In my first 15 years as a middle school band teacher, I used all the competitive schemes, including a chairs and challenges system familiar to anyone who’s played in a school instrumental group: Teacher publicly ranks kids by playing ability. Kids challenge each other in teacher-judged playoffs to move up and down the “chair” pecking order. First chair players are designated leaders, getting solos and more interesting parts. Kids at the bottom of the ladder don’t get much beyond the opportunity to go after their classmates. The theory is that all kids will practice more, and thus improve. The reality is that most challenges and chair-hopping occur at the top of the heap; the kids down below slog along listlessly. And then drop out.
I wish I could say I ended the challenge system because my eyes were opened to its pedagogical inefficiency and questionable morality. Actually, I just got sick of having flute players crying in my office and drummers hiding their competitor's sticks to prevent last-minute cramming before a challenge. No chairs any more, I said. From now on, you’ll have assigned seats. I sat kids in mixed-ability groups and rotated the melody and harmony parts. If there were solos, anyone could try out, and we voted. Our new goals were pursuing excellence and playing amazing music.
Almost immediately, several things happened: My band program got larger, as fewer kids quit. The kids with weaker skills improved, sitting next to stronger players and playing more challenging parts. And, in turn, my bands got better, as performance quality was more even across the group—allowing us to choose increasingly difficult and rewarding music. Kids who might have been last chair under the old system didn’t realize they were the weakest link, and signed up for solo festival, building even more personal proficiency.
And, of course, I had some complaints, from parents of former first chairs. The complaints lasted exactly as long as it took to flush the memory of chairs and challenges out of the system. And from then on—mixed seating was the norm.
That’s another thing I learned from Alfie Kohn. The principle under most competitions is: Cui bono—who benefits? Whose ox will be gored if we stop competing? And whose star might rise? When chairs disappeared from my classroom—when there was no longer a list on the wall rank-ordering my clarinet players for everyone to see—kids were free to concentrate on becoming a music-making community.
It’s odd that these competitive routines are so entrenched in school music programs. The party line on the benefits of music education is all about creativity, artistic expression and teamwork. Most music teachers, whose own fortunes in music school rose and fell on the chair system, are well aware of how uncomfortable it is to be worried about the person above or below you hawking your mistakes. It’s easy to forget about the power and pleasure of music, lost in guarding your position.
In all creative arts, the ideal is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—that place where you stop thinking consciously about performance and are fully lost in the beauty and delight. Veteran jazz musicians depend on flow, a result of their deep knowledge and experience, to trigger inspiring improvisation. Flow doesn’t often happen when you’re 12 years old, but I have witnessed student musicians lose themselves in peak experiences, awestruck after a glorious final massed chord, or closing their eyes to put a little more feeling into a passage. Why would we want to distract them from something as important as that?