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Music Contests

Module by: Gordon Lamb. E-mail the author

Summary: This module represents an examination of music contests mostly pertaining to high school music ensembles. There continues to be disagreement on the value of contests in the arts. The most offered comments for and against contests are listed and may provoke further discussion or comments and decisions whether or not to participate in contests.


Contests refer to situations where either large choral ensembles, small vocal ensembles, or soloists compete against each other, or against a standard of excellence for a rating. Usually a written critique is given and occasionally a verbal critique as well. Most often the judges are rating the ensembles or soloists against an unwritten standard, which means that more than one ensemble may receive a superior rating. There are some contests, usually private contests, that also give an outstanding choir award, runner-up award, etc.

Music contests vary from state to state. Some states have area or district contests, then a regional contest, and finally a state contest. Some states have only regional and state contests while still others have only a state contest. One set of guidelines will not fit all the various programs in our country. The discussion that follows concerning preparation is directed at a polished performance in the final contest. This should be a director's goal whether participating in a district contest or a series of contests.

There are also large privately sponsored choral contests that attract choirs from several states. Sometimes these contests place choirs in categories by size of school and by the rating the choir received in its own state association contest. For example, choirs receiving Division I ratings in state association contests would compete against each other, and the outstanding choir of this contest would be chosen from this group. Sometimes these contests offer money as a prize to the top-rated choirs. Since some states prohibit their schools from accepting prize money, it is best to know your state governing association rules on such matters before entering. If necessary, you can exclude prize money on the application blank as you enter.


Music contests and their value have been a subject of discussion for some years in music education. This is a highly explosive subject and those on both sides of the coin are equally sure they are right. If one intends to remain in music education, one will certainly become involved in a discussion of contests at one time or another, perhaps with an administration or a board of education. It is best to be familiar with both sides of the coin, whatever one's personal views are or become. Listed below are some of the arguments most often made for and against contest.

Table 1
For Contest Against Contest
1. Contests motivate the singers to perform at a higher level than at concerts. 1. Teachers, not contests, are motivators. Good teaching will provide the necessary motivation.
2. Contests give the students an opportunity to be constructively criticized by an expert. 2. A clinic will serve that purpose better than a contest.
3. Contests allow students to hear other ensembles composed of students their own age. 3. Most contests are so scheduled that the students do not have time to hear one another.
4. Contests provide an espirit de corps-a winning tradition that builds good departments. 4. A tradition of excellence will provide the same spirit and one of the most lasting quality.
5. Competition is a part of the free enterprise of America. Music contests help prepare students for competition in life. 5. Competition in the fine arts is undesirable and stifling. It should be left to sports where distinct winners and losers can be determined.
6. Contest results provide an administrator and school community a visible barometer of the success of the program. 6. Contest are poor barometers of teaching. The musical level may be considerably raised and still not merit or receive a superior rating.
7. Directors can learn how their department compares with other similar ones, and students will learn how they rank among other similar age students. 7. Contests pit directors against directors. Superior ratings at contests accomplish little, other than feeding the director's ego.
8. There are well known music contests held all over the world for which extremely talented performers prepare and enter. 8. The performers who enter major worldwide contest are establishing professional performing careers.

All of the above statements have been made in the music education world for a number of years. These facts remain.

1. We have music contests.

2. They are sponsored by the leading music and educational associations in each state who, by their sponsorship, evidently agree that contests are both educationally and musically sound.

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