“The Winner takes it all” decries ABBA’s blonde Agnetha, in one of the pop world’s most anguished break-up songs. The “Loser” in contrast, is “standing small” or “has to fall”. Such is the black-and-white concept, for many, of competition. And it seems society goes through phases of deciding whether competition is a good thing or not, on the basis of: while it creates “Winners,” by definition there must also be, well, those who have “Not Won”. And this is seen by many to be A Bad Thing.
I started school in the 1970’s when the prevailing educational fad was to build self-confidence in students by having as little competition as possible. Sports Days were round-robin affairs where we all received ribbons for participation. Even my early report cards note results as “+” “o“ or “-”, lest some poor child get their little nose out of joint by being awarded a “B” rather than an “A”.
Perhaps it had some positive effect, in a feel-good manner.
But the most immediate effects on me were: I arrived at Secondary School having not been taught any skills in any sport, and without a clear impression of what I might be good at, aside from music.
Interestingly enough, my musical education, rather than looking to maintain the status quo, was focused on achieving excellence, and that same desired self-confidence was built from performance and actual achievement.
My first violin and piano teacher, Marie Roberts, held an extensive student concert each Christmas, at which all the students would perform: in groups, duets and singly. Mums, Dads and Grandparents were invited and we all wore out best party dresses.
In addition, we sat yearly practical exams (which were, [shock! horror!] graded A+, A, B, C and D) and also Music Theory (Exams marked out of 100… 75% being deemed the desired “Credit”).
Yet we were all “Winners”. Certainty in our proud parents’ eyes.
As a 10-year old I performed on TV talent show “Pot of Gold”, playing the violin, accompanied by my elder sister on piano. As “Act 5” I didn’t “win”, but what a fantastic experience it was, details of which I remember to this day.
Spending the day at the Channel 10 studio, amongst the other “Acts” including the (at the time) well known compere and judges. (See here: https://youtu.be/Vlf36XRuwv0 for the full nostalgic amusement). Getting the inside perspective of the makeup room, back corridors, and the red “LIVE” light which meant taping was in session, and you must not enter.
And appearing on TV! Wow! Truly “Lights, Camera, Action”.
Then there were the yearly Eisteddfods. These were always held, for some inexplicable reason, in the middle of winter in a draughty church hall. So it was always freezing. The competitors for each section would huddle around a bar radiator back stage in our coats and gloves. (We even had special pocket hand-warmers). We took part in various piano and violin “Sections”, divided by age group: Solos, Piano Duets and, as we progressed, the Junior, then Senior “Eisteddfod Concerto”.
Over a period of years we got to know students from other teachers and areas of Adelaide who were the same age and looked forward to meeting them in “Our Section” from one year to the next.
Of course it was always nice to “win”, but the aim was more to do your best and to play as well as possible. As we were all friends, I was often happy for someone else to be acknowledged…as long as we agreed with the adjudicator!
My Grandma Myrtle really enjoyed the Eisteddfod and had a season ticket. She would attend weeks of sessions whether my sisters and I were appearing or not, often bringing one of her mates and a spare crocheted knee-rug to share with us… Grandma would mark up her program with her own choice of prizewinners and comments – rarely did the official adjudicator “disagree” with her.
Aged 9, I took part in a “set piece” section for Piano Under 10, where we all had to play the same piece “Four Funny Frogs” by Australian composer Miriam Hyde. I can still sing part of this ditty in my head, even now, as the music was designed to teach the “Three against two” concept – playing straight quavers (eighth notes) in one hand while a “triplet” on the other. Chanting “Four Funny Frogs” in time was supposed to help this feat of rhythmic coordination.
One of the conveners had placed 4 leather frogs on the piano in sympathy – which I did not notice at all as I performed…. but which were brought to my attention afterwards when a photographer from the local paper asked for a re-enactment!
These are the memories that stay with me.
The competition aspect was as much an incentive to work hard and perform well – a “personal best” I suppose.
With this came the life lessons of perseverance, consistency, practice, repetition (necessitating patience), combatting nerves, picking up and carrying on if something went wrong, and then…when the “Prizes” were produced, being able to accept these “results” with good grace.
Being humble in “success”, when it came, but also accepting of not winning. And to be happy for and proud of those who did.
I’ve been thinking on all these things this week, with two excursions with students from the school where I teach, to the Gold Coast Eisteddfod. Far from a freezing, dusty, church hall, the Music sections are held in the professional Gold Coast Arts centre, quite the prestigious venue.
Tuesday Morning was “Novice Strings” (Year 4) and Wednesday afternoon my Senior String Orchestra.
The little ones were very excited and it was their first ever “gig” as a group (a perfectly balanced 12 violins, 4 violas, 4 celli), so their performance taking place at the Arts Centre was quite special. The whole Eisteddfod here runs like clockwork with schools allocated warm-up rooms, and being shepherded in and out of the stalls (front section of the audience) to see the other schools perform.
My students acquitted themselves very well and I was most proud of them. But, like Grandma 35 years ago, It was evident to me (and also, interestingly, the senior students) which other groups had that little extra bit of finesse, panache, had greater dynamic contrast, all their bow strokes synchronised, excellent balance and so on. So we expected those schools to be “placed” ahead of us (which they were) and that seemed right (which it was).
But both of my groups received awards (Very Highly Commended – 4th out of 9, and Highly Commended – 5th out of 11) and positive comments. The adjudicator also acknowledged (on both days) that there was a variance of experience and background between students in the ensembles – some school programs beginning earlier, some students undertaking group lessons while others have more intensive one-on-one tuition. Also, anecdotally, I am aware that some schools devote more time (and staffing) within a typical week to preparation. So it is still not a level playing field. And these are all things to take away and consider for further improvements.
An added bonus was that taking the Orchestra kids out was actually fun! Especially as we were quite early with the senior group so had a bit of a picnic by the nearby lake beforehand, a chance to enjoy the perfect weather and some fresh air.
What did the students gain from all this, then, granted that they did not “Win”?
I would say, for example, the “Novice Strings”, a music ensemble recently formed, which only rehearsed properly together twice, learned about: precision, ensemble, concentration, cooperation and working together, displaying cohesion and (a certain amount of) maturity, giving their first EVER performance very publically and in front of hundreds of people, representing their school and doing a great job of it, all at the age of 9….
So, as a child (and young musician), and now an adult (parent and teacher), I don’t believe we are simply divided into “Winners” and “Losers”.
Sorry, Agnetha, I’m glad to say you got it wrong.