It is a wonderful opportunity to perform at a beautiful venue such as Carnegie Hall, but is it really an earned accomplishment?
Every year we receive a plethora of mailings, emails, and phone calls from travel agent and promoters for festival and competition opportunities. How do we know if these opportunities are all they are billed to be?
Here are some examples of performance festivals/competition advertisements that are reaching us right now:
1. Ensemble Performance at Carnegie Hall (Lincoln Center, or any other national venue)
2. Multi-choir Performance at Carnegie Hall (or other major venue) with esteemed guest conductor/premiering work
3. Performance Trip to a major theme park in Florida/California
4. Competition connected to a theme park
5. Performance of National Anthem at a professional sporting event
6. Multi-choir performance in a church in a European city
When we choose to accept any of these opportunities, how does our community view this experience? How do parents, students, and most importantly, how do we, the director, view each potential opportunity?
Let’s start with our viewpoint, as we, the director, are the architect of all other viewpoints.
Like most things in life, altruism is quite rare. Let’s not be fooled by why these festivals and competitions exist. With that said, one would hope that each opportunity was created with the desire to offer a great opportunity for our choir. We must also realize that while it is possible that the month of October could present our students with some great performing opportunities for later on in the year, we should recognize these are merely opportunities, not accomplishments or recognition of our choir’s success.
Analyzing the Value of Festivals, Competitions, and Prestigious Performances
One of the best things about most of these opportunities is having a new audience. Most audience members/adjudicators will be hearing us for the very first time and will be appreciating us for what we provide on the stage. When we perform at Carnegie Hall, a theme park, a great cathedral, a professional sporting event, or a choir festival, we are experiencing new audiences and new audiences are experiencing us as an ensemble….not as relatives and friends.
When focusing on these elaborate opportunities, there are several wonderful things that the students can gain. Some examples of positive experiences are: receiving a great audience reception, enjoying the beautiful acoustics of an historic building, hearing other ensembles from around the world, working with esteemed guest conductors, working with the composer of a new work, etc. Depending upon our desires, there are endless “pay-for-play” opportunities that can provide special out-of-school performance opportunities for our choirs. There can certainly be value in every opportunity, should we chose, prepare, and promote the experience for the right reasons.
Sight-Singing for the Non-Sight-Singers! – a simple system
These experiences cost lots of money. Students and parents shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for these events. Between fundraising, paperwork, and meetings, it becomes quite time-consuming for teachers and students. It also becomes a burden on families who cannot afford these opportunities. Lastly, the chosen “pay-for-play” event becomes a major focus of the year and often overshadows the learning process.
Somebody is making boatloads of money off of these opportunities and usually disguising them as select, or invitational in order to get our choirs to want to participate. These for-profit travel and event planning companies will do whatever it takes to appeal to our egos and win our business.
Most theme park festivals usually dole out trophies to pretend there was a serious competition going on. Whether select, invitational, or trophy-induced, many of us believe we have accomplished something just for being asked to participate and/or for winning a trophy. Regarding theme park competitions, we take home these huge trophies, flaunt them in our rooms, and present them to our community. What did we win? Our students, parents and boosters paid lots of money to a money-making event planner and we had fun in the park with a brief performance with very few people watching and very little feedback.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice………….or just pay lots of money
We must first understand WHY Carnegie Hall has invited our choir to perform or WHY the major theme parks has invitational festivals and competitions.
We are invited to participate in these festivals because someone believed they could make a large profit. When Carnegie Hall is calling us (I live in New York and have received at least 5 solicitations this October so far, inviting my choir to perform there), someone is paying to rent out Carnegie Hall for the day. They are taking a major financial risk, for sure. The more choirs they invite, the more profit they will make. They require every student to sell a certain number of tickets, frequently 5, at a very high cost ($50-60 per ticket). Of course, that’s not to say they don’t also incur serious costs as well.
In the end, every opportunity for us is a place for someone else to make a very large profit. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it is merely a fact, and that fact should affect the way we view these events and the way we present these events to our children, parents, and our community.
When a major sporting event invites us to sing our national anthem, they usually require us to sell a certain number of seats in order to perform. In many cases, professional sporting events do not care how well “a group of kids” sing the national anthem, as long as they are buying enough tickets, usually 3-5 per performer, on a day that they ordinarily could not fill their stadium or arena. Usually the “singers” themselves have to pay for their own ticket, should they wish to stay to watch the game. Even day camps with non-singers step onto the field and sing the national anthem.
With that said, it can be a tremendous opportunity for students to stand on a professional baseball field, or basketball court, in front of 15,000 or even 30,000 people. The opportunity to represent our country and our school with pride can be a wonderful experience.
The theme park competitions provide 1st place, 2nd place, or 3rd place trophies in a myriad of categories (school size, choir size, level of difficulty, etc) so every participating choir can feel like winners for the day; as a result, our parents will see the competition as a serious experience, and the community will view our choir as “the best” because it holds a trophy. Everybody wins a trophy, and the event-planning company wins the biggest trophy of all: everyone’s money. Even so, a theme park competition trip might be useful for a choir going through a transition, looking to create unity and needing a little validation for a year of hard work.
Educating Our Choir, Parents, and Community
When we present these opportunities to our community (students, parents, community, local press), we are doing a disservice presenting that we were chosen, selected, invited, or even that we are competing. The fact is that we paid to receive an opportunity. Most choirs have the same opportunity to pay for that same performing experience. We should be explaining to our stakeholders that our chosen opportunity, we believe, will excite our students, positively represent our community, and create a musical and social bonding experience that cannot be duplicated within the classroom setting.
The reality is, we chose to perform at the professional sporting event. We selected this opportunity, the same way we chose the sheet music for the concert. We are paying for a trophy-induced competition that is accompanied by a fun day at the theme park for our kids.
As the festivals and competitions continue to saturate our desks for the month of October and beyond, we must make decisions with the lens of WHY the opportunity will benefit our students and if we really believe the cost of the experience and the amount of time involved is in line with the actual enriching experience for our students.
Providing a false premise to our students, parents, and community only sets our choir down the wrong long-term path: a path controlled by ego, driven by exclusion, and encouraging of elitism. Let’s try to choose positive performing opportunities and recognize them for their value, not for our false accomplishments.