Monday, September 14, 2009


I used to be competitive when I was a child, and it really messed me up. I used to count the number of lines in the plays I was in, and I would measure my strength as an actress by how many I had. I (childishly, since I was a child) believed that the people who had fewer lines than I had were, clearly, not as good as I was. But the people who had more were, somehow, superior to me. I used to think that if I tried hard enough I too could get leading roles, but it didn't happen. By the time I made it to Junior High, I was comparatively short, not built like a dancer, and wasn't the leading-lady type. In spite of the fact that I knew every line and every song in every Jr. High School show, and I went to all the rehearsals, I spent my acting time in the offstage chorus.

There were already very good flutists in my school who played in the orchestras for the shows, so I remained in the chorus. I started playing the flute towards the end of seventh grade, and I decided to work really hard at it. After a few years of hyper-competitiveness, I eventually learned that the only real reward for hard work was in the work itself and in the ability to play. My competitive spirit worked its way out of my psyche, thank goodness, by the time I entered Juilliard (which, I suppose is the ultimate "lion's den" of musical competition). There was also no possible way I could compete with my classmates, so I simply didn't. I got myself onto a path of doing music for its own sake, and I believed that if I really worked hard enough, the quality of what I did would speak for itself.

Why is competition considered such a virtue? A quick Google search gleaned 61,300,000 websites on which to find competition quotes. Perhaps competition is an addiction like gambling. Perhaps the thrill of bettering another person gives a momentary sense of value to the winner. Perhaps that sense of defeat that surrounds the loser gives motivation to win next time. Perhaps it is exciting for kids to compete, but, in my eyes, using childish games as the major measure of accomplishment in the world, is simply childish. There should be room in the world for everyone who does anything of value, but that doesn't look like it is the case when I look at the view through my window, computer screen, and television.

Competition has made its way into everything: music (in all its forms), fashion, drama, art, architecture, cake decorating, cooking, raising animals, education, attractiveness, physical fitness in all its possible forms, and even blogging. Being successful in business doesn't necessarily mean that you have a good product or service to sell. It means that your goods and services are chosen over the goods and services of the competition, for reasons that do not necessarily have anything to do with the actual quality of what you do.

It seems that television has become one large game show, expanding the boundaries of competition to the ridiculous. It is hard to watch cable television during any given hour of the day and not find at least one show that involves some kind of a competition (in between the commercials, that is). Even the news, particularly the cable news, treats every stage of politics as a game (in between commercials, that is).

Sadly, it is those of us who choose not to compete that end up being relative non-participants in the continually competitive game of life.


Anonymous said...

"...relative non-participants in the continually competitive game of life."

Perhaps the real message is about that kind of contemporary and tawdry competition as seen on television, IF you watch it. Personally I ignore it, while competing in other better ways than being a non-competitive spectator of tawdry and probably staged "competition."

If life is "the continually competitive game," then it is best to choose an arena in which one is to play, and not play in the wrong arena.

Elaine Fine said...

Even though I am personally allergic to competing myself, I find it quite interesting to be a music competition spectator. There are a lot of young solo players who give terrific performances during competitions, but many factors come into play when they have to be judged, and sometimes they are judged unfairly. I feel very deeply for people who give excellent performances and feel like "losers" because they did not "win."

With the exception of the Food Network challenges (which I have lost my taste for), I stay away from all the tawdry competition stuff on the TV. But, sadly, it is still there, and it gets the attention of huge audiences, and claims a strong place in the general culture.

Anonymous said...

"... it gets the attention of huge audiences, and claims a strong place in the general culture."

It seems advisable to avoid such things, as these will not be measures of the culture in a century and more of distance. The artists whose works we treasure were not all popular, and it is important to remember that Mozart was consigned to the pauper's grave and Bach, Mahler and so many more had to rediscovered after their ages failed to realize their true greatness. Art is not popular; and tawdry is merely surface tension on the bubble of life's inanities. Ignore it, rather than resent it is my prescription.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for the prescription Dr. Anon. I don't resent the audience for tawdry (I like the surface tension analogy) TV culture, but I do notice it. I see how mass media culture influences the students who take my music appreciation classes. I do try to steer them in new and exciting directions, but ultimately the draw of mass culture ends up dominating their lives.

There are a few students every semester that prove to be exceptions, and those are the students who make the whole (sometimes agonizing) process of teaching music appreciation classes worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts one why we can't will competition away, but how certain structures make it more or less pernicious.

"Competition" can refer, at least, either to a sociological institution,
or merely to an emergent biological phenomenon. In the later sense,
even plants compete, for light, for water. Competition emerges whenever
there exists a limited resource of common value. Cooperation emerges
when multiple systems of value coexists. Jack Spratt and his wife,
one eats no fat, one eats no lean; while the couple may cooperate at the
dinner table, they must still compete for their meat at the market.
For humans, money represents a limited resource of nearly universal value;
when a culture organizes itself around money, inevitably competition
dominates cooperation. Competition does not represent a fundamental
values for competitors -- they value winning primarily, they value
collecting those resources that they have hoped to obtain by spending
their own resources. They compete in order to win. But those who
already control limited, valuable resources value competition itself.
Selling a house -- you would like competing bids, because they make
the same house a more valuable house. Filling an empty chair in an
orchestra -- you'd like many musicians to take the audition, because they
will have practiced harder and hopefully play better as a result.
"Competition" can also refer to a sort of ritual or performance,
whether a sports event or a concerto competition. Ironically, ritualist
competition aims to reduce general competition in society by settling
the distribution of resources artificially. In music, the winners get
representation or contracts, a leg up on a career, and the losers get
the message that they should spend their energy otherwise. The typical
classical music listener receives a value system - he or she mostly
just wants to hear celebrity virtuosos playing music by name composers.
This suits the promoters fine - they make the most money when they
represent big acts that fill big halls with high paying customers. That
pressure has lead to the standardization of classical music practice,
and with it, the most insidious sort of competition. Jazz, back in the
day when it was a club music, though competitive also, met its audience
in smaller venues where money got made by selling food and drink. A
multiplicity of style and manners proliferated.

Anonymous said...

An anonymous comment (mine being anonymous also)suggests "Some thoughts one why we can't will competition away, but how certain structures make it more or less pernicious."

The Darwinian view of life is that it competes for existence, dominance and continuation. For the modern world and especially for those who root their argument in Darwin's observations, competition should be seen as wholly natural and something in which to be invested.

That the loony "right" rejects Darwin while espousing competition while the loony "left" advocates Darwin while rejecting is central tenet which is competition is amusing if not tragic.

Competition cannot be done away with, and is only "pernicious" when you see it that way. The remaining question is shall we examine why we resent competition? I believe it is because one is tempted to use a different kind of competition to compete, playing games with the word in order to somehow modify it and the concept behind it to our best advantage, which is itself a competition.

Grasp competition, compete and test. This will prove the fittest.

Elaine Fine said...

Trees competing for sunlight do tend to grow taller than those that do not need to compete, and the dominant male in a group (no matter how obnoxious he may be), seems to attract the largest number of females. Darwin's observations of nature were really quite astute, and I think there is a Darwinian component to the world of music.

The players with the most physical stamina and the lowest numbers of wrong notes usually move ahead in competitions. The players who compete successfully for the most exposure to the public (sunlight, perhaps?) tend to have the best chance at getting a career. The more attractive a performing musician is, the more likely s/he will succeed, regardless of the quality of his or her musicianship. Composers who spend the largest amount of time and expend the largest number of resources to further their careers tend to be better known than those who do not.

As far as natural selection is concerned, it plays out in every junior high school band. Aptitude for an instrument is determined (correctly or incorrectly), and the people who have the best physical predisposition towards an instrument tend to excel, while people who have been given an instrument that doesn't suit them physically tend to fail.

In order to get a good sound on the flute, for example, you need to be able to curl your tongue. Not every band teacher knows this, so there are an awful lot of (mostly girls) who are given flutes to play in band who have no possibility for musical success.

String players have to have strong hands. Strength can be developed, but people with the physical advantage of having strong hands have a built in advantage.

Berit said...

Yes, exactly. But, how to stay involved without competing? I got out of "the competition" some 5 years ago, and now often feel disoriented as I float through my days.

Elaine Fine said...

Sometimes I find that returning to another mindset, perhaps a mindset of another time, helps. I play concerts twice a year, for my own pleasure, and I choose music which is challenging to me. This keeps me practicing in ways that helps me to continually improve.

I also organize writing projects for myself: writing music for friends is always a pleasure. Accepting commissions from people (whether for money or not) keeps me productive. It is the ebb and flow of work that helps me to organize and focus my life. And the pleasure I get from doing the work itself is far more than the pleasure of having it judged by anyone as being better or worse than perfectly good (and perfectly different) work produced by another person.