To compete or not to compete

Recently, several people have told me that they’d like BeVox to enter a singing competition – be it “Britain’s Got Talent”, “Eurovision Choir of the Year” or any one of a number of others. In this blog, I’d like to look at this suggestion, and explain the thought process behind why my answer is “no”.

What is good, and what is good for us?

There are some basic things that a choir can be reasonably accurately judged on – objective things. Are they in tune and in time? Were the notes, rhythms and words correct? However, these objective measurements don’t take into account who it is that is singing, and what their experiences are. For The Sixteen or the BBC Singers to achieve all of these objective goals is hardly worthy of mention – it is the absolute least that you would expect. For a group of complete amateur singers, who have just come together to enjoy singing, achieving all of these things would be a big deal. So, what constitutes success when you have such wildly different expectations of different groups?

With BeVox, as with virtually all community choirs, within the choir we have strong, confident singers and nervous, timid ones. We have people who have been singing most of their lives, and people who have never sung before. We have people who are comfortable standing up in front of an audience, and people for whom it takes all their courage to walk into the weekly session with the rest of their fellow singers. We have fluent music readers, and people for whom the sheet music may as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs. What standard of purely technical achievement would constitute “good” for this disparate group?

Any judgement of the choir would be given to us as a single entity, not taking into account the variety of people we have within the choir. Technical perfection would be beyond our least experienced singers, so if this is the standard used to judge us, we’ll always fail. But if the standards used to judge us are lower, they fail to recognise the achievement of those who do get everything right. They also fail to recognise the achievement of those who previously haven’t been able to get everything right, but now can – and that journey, from “can’t” to “can”, is the most important thing we do.

Who judges us, and what authority do they have?

There are so many more elements, beyond those mentioned above, that we could be judged on. After we’ve considered the objective measurements that can be made, we get into the realm of the subjective. Does the choir blend well? Did we have lots of variation of volume? Was the meaning of the song conveyed? As soon as we get into these subjective areas, personal taste starts to play a part. With some things, such as blend, there can be broad agreement about what is a “desirable” sound, but there’s room for different views. With other elements, such as emotional resonance or the “tingle factor”, it’s entirely personal, and one person’s view has no more weight than another’s. In a race, one person goes measurably faster than the others and wins – in a choir competition, how can you fairly decide who has “won”?

If a competition judge was to tell us that our performance lacked variety of volume, this is because they expected variety of volume and we didn’t deliver it. We might have chosen to keep the dynamics subtle for a reason, but because it wasn’t what the judge was expecting, or what they wanted, we’d be marked down. Why does the judge’s opinion on this have more weight than ours? Sure, they’re likely to have a significant amount of musical experience, but that doesn’t make their view on subjective matters any more valid than anyone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that experience and expertise count for nothing – just that elements of personal taste are bound to come into something as subjective as the sound of a choir singing. These elements of personal taste couldn’t be shared with the competitors beforehand, so we would be trying to please the judge without knowing what their criteria were. Plus, there is a tendency to accept the judgement of authority figures without question, and I think this should be challenged. The wisdom of experience is definitely valuable, but it shouldn’t be accepted blindly – after all, how can new and startling things be developed if everyone aims to replicate what has already been done?

Winners and losers

In any competition, there are winners and losers. How we handle being branded a “winner” or a “loser” will depend a lot on our psychological make-up. If we’re called a “winner”, it can make us feel happy, proud, and jubilant. Why would we be happy and proud of our achievement because someone else has told us we’re a winner – why couldn’t we be happy and proud of our achievements anyway? Why do we need an external source to validate what we’re doing? Wouldn’t it be more healthy, emotionally, to evaluate how we’re doing as a choir every time we sing, and have our emotional reaction to that, rather than to someone else’s subjective opinion of our performance? Taking this further, is there a danger that we become “hooked” on seeking external validation – wanting to win the next prize, to succeed in the next competition – constantly looking for the next buzz rather than enjoying what we’re doing right here and now? Is there also a danger that the thrill we receive from winning starts to dull if we keep winning? That we become complacent or blasé about success?

Striving to win a competition includes wanting other like-minded people to lose. If we want to get better at what we do, we might do better learning from other groups rather than hoping they fail so that we can succeed.

And how about if we lose? We are a “loser”. For some, this will spur them on to try harder next time – in fact, this is the main argument that people put to me when I suggest that “winning” and “losing” isn’t healthy. It certainly seems like it could be a good thing – we enter a competition, we lose, we try harder next time in an effort to win. Where’s the harm in that? My argument is that we’re working harder in order to get someone else’s validation, someone else’s approval of what we’re doing. Wouldn’t it be much better if we were seeking our own validation – our own sense of pride and success? “Chasing the win” puts responsibility for our successes and failures in someone else’s hands – and takes away from the great sense of pride and joy that should come from being in a choir. For me, singing should be about enjoying making music together, not from jumping through arbitrary hoops in order to please an external judge.

Of course, for some people, being a “loser” is a big blow. They’ve worked so hard, come so far, and then they’re told it’s not good enough. It might bring back memories of being told they can’t sing, perhaps as a child (a very common story from people who join community choirs). It might make them question why they’re bothering. It might make them less confident, not just as a singer, but at putting themselves forward in life generally. Is that a price we’re willing to pay?

I would argue that, when a group of people come together to share their love of singing, there can be no losers. We know the great benefits that singing together brings – physically, mentally, socially. How can anyone who is engaged in that activity be a loser? The label just doesn’t fit, and I view it as wrong for competitions to brand people as “losers” for failing to match some arbitrary, subjective standards – not just something I merely disagree with, but something that is actively damaging to those taking part.

What’s the alternative?

When I tell people that I don’t believe competition is healthy, a number of them think I’m saying that we shouldn’t strive to improve. That couldn’t be further from the case. Striving to improve is absolutely central to my whole philosophy – not just for choirs, but in life generally. I believe the only sensible, healthy measure of improvement is to measure yourself against yourself – to try to get better at what you are doing, not to worry about how you compare to others. If you don’t have the beautiful tone of Bryn Terfel (there’s that subjective thing again!) or the vocal range of Whitney Houston, that’s because you’re not them; you’re YOU. If you’d like to have a nicer tone or a wider range, you can work on it, and see how you improve – compare the you of now to the you of last year, and compete with that, rather than with anyone else. This is like athletes striving to beat their previous personal best, and is the healthiest form of competition I can imagine.

Competition versus collaboration

Rather than competing with other choirs, why not collaborate with them? That doesn’t necessarily mean singing with them, although it easily could. It could involve a partnership where two choirs in a similar area agree to go and watch the other’s performances, and give each other feedback afterwards. This is hugely rewarding in lots of different ways – musically, each choir will learn from the other; socially, all the singers will get a great night out; and financially, each choir will get a bigger audience for their concerts!

There are a small number of music festivals that just celebrate people performing, rather than awarding prizes or introducing other elements of competition. These festivals seem far more worthwhile to me than those that compete – you come away from them having been immersed in great music-making, and with new bonds of friendship formed between the performers. I would view this experience as being far more in tune with the goals of a community choir than any competition could ever be.

Post-script: The difference between competition and auditions

I’m very aware that I’m posting this blog the day after the BeVox soloist auditions, and there could be a danger of people looking at what I’m saying here and thinking that auditions do a similar thing to competitions. After all, they rely on an external person (me) making subjective decisions about people’s performance, and if someone auditions and isn’t offered the chance to sing in a concert, they may feel they’ve been branded a “loser”. I wanted to address this idea straight away, as I can see how it would be easy to think I was saying one thing and doing another, and I want to explain why that isn’t the case.

First of all, with our soloist auditions there is no competition between singers taking part. This is because we don’t have a set number of soloist “slots” within a concert that we have to fill. If we were looking for a fixed number of soloists, say 5, then the “best” 5 solos from the auditions would be picked, and everyone else wouldn’t be, which means that singers would be competing between themselves for the available slots. We don’t do this – we have a certain standard that we’re looking for in our soloists, and if people meet that standard, they’re offered the chance to sing in a concert. It doesn’t matter how many people meet the standard – if they do, they’re offered something. (We’re able to do this because we do multiple concerts at the end of each season, so we can spread the soloists over several concerts if we have lots that hit the standard). The only competitive element is people competing with themselves to develop as singers, to the point that they’re ready for an audience.

The audition process isn’t about being “judged”, it’s about getting an accurate appraisal of how your performance as a soloist would be perceived by an audience. It’s a step in a process, not an end in itself. There are two goals to the audition process – one is for the soloist to find out what standard their own performance is at, which calibrates their own self-assessment of their development. It’s tough to get an accurate picture of how your performance stacks up as a singer, and having an external ear (and a video recording of your audition) can help with that. The other goal is for me to assess whether a soloist’s performance is ready for an audience or not, and to match soloists with appropriate events. This is partly about making sure we have the right soloists for a concert, but it’s equally about making sure we have the right concerts for a soloist – it’s about giving people an event that matches their current capabilities. It’s not in the choir’s best interests for us to include a soloist who isn’t ready for an audience yet – but more importantly, it’s not in the soloist’s interests either. When someone auditions and I don’t offer them a spot in a concert, I’m not branding them a “loser” – I’m protecting them from the deeply debilitating experience of singing to a live audience who don’t enjoy their performance. I also give them focussed feedback on how they can improve, alongside a video of their audition that they can watch and learn from. It’s a supportive process, with the best interests of the singer at heart – a far cry from the atmosphere of a singing competition.

Author: Tim Allen (admin)

Director of BeVox