SOME THOUGHTS ON JAZZ COMPETITIONS
by Todd Stoll
It feels a little odd to be discussing competitions in the days right before I host one of the most competitive and perhaps well-known events in the country, Essentially Ellington. Or maybe it’s perfect. I’ve experienced almost every level of participation at our jazz competitions, from “loser” to “winner,” as a parent, director, and promotor, so I feel uniquely qualified to speak to these issues. I think the jazz education community may want to step back, becoming more thoughtful about our approach to what is becoming an increasingly popular part of our jazz education world.
A little background. When Essentially Ellington was founded 24 years ago, the intention was to raise the level of literature available to and performed by high school jazz bands. The fact that the first tours of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra — now the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — featured an all Ellington program was no accident. For my generation, to hear Wynton Marsalis and artists my own age playing this music, was transformational. It was remarkable that nearly all of that music was available to schools within a few years. By 2008, EE started to include additional important composers and arrangers, including Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Golson, and Gerald Wilson. It also made available rare music associated with the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Chick Webb. In total, bands can now access more than 156 newly-available pieces of literature from the great canon of American jazz orchestras. And all of the charts are FREE. That said, the competition part of EE is still the most widely publicized and visible aspect of the program. We continually strive to promote the entire program, but we are a nation that loves us some competition, so while we recognize that, we like to focus on EE as a continuous celebration of excellence for young people from every corner of the United States.
In general, competitions contain the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- Motivation, motivation, motivation
- Establish a director’s credibility
- High level of performance
- Scholarships and awards
- Meeting new and like-minded people
- Singular focus
- Teaching to “the test”
- Continued expectations
- Disappointment from students, parents, school administration
- Winning becomes the reason for existence
- Negative motivation
- Can devolve into cheating and questionable ethics
- Self-aggrandizing behavior
If you are the organizer of a competition, and concerned with possible negative effects, how do you actively promote community? I have seen student jam sessions as a great tool to bring kids together. An organized, guided session, with pre-selected tunes, and a close eye on the participants “vibing” one another, can really bring kids together, build relationships, and lessen the competitive nature. Instrument masterclasses can bring kids together. And don’t forget shared meals — pizza is a great equalizer. Divide the students up by instruments at each table, drop a few pizzas down, and see where things go!
Another powerful tool is bringing directors together. At JALC, we have done this several ways. We’ve held formal meetings where we speak openly about challenges, successes, and opportunities, and we’ve hosted informal social gatherings. While each event has its strengths, the social events have been some of our most memorable. It’s hard to dislike someone when you’re sharing a meal and stories from the trenches. When you take the time to get to know someone, a lot of that competitive drive begins to evaporate. The “we are all in this together” mentality begins to build, and relationships form that transcend the competition, leading to empathy, support, and even collaboration.
As a director, the fascination with competitions is easily tied to ego. This is a mixed bag and something I struggled with early in my teaching career. If you think about it, is our value as educators based on the performance of a group of teenagers? It’s actually a deep thought, and probably deserving of a separate column, but is your worth as a teacher tied directly to how a group of young people, in the throes of adolescence, besieged from all sides by external pressures, performs this music? Do we then make programming decisions about how well we believe a group will perform specific pieces? See where this is going? Do we place students in an ensemble based on what we may need for a competition? It’s a very slippery slope. And, what about the narrative that only the best directors win contests? My response to all of this is a giant NO.
Our worth is determined by the lives we change and the information we impart. THAT is the only measure. Now, I can hear many of you, and I get it. Principals, parents, school boards – the forces outside the band room we all have to consider — have a different perspective. But perhaps it’s time for us to change the discussion. As music is not a tested subject, we have the opportunity to train our communities as to the measurable success of our program. Let’s measure ourselves on the quality of our music, the depth of our content, and the lasting effects of our teaching.
I hope you all have a wonderful spring and end of school year. As you plan for next year, keep some of these things in mind. And reach out anytime.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P. Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.