Competition & Music Education – Deconstructing “The Voice” (Week 4)
Welcome to the delayed* Week 4 edition of “Deconstructing The Voice, my non-academic attempt to examine music education through the lens of the popular NBC vocal competition show.
(*As we will soon see, I DO have reasons for the delay…)
In this recap, we’ll describe the Battle Rounds, examine the history of competition in music education, and I’ll give out some more awards.
This week marked the beginning of THE BATTLE ROUNDS. Basically, every judge has 12 members that they selected from the Blind Auditions. In this round, two members on the same team sing a duet and the winner, chosen by their coach, gets to move onto the next round. The clever twist is that the losing vocalist can be “stolen” by one of the other three judges. A stolen vocalist ends up on another coach’s team and, despite losing, gets to move on in the competition. This “stealing” segment does allow The Voice to do what it does best: Provide time for the celebrity coaches to playfully bicker.
Now, dear readers, I have to say this: I thoroughly enjoyed these episodes! Having introduced the contestants over the first three weeks, the show skipped most of the backstory and most of the (forced) celebrity bickering. These episodes give viewers a chance to watch the coaching sessions (rehearsals) between the celebrity coaches and their team members. Lastly, we do get treated to some tremendously entertaining performances in the battles themselves.
Are these really “battles”?
Each contestant is announced individually and then he or she walks out of a backlit tunnel. As if that’s not enough, the actual performances takes place on a stage that is designed to look just like a boxing ring. To heighten the drama, Carson Daly is there to helpfully announce the beginning of each performance with “Let the battle begin!” or, the even more inspiring, “This battle begins right now.”
Once the music starts, however, the songs are just wonderfully sung duets. In fact, sometimes the “duety” nature of the vocal arrangement actually gets in the way of trying to determine who should “win” the battle. Many of the performances include some superbly rehearsed phrasing along with some very clean vocal harmonizing. Seriously, the songs are just a lot of fun! Unfortunately, someone has to win. This is a competition, after all. But, how do The Voice and music education intersect?
Competition in Music Education
Any music teacher who is reading this knows that, as a profession, competition is a central component of many secondary school programs. Many teachers schedule their entire school year around when these important competitions occur! There is a contest for just about everything we teach in school: large ensembles, small ensembles, solos, compositions, improvisation, sight-reading… you name it, we’ll judge it!
The history of competition in music education dates back well over 100 years. In fact, many scholars believe that music education found its way into our schools because of the competition fad that exploded in the 1920s. While scholars don’t fully agree on why these events became so popular, my favorite analysis (and the most convincing argument) is that the end of World War I brought a decrease in demand for instruments for military bands. Looking for a new market, the instrument manufactures figured out that they could sell to students if bands and orchestras were more prevalent in our public schools. If schools started offering music classes, then manufacturers and publishers could sell new instruments, music, and books to students each and every year.
In 1923, the instrument manufacturers organized the Schools Band Contest of America. The press releases and advertisements about the competition stated that there were over 200 bands and 6,000 students participating in the event. Those reports were untrue; only about 30 bands participated – with 15 of those being from Chicago (where the event was hosted). However, the publicity from the event helped jumpstart a massive growth in both concert bands in schools and the number of contest participants. By 1932, 1,000 bands participated in events leading up to the national competition and by 1940 that number skyrocketed towards 10,000 ensembles. More bands meant more instruments that could be sold. The manufacturers got what they wanted.
A brief note about choirs:
Obviously, choir participation and interest was directly impacted as a result of this massive growth in band. The music memorization contest movement, which had been popular for about a decade, started to wane and choir teachers needed to find a way to remain relevant. Their answer was a capella choirs – large, mixed gender groups that sang without any instrumental accompaniment. (Take THAT, instruments!) Over time, this approach would also lose favor and be replaced by choral concerts that include both accompanied and unaccompanied songs. (Maybe we’ll get into this in future recaps.)
Aside from the macro-level competitions that we’re accustomed to, many of today’s ensembles utilize micro-level rankings as well. We have auditions for chair placement, section leaders, ensemble placement, and solos. As often as not, either at a macro ensemble level or the micro individual level, our secondary music classes are structured around the idea that music performance is something that can be evaluated as better or worse than other performances.
So, for as long as large ensembles have been a part of our schools, competition has been a guiding force. On the surface, there is nothing to lose: administrators get a great PR opportunity, teachers feel validated that they’re giving their students a top-quality education, and students have an added reason to devote themselves to the process of learning music. However, the controversy over the importance of competition has been raging for almost as long as the events themselves. Some music teachers felt then – and still feel – that competition takes away from the artistic and creative values that come from playing music.
This passage from Rodney E. Miller (published in the Music Educators Journal in 1994) highlights one of the more compelling reasons against competition in our programs:
Another reason that competition is the antithesis of productivity is its tendency to promote conformity. In order for competition to work, people must be measured by the same standard. The same rules apply to everyone, and the game must be played the same way each time. Creativity and individualism are the opposite of competition because the very nature of creativity is to originate something new that defies standardization. On cannot compare Mozart and Wagner (at least in terms of “better or worse” any more than corn and apples. To be creative is to be uniquely individualistic, idiosyncratic, and daring.
Standardization promoting conformity? Hmm… where have we heard this before?
Anyway, this is all to say that, at least in terms of competition, The Voice and music education share the belief that competition is a good thing in the development of artists. With their tunnels, boxing ring, and dramatic sound and lighting, the Battle Rounds on The Voice do ramp up the intensity more than music education typically does. Having said that, I’ve been to my fair share of marching band competitions and I can tell you that the announcement of the award-winning ensembles has all of the drama that you would want from a television show. In fact, we have seen that drama played out on our screens: Look at the way that FOX’s Glee framed the early seasons around the group’s placement at “regionals”. (The show Community, while parodying Glee, sums up the increasing dramatic stakes the show employs perfectly: “If we win regionals, then it’s straight on to sectionals. And then, a week later, it’s semis, then semi-regionals, then regional semis, then national lower zone semis!”)
(Perhaps will touch on this more in future recaps. Let me know what you think in the comments!)
Time is short, so let’s just go to my favorite parts of the first week of the Battle Rounds!
Best “I’ve done this exact same thing for a student” Moment – Adam Levine
Adam’s percentage of useful comments has increased over the last couple of weeks. I loved this exchange between him and Joe Kirk, a high school student who seemed to be singing very nervously during the rehearsal process.
After the WWE-style announcements, Joe looks over at Adam (his coach). The camera then cuts to Adam as he gives Joe a great “just relax” gesture.
It’s such a simple gesture, but it’s one music teachers are very familiar with. I’ve attempted to write several sentences describing how touching this moment is and how important moments like these can be, but I can’t seem to find the words. Just know that Joe went on to have a great performance. (Joe did “lose” the battle and was very upset as he hugged the judges goodbye. Pharrell, NOT his coach, walked him outside the studio and comforted him saying: “If you stop now, that ‘no’ was right.” Great positive motivation, Pharrell! Seriously, this whole segment was really touching.)
Best Rehearsal, Musical Adjustments, and Performance
The best performance from the first two Battle Round nights came from Griffin and Luke Wade. When it was stated they were singing Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”, my first thought was, “That is not an easy song.” There’s a lot of very nuanced falsetto work and some interesting retonicizations that could trip some singers up.
As the rehearsals start, we see how difficult it is: Griffin barely knows the tune and Luke can’t hit Paul’s falsetto runs at the end of the chorus. To the rescue is Alicia Keys, Pharrell’s celebrity co-coach for the week. She asks the band to play the “Aretha Franklin version of Maybe I’m Amazed”. Luke, surprised, responds that he didn’t know that existed and Alicia says that they’re going to make it up right now.
So, the band plays a soul-inspired version of the tune and Alicia and Pharrell encourage their singers to explore the space. Alicia is gesturing to each contestant and the whole experience comes across as authentic and fun and just awesome to hear. At one point, Griffin reaches some incredibly high notes and blows away everyone in the room. His performance is a far cry from the Michael Buble approach he utilized in the Blind Auditions. It’s really cool to watch.
Here is a screenshot showing Alicia gesturing and Pharrell loving every minute.
Anyway, I’ll leave it at this for now. I’m actually really looking forward to the next battle rounds!
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Until next time…
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