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

The Supporters of Competition

Generally, arguments for the continuation of competition gravitate toward those of Marguerite Hood, who in 1936, expressed a fear about reduction of standards with the removal of competitive elements.

The Neil study in 1944 found that directors valued contests for

1) the use of better music

2) the improvement of instrumentation

3) increased interest in school music by parents and students,

4) adjudicators’ comments,

5) the opportunity for students to hear other groups.


In addition to general values of contests, the Neil survey obtained directors’ opinions regarding student benefits:

1) incentive for hard work,

2) a standard for performance

3) a good “social education.”

(Neil, 1944, p 117)

Competition in Music: Why Not?

Competition, in general, is a primary element in the sports world. A study by Coleman concluded that musicians found their endeavors significantly more cooperative than did athletes, and athletes perceived their activities as significantly more competitive than did musicians. At the same time, musicians were more serious, while athletes were more carefree toward their respective activity.

Coleman defined competition as follows:

“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)

Saferstein discussed competition in an athletic context:

The fundamental demands of athletic competition are the same as those inherent in all competitive activities:

  1. a) some type of performance must occur, that is, an ability or attribute must be demonstrated
  2. b) this performance must be compared with some standard such as the performance of others or the person’s past performance
  3. c) at least one person must be present, other than the performer, who can evaluate the comparison process. (Saferstein, 1989, p 5)

“Many of today’s music educators are immersed in the race to be number one, and at times it is difficult to tell where the athletic field ends and the music classroom begins. Well meaning rhetoric continues to surround competitive music events, but in the final analysis, education appears to be a serendipitous by product, rather than a primary goal, for the many teachers and students who cling to contest outcomes for social status and material rewards.”(Austin, 1990, p 22)

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)

Thus, 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).(Austin, 1990. p 153)

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, 1986, p 6)

As a result, competition focuses attention and energy on an external force— the fellow competitor—rather than the performance at hand.

In a sports context, Saferstein found that the stress of competition may cause children to avoid involvement altogether. Negative experiences can lead to an “overconcern for perfection” that causes some students to drop out. (Saferstein, 1989, p 2).

Music educators face a conflict of interests regarding competition. This “identity crisis” (as named by Austin) balances music between curricular and extracurricular status; although music may be called a cooperative endeavor, the use of competition as a motivator can negate this unique quality and equate music with extracurricular activities, while others in the profession strive for music as a core subject. (Austin, 1990, p1)

Kohn criticized the competitive atmosphere fostered in American society. The “endless succession of contests from the moment our alarm clock rings until sleep overtakes us again” begins early in life: “From the time we are toddlers until the day we die, we are struggling to outdo others.”(Kohn, 1986)

This competitive spirit is a major element in some music programs. Ironically, according to Saferstein, “All sports were found to be less anxiety-inducing than band solo competition.”(Saferstein, 1989, p 4)


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

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)

Doyle C. Johnson, “A Survey and Analysis of the Problems and Criticisms of Texas Public School Band Contests” (M.A. thesis, Sam Houston State Teachers College, 1964)

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.

Daniel Bennett Saferstein, “Factors Affecting Competitive Trait Anxiety in Elite Junior Tennis Players” (Ph.D. diss., California School of Professional Psychology-Fresno, 1989)

James R. Austin, “Competition: Is Music Education the Loser?” Music Educators Journal 76, no. 1 (Feb., 1990)

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)

James R. Austin, “Competition: Is Music Education the Loser?” Music Educators Journal 76, no. 1 (Feb., 1990)

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

Daniel Bennett Saferstein, “Factors Affecting Competitive Trait Anxiety in Elite Junior Tennis Players” (Ph.D. diss., California School of Professional Psychology-Fresno, 1989)