September 29, 2014

Musings on Competition vs. Cooperation in the Choral Arts

Dr. Jason Paulk, SWACDA Collegiate Research and Standards Chair Director of Choral Activities and Associate Professor of Music at Eastern New Mexico University

paulkSales! Revenue! Contracts! Profits! Wins! Losses! This is the stuff of promotion, advancement, and commerce. Awards are often given to salesmen, teams, organizations, and leaders who "close the sale," "bring home the prize," and are "top earners." These terms and practices are associated with the advancement of business and commerce in our society and they often infiltrate other areas of our lives. For example, in the choral arts, ensembles often receive accolades for acceptance to perform at festivals--such as ACDA regional and national conventions--and for their performance at competitions, contests, and adjudicated performance assessments, often winning "sweepstakes," or "superior ratings," or "grand prixe" at the International Federated Choir of the World Competition.

It's Not About Winning: It's About Learning

I vividly remember a conversation with a professor who I held in high regard during my first year of a Master's Degree at ncycWestminster Choir College. During our conversation he questioned the importance and validity of competition in music, specifically conducting. Having recently won a conducting competition and prize through ACDA, I vehemently argued the positive results of competition, among those including "self improvement," "higher output," "increased effectiveness and rehearsal efficiency," and several other naive and immature ideas. The conversation has replayed in my mind through the years for multiple reasons, chiefly because I think it negatively impacted this wonderful teacher's perception of me and my ability to learn from him to become a great musician. Fortunately, my thoughts regarding competition did not end with the terminal degree. As I have aged, I have gained an enhanced perspective and an appreciation of the world through thinking deeply about my interactions with others, about my role as a teacher, husband, human being, and about my place in the world. Empathy and selflessness has become more important as my leadership skills have increased, as has my desire to see others "win" through excellent opportunities and experiences.

A Paradigm of Cooperation

Perhaps there should be awards given to leaders of organizations who cooperate the best, or who enable others to succeed the best, or who listen and respond most effectively. These prizes would place emphasis on the practices that drive excellence in education, improve society, and allow for experiences that ennoble and enrich all those who participate. Great leaders realize that competitions are results-oriented exercises, with a defined output measured for a specified duration of time resulting in one or more laudable "winners," whereas collaborations are open-ended and qualitative ventures that usually result in an increased desire in participants to seek further activity and enrichment through similar work together. Comparing the effectiveness of each act is a hands-down win for the collaborative approach.

Is it wrong to strive for your choir to be "accepted" or "invited" to perform on an important competition or convention? Of course not. Is it wrong for this goal to motivate all of your repertoire choices, your activities, your performances, your networking, and the educational thrust for your students. Perhaps. I would suggest at least a visit to a place of self-reflection and putting one's ego in check.

During the last couple of years, I have given increasing thought to how my leadership influences how students perceive and perpetuate their future practices. Do my students see as a priority for me the act of helping others? We try to host numerous ensembles on campus each year at ENMU in order to help them in a clinic format as they prepare for festivals and the like. Likewise, we try to provide opportunities for our students to sing together with visitors and to sing for each other to reinforce the importance of experiencing the joy and exhilaration of singing and listening to great music. We have had the opportunity to work with campus organizations to provide music for various events, including Martin Luther King celebrations, multicultural affairs events, and others, and each time we have learned and been enriched through the performance.

I have often asked myself: "Do my students see as a priority for me the act of joining forces with other performance organizations in our state and region?" As "no man is an island," so too is "no conductor an island." I have learned so much through the process of collaborations with choirs and orchestras throughout our state and region.

Since our music department at ENMU doesn't have a string orchestra, I have had to be somewhat creative in helping our students experience the joys of singing symphonic choral repertoire and we have been able to bring several different orchestras to campus over the last ten years. For several years, I have wanted to program Handel's Messiah in its entirety, but because of limitations with budget and other reasons, it has proven impossible. This fall, through collaborations with a local arts organization--the Clovis Cultural Arts Series--and several other organizations, including the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra, Clovis Community Chorus, and funding from ENMU and Plateau Wireless, we have finally been able to accomplish the goal. Without some very important groundwork having been laid over the last ten years with our work together with each of these organizations, the present production--including professional soloists from New York and Oklahoma could not have been possible.

Another example of a positive collaboration involves another regional state university (West Texas A & M) that is located about 120 miles from Eastern New Mexico University, with whom we have traditionally had bitter sports rivalries. The choirs, orchestra, and conductors of these ensembles have become close allies in our quest for performing incredible choral-orchestral repertoire. Two years ago, we performed to two packed houses (on their campus and ours) Mozart's Requiem. Next spring, we will be performing Verdi's Requiem, also on their campus and ours--strengthening our shared vision of cooperation, not competition. Do we sometimes recruit the same students and share the same media for good news about our organizations? Yes. Are both institutions stronger because of the work we've done together in forging lasting performance relationships and for exemplifying for our students what arts partnerships are about? Absolutely!

Myriad possibilities for collaboration exist. Creating opportunities for amateur singers from the
community to join your collegiate ensemble or high school choir ranks can be thrilling for everyone involved. Bringing together lots of different ensembles in pursuit of a joint performance, such as a hymn festival or "Messiah Sing-a-Long," can go a long way toward developing positive long-term relationships. Relationships based on performance experiences are very worthwhile and should be cultivated and nurtured. These examples are just a few of many more that promote collaboration and have been implemented successfully through the years. Many other ideas come to mind and we are only limited by our creativity. And collaboration doesn't happen by accident; it must be pondered and planned. Consider keeping several important and ongoing lists going in your spare time: 1)repertoire for consideration and study, 2)rehearsal strategies, 3)development and marketing goals, and 4)collaboration considerations.


I would encourage each conductor and conductor-in-training reading this article to consider how to prioritize opportunities for collaboration both now and in the future. Everyone wins when we sing together. There are no losers. Let's maximize our effectiveness as choral leaders by providing opportunities for as much collaboration as we can. As we do, we are preparing a new generation of leaders who can be transformational in their chosen field of work, whether music or otherwise. Teamwork! Empathy! Selflessness! Collaboration! These attributes make all of us winners! Comments or questions can be directed to Dr. Jason Paulk, or 575-562-2798.