Sunday, July 27, 2008

Singing competitions are for losers

Quite a few choir members have come up to me over the last few months to ask why we don’t enter the Last Choir Standing competition. I tell them that’s it’s just not something that I’m interested in.

In fact, I wouldn’t want to go into any singing competition, let alone one that’s televised and is basically a prime-time light entertainment reality TV human interest razzmatazz knock-out competition which doesn’t really have much to do with singing. I talked a little bit about the Natural Voice objection to competitions in an earlier post OK you win - facing the competition.

For those people not based in the UK, Last Choir Standing is a televised knock-out competition to find the ‘best’ choir in the country (interestingly I thought the BBC already had a perfectly good choir competition: BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year! – but maybe that's too highbrow for prime-time). It is produced for the BBC and has been airing in the prime-time light-entertainment slot on a Saturday evening. It was originally going to be called Choir Wars, but there was a great deal of hoo ha about this, hence the name change.

I heard a radio programme recently about the philosophy of sport. Apparently one of the tennis players at Wimbledon this year had decided to stop reading philosophy during the competition as it was affecting his game adversely! There was then a discussion about what philosophers have to say about sports. One philosopher (I forget who) basically said that sports competitions – especially grand slams and knock-out competitions – are for losers. That is, everyone except the one eventual winner loses. So sports people and knock-out competitors need to get used to the fact that for the vast majority of the time they will be losing.

Why do people want to go in for these sorts of things? I guess it’s people who need some kind of external validation about their self-worth (see an interesting post about Where you get your personal worth from). As a choir leader, I know when we’re good and when we’re not quite up to scratch – and the singers pretty much know too. We’ve made CDs and performed regularly to appreciative audiences. Even when an audience has been luke-warm, we often know we’ve done really well. And sometimes exuberant ovations can’t hide the fact that we weren’t at our best (I've touched on this disparity between the audience's experience and the singers' experience in a previous post How was it for you?). We know when we’re doing well, without the need for outside judgment.

And what if we do go in for a competition and lose? What will that do to the choir’s self-confidence? Perhaps it will spur the choir on to work harder so they can do better next year. But then surely the focus becomes on the competition and not on the joys of singing?

And what if we actually win? That will boost our confidence enormously (but we could always sabotage this if we’re not feeling inner confidence: the judges weren’t that discriminating; the other competitors weren’t of a very high standard; not many choirs went in for the competition; etc. etc.). But it may well only last temporarily. Where do we go then? Bigger and better competitions? Or do we just enter again the next year with even more pressure to win? We’ve won once, won’t it be rather devastating to come second the next time? (This reminds me of those restaurants who boast that they won an award in 2002, or the village that won Best Village in Bloom in 1998 – how come they’ve become so bad in the intervening years?)

For some choirs, competitions are pretty much their sole purpose. Most barbershop choirs exist to compete and attend conventions. There is, of course, room for this, but personally I’m in it because I love singing!

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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