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Are We Willing to Lose, to Win

James Warrick | April 2016

Publisher’s Note: When I think back to high school, I don’t remember math class, I remember the music. This column, written in 1988 by my jazz band director, Jim Warrick, describes one of the most memorable experiences of my senior year. Now retired, Warrick taught for 36 years, including 27 at New Trier High School in Illinois. He does not describe the outcome of the 1988 Jazz in the Meadows contest. I’ll just say I remember a jubilant bus ride home. Jim Rohner

    There are no losers in music. Every person who sings or plays a musical instrument is a winner. Any young person who sacrifices free time and energy to develop musical talent should never be considered a loser. We know that, but sometimes our students don’t. Although I have a philosophical problem with competition among school music groups, particularly jazz ensembles, I have discovered a way to participate without compromising my beliefs.
    It is important for students to see and hear ensembles from other schools. Because competitive festivals often attract the better groups, they are probably the place to go. I have known directors who avoided all festivals because they felt their ensemble was not good enough to be evaluated, or they had convinced themselves ­and their students that their ensemble was so good that evaluation would be meaningless. Both of these types of directors have cast their students away on a musical island.
    Three years ago our jazz ensemble was scheduled to participate in a competitive festival when I became sick the week prior to the event. I let the kids decide if they wanted to perform without me, directing themselves in the warmup room and onstage. Two other teachers in the music department agreed to chaperone, and the musical equivalent of Rocky was set in motion. Off the kids went to do battle with bands that compete every month while I waited anxiously in bed by the telephone for the verdict.
    At the year-end class evaluation, the students in that ensemble wrote that the experience of performing under their own direction was one of the most meaningful of any during the four years of high school. Even now, when they stop by to visit during their college vacations, they recall that experience as important in my demonstrating trust and respect for them. They saw I was willing to sacrifice our school’s or my reputation, should they lose at the festival, in a desire to treat them as individuals. In just one day they learned that I meant what I had been telling them for years: that winning was not that important. It was more important for them to stand on their own as individual musicians, rather than lifeless performers of songs under my direction.
    Early this school year I asked our first and second jazz ensembles if they wanted to enter a competitive festival with student directors leading the ensemble. They were enthusiastic about the idea. This past weekend these bands competed in a festival in which 40 other ensembles participated. While we regularly participate in non-competitive events, this festival was only our school’s third competition in six years, and none of the students in the current ensemble had ever competed.
    Both groups had already performed their three festival selections in a concert a few weeks earlier. After identifying and agreeing on two or three student leaders in each group, our most advanced ensemble was left completely to themselves for about two weeks prior to the festival to rehearse on their own. I rehearsed the second ensemble until a lunchtime concert in our school cafeteria a few days before the jazz festival.
    To prepare for the competition, the student directors planned the rehearsals, tuned the ensemble, started and stopped the selections, and practiced acknowledging the audience’s applause. Everyone else was responsible for their own stage setup, tear down, and microphone placement. I had taught them the music; it was their job to play it.
    The day of the festival both groups organized themselves in the warmup room and directed themselves on stage while I sat in the audience, now understanding how nervous their parents feel at concerts.
    What was the value of this venture? In their rehearsals, students played through the program and discussed what was good and bad about each selection. The value of this experience was particularly evident in a comment one student made following a rehearsal. A 4th trumpet player, who had never before said much during rehearsals, told me, ‘We had just finished playing, and I had something really important I wanted to say. It was going to make a difference. Just as I was about to make my comment, someone cracked a joke, everyone laughed, and the entire mood of the rehearsal changed. I felt empty inside. The significance of my comment was lost forever, so I never made my suggestion.”
    One of the student directors made an equally enlightened observation: “Before we did this, I thought I wanted to be a music major in college. Now I know I want to major in music.”
    There are two ways of looking at the experience of performing without a director. The first says that a competing ensemble should have every available advantage with no handicaps to keep the students from performing at their best level. To play without a director in front to remind them of dynamics, intonation, tempo, and to encourage them to make confident entrances and releases, is an unfair handicap.
    A second philosophy suggests that we can participate in competitions to achieve the greatest educational potential for our students. What better educational experience can a director provide for students than to allow them to explore their own creative potential by directing themselves, thus become responsible for their own dynamic control, intonation, tempo, and confident entrances and releases?
    Perhaps we are underestimating our own students once we have taught them the music. Marching band directors who allow field commanders to run rehearsals are the closest to allowing a student-directed experience and such an experience is not possible with concert bands at contest. But what an experience it would be to turn a concert band over to a willing student director or student teacher for one or two weeks prior to a band contest. By allowing our students to direct themselves, it gives us a chance to show that we are serious when we say, “It really doesn’t matter whether we win or lose.”
    When I first started teaching, I fell prey to the temptations of competition. I called extra marching band rehearsals in a selfish attempt to fill a trophy case, all in a desire to direct my own private drum corps. I now wish I could call each of my former students and apologize. Fortunately, I managed to change jobs before having an ulcer, a divorce, or a heart attack. I got a fresh start and will never again measure success, musicianship, or my teaching ability by the contents of a trophy case.
    You are probably wondering who won the two festivals in which the students directed themselves. All I can say is, there are no losers in music.

James Warrick
May 1988