Can music be competitive? It’s a fair question, and of course on one level the answer is ‘not really’ (weekly fixtures against other schools, for example, would be absurd). But in many ways, yes it can: we had a terrific solo singing competition a week ago, the senior category won by Ashwin Gobiraj and junior categories by Bakari Leon and Joshua Tikare, with Matthew Munks winning a special award for his dramatic performance of some Schumann.
And this week the stage is set, as it were, for the House Music Competition, to be judged by OW Jonathan (‘JB’) Gill. It is sure to be an excellent evening, and yes, competition like this is fine. More than fine. By the way, this is all part of what has been a super week or so for Whitgift music, OW Anthony Strong’s concert on Saturday having been a huge success.
I wonder, then, if anything at all can be made into a competition. Drama? Well, we have a House Drama Competition (and anyway, what about the Oscars?). Learning as a whole? What about prizes?
Certainly, anyone who has ever taught boys will know that competition spices up most lessons, and knowledge and the well-stocked mind are routinely (and entertainingly) tested by quizzes. After all, the producer of QI spoke at HMC in October about how curiosity is often sparked by such cut and thrust.
But competition is only one aspect of learning, just as it is only one aspect of performance or any activity. A few years ago, I was part of a joint scheme in which university teachers joined sixth form teachers in an exchange, teaching some sixth form classes together. One of the most striking observations from the dons was how competitive the students were, how insular, how reluctant to work together and pool resources. Those qualities of collective enquiry and collaboration are important too, especially in extending the boundaries of learning beyond the narrow shores of public exams.
And so it is of course with music. Competition is occasional fun, the real business is a long game, to be worked on in groups and individually, reaching beyond the superficial and giving of course of your best. Competing, if you like, against yourself. Which is one of the most powerful, demanding and rewarding forms of competition.