasiveness of competition in our society as convincing evidence that being competitive is part of human nature and that a predisposition to compete must somehow be essential for survival and advancement as human beings.

Bil Gilbert, who has examined society’s fascination with competitive athletics, suggests that most people view competition as the “behavioral equivalent of gravity”-a necessary force guiding each individual to his or her proper niche in the world. (Gilbert, 1988)

Kohn counters that our fetish for competition is not innate but is, rather, a learned behavior. We perpetuate our belief in competition, he contends, by teaching our children to compete as we did and then citing the competitiveness of our children as proof that competition is inevitable. Blinded by this circular pattern of reasoning, we easily overlook the many interdependent aspects of living that are integral to survival in our own society, as well as the many foreign cultures that are clearly more cooperative than competitive in nature. Kohn adds that individuals who rely most heavily on the human nature argument are often those who have benefited from competition in the past and who will benefit from maintaining the status quo in the future.

The motivation myth

Many individuals propose that competition motivates us to do our best and that without competition we would wallow in a sea of mediocrity. Kohn, however, cites an impressive and growing body of research literature indicating that competition does not improve performance quality. Moreover, on complex tasks that require higher order thinking skills (such as creativity or problem solving), competition may actually interfere with learning and subsequent achievement.

The large gap between research findings and our intuitive beliefs on this matter might be explained as a difference in perspective. Competition connoisseurs are naturally drawn to the excitement and thrill of victory that surround extraordinary performances and winning performers. Researchers, on the other hand, generally concern themselves with larger populations that include not only elite performers but also average and struggling performers-individuals who often flounder under competitive conditions and bring the average performance score back down to earth in school achievement studies. (Austin,19..)

Martin Maehr, a presenter at the third session of the Ann Arbor Symposium on Motivation and Creativity, cautioned music educators about this phenomenon: “There is a tendency in music education to place elites and regulars on the same track, designing the system in such a way that most will inevitably fall by the wayside with only the cream of the crop surviving.

Competitions, contests, and recitals all seem to revolve around that end …. One does not create enduring motivational patterns by showing people that they are incompetent. Insofar as an activity is structured to do that, it will be a motivational failure for the large majority of the participants.” (Maer, 1983)

The character-building myth

Kohn states that feelings of competence are central to each individual’s self-esteem. “Competence” can be defined, most simply, as doing well in relation to some accepted standard of performance. Yet, many people confuse the term competence with “competitive success” or “winning.” These ideas are not analogous. It is quite possible to display competence without engaging in competitive behavior (for example, the master craftsman working in isolation). Conversely, one might enjoy competitive success (winning a swimming event) without attaining a desired level of competence (surpassing a previous best time by five seconds).

In Kohn’s view, our society tends to place greater emphasis on winning than on the demonstration of competence.


James R. Austin, Competition, is Music Education the loser?  Music Educators Journal February 1990 vol. 76 no. 6 21-25

Vernon Burnsed and James Sochinski, Research on Competition.” Music Educators Journal 70, no 20 (October 1983), 25-27

Alfie Kohn, No Contest: the case against competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986)

Bill Gilbers, “Competition, Is It What Life’s All About?” Sports Illustrated 68, no 20 (May 16 a988), 88

Martin L. Maer, “The Development of Continuing Interests in Music.” in Motivation and Creativity (Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 1983) 10


Competition: the four cornerstones

Final excerpt – Competition in Music in the Twentieth Century by Rohrer. P. Thomas (2012) 

The four cornerstones for my own thesis research.

Some perceive competition as a motivator that drives the participant to a higher level of achievement. Kohn, however, contended that “competition is fundamentally an interactive word, like kissing, and it stretches the term beyond usefulness to speak of competing with oneself.” (Kohn,)

Competition may produce positive and negative effects, depending on the circumstances surrounding the contest. Supporters argue that group competition develops “citizenship” skills of discipline and cooperation needed for the challenges of adult life. Some argue that intergroup competition (between groups) may foster cooperation within the groups, but without careful planning and supervision, competitive habits may transfer to the intragroup setting. (Friedman, 1983 p 28)

While often competition appears to be equally capable of generating a negative type of interaction among students that, especially for those experiencing repeated failure, may lead to diminished performance, anxiety, avoidance behavior, loss of self-esteem, decreased interest, or discontinued involvement in some task or activity.” (Austin, 1988)

“The competitive situation is one in which reinforcement is prescribed on the basis of a subject’s behavior relative to that of other individuals; while the cooperative or less-competitive situation involves working in harmony to achieve a mutually agreeable end. The person engaged in competition is concerned with winning, while the goal of winning need not be present under cooperative conditions. (Coleman, 1976, p xii)


Alphie Kohn, No Contest: The Case against Competition (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company,1986)p. 6

Marilyn R. Freedman, “Achievement Motivation, Future Orientation, and Intragroup versus Intergroup Structure: The Determinants of Level of Individual Performance in Groups” (Ph.D. diss., Ohio University, 1983), p. 28.

James R. Austin, “Competitive and Noncompetitive Goal Structures: An Analysis of Motivation and Achievement Outcomes among Elementary Band Students” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1988), p. 10.

Don Verlin Coleman, “Biographical, Personality, and Situational Determinants of Leisure Time Expenditure: With Specific Attention to Competitive Activities (Athletics) and to More Cooperative Activities (Music)” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1976), p. xii.

Music contests: the pros and cons

Attitudes toward Music Contests: the pros and cons:

Society values competition as a vestige from our past—a “true” measure of value or worth. Modern research points to the havoc that competition can create in the educational or developmental process.
Its strength lies in the stimulation given students to do their best. Its weakness lies in the fact that winning may become an end in itself.
Receiving a high rating makes the band feel good. Winning often became the primary goal rather than improvement and learning.
Contests raises standards of performance. Difficult to see where the athletic field ends and class room begins.
Contest raises the spirit of the band. Jealousy is born, strife is bred.
Fostering an at-large interest in music. Competition focuses attention and energy on an external force— the fellow competitor—rather than the performance at hand.
The idea [of music contests] is successful because it brings out the instincts of rivalry and conquest. There is enough of heated struggle in life without deliberately and unnecessarily fanning the spark in childhood
The importance of learning “citizenship” through a competitive music program while improving motivation and public relations. Concern for those students who do not achieve success in competition and are unprepared for the consequences of losing.
Competition has educational benefits for students including: 1) incentive for hard work, 2) a standard for performance 3) a good “social education. A person taught to be highly competitive in an intergroup setting (one group united against another) may transfer the competitive feelings to members of his/her own group (intragroup competition).
Fear about reduction of standards with the removal of competitive element. The stress of competition may cause children to avoid involvement altogether.
Contests defended on the basis of its ability to elicit virtuoso effort. Negative experiences can lead to an “overconcern for perfection” that cause students to drop out.
(1) the use of better music, (2) the improvement of instrumentation, (3) increased interest in school music by parents and students, (4) adjudicators’ comments, and (5) the opportunity for students to hear other groups 1) an overemphasis on the competitive aspect, 2) too much time spent on festival pieces, 3) poor adjudication, 4) de-emphasis of the other fine ensembles performing at an event.


Attitudes towards music contest – part III (survey)

Excerpt – Competition in Music in the Twentieth Century by Rohrer. P. Thomas (2012) part III

The Critics of Competition

From the inception of contests, the main concern was the abuse of the system by adults who might foster a “win-at-all-costs” attitude. In a 1953 study of band adjudication in competition- festivals, Bell concluded that winning often became the primary goal rather than improvement and learning. (Bell, 1953)

A study by Ames from the same decade suggested that tension, pressure and rivalry might be eliminated, particularly from smaller schools, by the use of a festival-type format without the competitive element. (Ames, 1950)

Regarding band contests in general, Neil found four major criticisms (Neil, 1944);

1) an overemphasis on the competitive aspect,

2) too much time spent on festival pieces,

3) poor adjudication,

4) de-emphasis by the director of the other fine ensembles performing at an event.

Kohut expressed particular concern for those students who do not achieve success in competition and are unprepared for the consequences of losing.(Kohut, 1985)

The passionate pleas of many educators over the past eighty-odd years of band competition appear in one paragraph written in 1925 by Carl Engel:

“The idea [of music contests] is successful because it brings out the instincts of rivalry and conquest. There is enough of heated struggle in life without deliberately and unnecessarily fanning the spark in childhood. … In any prize contest there must needs be a winner, or a small number of winners, and a great many losers. Jealousy is born, strife is bred.” (Engel, 1925)


Controversy has surrounded U.S. music contests from their inception. Many studies surveyed opinions of band directors, students, administrators, and parents, but the inability to reach a consensus on the role of contests caused a philosophical schism within the music teaching community and a resulting inconsistency from one school to another.

Proponents of contests continue their support in present times, citing the same benefits that inspired the original music competitions. They argue that, aside from fostering an at-large interest in music, competition has educational benefits for students including

  • incentive for hard work,
  • a standard for performance
  • a good “social education.

Supporting educators stress the importance of learning “citizenship” through a competitive music program while improving motivation and public relations.


Cecil Charles Bell, Jr., “A Study of the Development of the Competition-Festival in Its Relationship to Band Adjuducation” (M.M. thesis, University of Texas, 1953), as cited in Donald D. DeuPree, “An Analysis of the Colorado Large Group Musical Competition-Festival System,” p. 14.

William Howard Ames, “A Survey of Public High School Music Teachers’ Opinions Concerning Competitive Music Festivals in the State of Washington” (M.A. thesis, State College of Washington, 1950), p. 34.

Ronald J. Neil, “The Development of the Competition-Festival in Music Education” (Ph.D. diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1944), p. 119.

Daniel L. Kohut, Musical Performance: Learning Theory and Pedagogy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), p. 93.

Carl Engel, “Views and Reviews,” Musical Quarterly XI, no. 3 (1925): 628.

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