An Exploration of Competition

Competition, it can be said, is a driving force for self-betterment. We see around us our peers, some of whom can perform some tasks better than us or have reached a higher level of achievement in some ways. This act of observation drives us to strive to meet or exceed those achievements—all of which sounds very positive. There is, however, a downside: it is the insidious transformation of the person with whom one is competing into an obstacle rather than a person, a dehumanization that makes the degradation and defeat of the opponent something to be celebrated. Competition is not just something individuals do—all the same arguments and conclusions apply to larger bodies like businesses and corporations, and notably, the sporting world, where “being a good sport” can sometimes seem like a contradictory use of the word “sport.”

What is healthy competition?

As a loose definition, healthy competition is the interaction between individuals that promotes and fosters striving for higher achievements yet creates an environment where everyone in the group hopes that everyone will do well, rather than wish that others fail. Striving to do well without the destructive wish to seem better by the failure or degradation of others is a characteristic worth striving for, one that is worthy of the idea behind Suzuki Talent Education—that a beautiful soul is the ultimate goal, summarized in the often-quoted words of Shinichi Suzuki: “Beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”

A Work in Progress

Finding a balance between being supportive of your peers and achieving personal excellence is tricky to achieve, and it is a balance that will always be under negotiation. If we consider that instrumental technique is always a work in progress, with aspects of it that will need adjustment more or less constantly as the years go by—a work of “gradual approximation”—then the work of social adjustment and setting expectations will also need adjustments.

Ground rules determining acceptable group class behavior are the norm: when to raise your hand, when not to talk. In the same way, we also set up expectations as to how our students will interact with their peers to prevent conflict: they should not criticize, talk over, or make fun of their peers. In addition, if you believe in the goal of healthy competition, then you also want to strive to create an environment where students genuinely wish their comrades well, not only when performing, but when questions or comparisons come up during musical games, musicianship, or masterclass situations. To do this we may often have to work against all of the influences that surround our students in their wider environments. But this is what we do all the time, as this is exactly the principle involved in parent education—why do we help parents to celebrate small achievable goals and learn how to engage in positive rather than negative reinforcement? We do these things to create the kind of student who is self-confident, who is comfortable with themselves and enjoys music making with others. Encouraging supportive behavior between students can simply be an extension of the same principles, if we choose them to be.

What are some practical ways to achieve healthy competition?

Group classes are the perfect place to encourage healthy competition, as that is where our students interact with their peers. We can see personalities so easily in this context, and we can also see their habits of interaction. What we do as teachers in how we listen to our students and how we make room for different levels of ability will profoundly influence how our students treat each other. To make positive change, change the environment; to make changes, be the change you wish to see and model it for others.

Games with Winners

The kind of games and who “wins” can really change the classroom environment. For instance, when I play games like musical chairs in a Pre-Twinkle group class, the class gets a point if every student in the room is able to sit in their chair without knocking anything over or banging their instrument. They have to work together to achieve their goal. In older group classes, when doing reading exercises using flashcards, the same principle is at work—everyone must meet a time limit before we add more strings or more positions to our reading games. The applications of making goals for the group are quite extensive.

Passing or Swapping Games

Many group games where notes or phrases or segments of pieces are passed around in succession (the students play one after another in a series of solos to put together the piece in a jigsaw fashion) are excellent ways to foster raising the level of everyone in the room—and the sense of appreciation and congratulation as students are able to achieve this task. Similarly, the game where one student performs the tasks of the right hand for a piece and one student performs the left hand tasks (while playing on the same instrument—I call this game left hand/right hand but I’m sure there are many names) is the ultimate in student collaboration. These types of games are dependent on fostering audiation skills in our students—the ability to sing and track the song in your head so that you can drop in and out of a piece at will—a skill I cannot emphasize enough in my group classes. Any audiation game I can think of builds a sense of the class working together.

Games with Leaders

I find other exercises where students take turns at being a leader teaches all the students that everyone has something to offer and that things that look simple often are not, which is a great appreciation to have because it creates empathy for the struggles of other students. I am thinking primarily here of conducting the group playing repertoire or leading the group in variations of dynamics or tempo variations through movement cues or written/verbal cues like flashcards. Composition and improvisation games where students contribute very individual musical moments that are not dependent on pre-learned material also allows students who may not be as solid on other aspects of musicianship or memorization to shine (these games are also dependent on having a leader to give organization).

The key to making all these games—and particularly the last set of games, where students become leaders—foster community and healthy competition is not just in the type of games but in what we model for our students in our responses. By making contributions valid, by pointing out something of value in what each student tries to contribute, we allow everyone in the room to see that everyone has something to offer and that their own perspective is just that—their own perspective and there are many ways to see and approach every exercise and every problem. I learned a simple lesson from a teacher trainer working outside of Suzuki in a vocal-based early childhood program (for ages birth to five based in Melbourne, Australia), Emma Hart of Mini Maestros. She teaches three- and four-year-olds in a class setting to match pitches in their singing through call and response. The teacher sings a vocal cue and the students respond individually, and then the teacher simply asks the student to evaluate whether or not the note they sang was the same or different. There is no value judgement, no right or wrong, instead a simple evaluative tool to work out if what they did matched the vocal cue and to use those skills to then choose to match or not to match. Of course, as instrumental teachers we want our students to be able to match our musical cues, but my experience in this class made me consider how I teach tone. Could I not frame teaching tone as a matter of matching or not matching instead of right and wrong? Food for thought.

A Larger Problem with Broad Ramifications

Terms such as collaborative competition are becoming a part of the social landscape of the 21st century, because the effects of driving competition are far reaching throughout our societies.

The work of Dr. Dan Ariely (James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University), as outlined in the documentary (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, depicts a society where lying is commonplace in many aspects of life, but particularly notable is that it is regarded as permissible in activities where we have to overcome our competitors to get ahead. Lying undermines trust, so the danger becomes that we doubt everyone around us, creating a society in which mistrust and cynicism have replaced communal activity. It is hard indeed to engage in collective activities if you doubt the motives of those sitting next to you. Studies by Dr. Richard Wilkinson (Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham) have demonstrated that when societies have huge gaps between those who have a great deal of wealth and power and those who have not, many problems arise that are not endemic in nations that have a more even distribution of wealth: increased violent crime, rates of incarceration due to increased punitive response, lack of social mobility, low life expectancies and increased mental illness. These indicators arise from observing competitors and measuring your own wealth and achievements against theirs rather than arising out of poverty itself; in short, these vast social problems are a result of competitive practices that pit us against each other to see who wins more of the prizes.

Destructive behavior between colleagues within the Suzuki world can also be traced to competitive practices—a desire on their part to be seen as better, more accomplished or more liked—or that most inflexible, common and destructive attitude: “I am right, and in order for me to be right, you must be wrong.” Do we treat our colleagues in the same way as we wish our students to behave in our classes? Do we believe and act in a way that says, “There is room for everyone, and I don’t have to succeed at the expense of others”?

To my mind, at the root of fostering healthy competition (or collaborative competition) is a simple question: Is the Suzuki philosophy really about trying to make the world a better place? I cannot help but think an overwhelming yes must be the answer—it is no accident that the Talent Education philosophy grew out of the ashes of the Second World War, and that Shinichi Suzuki wished to cultivate a generation with beautiful hearts. I also sincerely believe we make the world a better place through our love of music—but also by consciously creating within our students and within ourselves a place where everyone (not just our students) can succeed.