“The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.” – Martina Navratilova, Tennis Star

A prevailing tendency in American jazz programs is competing against other ensembles at educational festivals, despite the quiet controversy that surrounds this activity. Since creativity is so subjective, many find it futile to present it in a competitive domain. As you admire Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s The Thinker, imagine choosing which sculpture is better. On the other hand, our lives have been forever changed by many great works of art and inventions that won competitions, and by others that did not. The fact of the matter is this; competition can be a motivator. It has pervaded every corner of our society as we compete for jobs, promotions, contracts and accounts. But regardless of the results, we must maintain a realistic impression of our self-worth. This also applies to how we run our school jazz programs. Given the attention we get from administrators for winning, it is understandable that most directors want to decorate their band rooms with trophies.

Educational jazz festival participation provides valuable insights about your band’s progress, but only if you and your students maintain a balanced perspective about competition. Sports performance consultant, Dr. Alan Goldberg, has this to say about student perspective: “They don’t have any!” Most high school students have yet to develop objectivity about big games or important performances; their perception of success and failure is skewed by what happens in the moment, with little understanding of the “big picture”. Let’s explore the experience from several viewpoints:

The Festival Coordinator

The quality of an educational jazz festival is contingent upon the vetting and hiring of experienced adjudicators, which need to be booked far in advance. So, the most important task for the festival coordinator is to evaluate the evaluators! First of all, great musicians do not always make great clinicians. A quality adjudicator is open-minded, has a thorough understanding of a wide variety of musical styles, and a realistic idea of what to expect from students at various ages and ability levels. Make sure the festival host has engaged the services of a clinician who will humanize the evaluation process by identifying positive aspects of the performance and making suggestions for improvement.

After three decades of adjudicating jazz festivals, I notice that developing jazz musicians still make the same mistakes, and clinicians still offer the same comments on their recordings and ratings sheets. This phenomenon will continue because secondary school students are in the midst of a learning process. By way of a math analogy, these students are adding and subtracting. If the adjudicator is expecting calculus, the fault lies with the festival coordinator for hiring someone unfamiliar with the abilities of developing musicians.

The Director

While competitive jazz festivals are certainly worthwhile, they should not be the sole reason our programs exist. Some educators teach their students to play jazz music. Others may think they are teaching the art form, but they are actually showing their students how to win contests. This is similar to academic instructors who are tasked with teaching students how to take standardized tests.

Jazz festivals are a microcosm of life. The competitive aspect provides us with a heightened impetus to improve our skills. But with thoughtful mental preparedness, your band members can feel good about an excellent festival performance whether they win or not. Inform your students that adjudicators’ comments or rankings are subjective. At one festival, the judges may praise you for programming modern, innovative charts – and you win. But when you perform the identical music at the next festival, an adjudicator deducts programming points because you didn’t include a Basie-style chart. This brings us to another oddity of music festivals – the point score. What makes a band score one-third of a point lower than the winning band? Most judges mentally rank the bands, and then configure the points in each category to support their opinions.

If a competitive mindset dominates your jazz program, pedagogic goals designed to foster individual and collective success can give way to strategies designed to avoid failure. A good example would be a director who instructs his student to play a memorized or written solo so the judges won’t hear wrong notes. This tactic is well known to adjudicators, most of who assign higher ratings in the solo category for improvised solos – even if we hear a few major 7ths on dominant chords.

Hyper-competitive programs are not always consciously planned, but rather they evolve over time. After a few festival wins, it is easy to start organizing the band’s activities so as to fabricate success. But when directors participate in smaller festivals they know they can win, or university ensembles compete against community college groups, these hollow victories create a skewed sense of accomplishment. A rude awakening awaits these individuals if they transition to the unprotected environment of the professional world.

The Students

In 2004, an upstate New York music educator spoke at a panel discussion about competition in music. He revealed some interesting facts about a study he conducted the previous year:

School ‘A’ had a director who meticulously prepared his jazz band for three competitive jazz festivals each year. The students worked tirelessly on their music, participated in required and ad hoc sectional rehearsals. No stone was left unturned in their preparation to compete. They rarely returned home with anything but first place trophies.

School ‘B’ had a director who taught his students about jazz. The jazz band experience included instruction in jazz theory, improvisation, jazz history and critical listening. The band usually placed at competitive jazz festivals, but rarely won.

In the subsequent two years, seven students from these two schools applied to collegiate jazz studies programs. Six were accepted and four of them were offered scholarships. They were all from School ‘B’. The micro goal of winning trophies was achieved by School ‘A’, while the macro goal of developing functioning musicians was not.

So where do we go from here? If your ensemble presents a great performance at a competitive festival, but takes second place, your students should still feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Whether they can feel good about themselves without a first place trophy depends on the extent to which you have created an environment with well-placed priorities that lead to better musicianship. And when you win, celebrate the experience knowing that you and your students have really learned about the art form of jazz, thus giving that award some genuine meaning.

If you remain concerned that your administrators will only respond to the trophies you accumulate, here is a way to justify the true value of your jazz program: Compile a “Where are they now?” list of former students who have succeeded in their respective collegiate jazz programs, teaching positions, and professional performance activities. Share your findings with your administrator, who is probably expected to provide his/her superiors with evidence of student learning outcomes.


Jeff Jarvis

President Elect/Higher Ed Rep