Contest: My Sort-of-but-not-really High Stakes Test

Tomorrow, I take my kids to contest.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with choral music contests, let me give you a crash course. Here’s what our day will (if all goes well) entail tomorrow.

Upon arriving at the contest site, I will check in with the contest coordinators and drop of our music for the judges of the stage performance portion of contest. Each choir must perform less than ten minutes of music that includes at least two selections, one of which must be unaccompanied (a capella). Additionally, at least one of the two or more selections must come from the “Prescribed Music List”. The “PML” is actually five lists, one for each classification in music (2A-6A), that contain a few hundred pieces of music in various voicings (men’s, women’s, mixed). Three judges listen to the performances and assign each school a rating:

We won’t even have time to breath a sigh of relief before they escort us straight to the sight-reading room. They will hand each student a spiral-bound book upon entering, and warn them sternly not to open it before instructed to do so. Once the students and I are all in the room with books in hand, they will give us a page number, and start the timer. We will have three minutes to rehearse a 20-24 measure song the students have never seen before. For us, it will be in three parts (Soprano, Alto, Baritone). Once the timer goes off, we perform for three more judges, using neutral syllables for the pitches (we use solfeg—Do, Re, Mi, Fa…all the ones Julie Andrews sang about in The Sound of Music). After the first performance for judges, we will get an additional two minutes of rehearsal to continue practicing. At the end of this second rehearsal period, we will sing again for the judges, except this time we have to sing the words. Oh yeah—this is unaccompanied (a capella), we cannot use the piano or any other instruments for instruction, and the teacher may not at any time sing with the students. I can say whatever I want. But I can’t sing a note.

[This whole process is really awesome because if my students ever find themselves in a situation where somebody puts a gun to their head and says, “sight-read this music in less than six minutes, or you’re dead”, then they’re golden.]

Each set of judges will assign us a rating in performance and sight-reading. The ratings are:

  • I : “Superior”
  • II : “Excellent”
  • III: “Average”
  • IV: “Fair”
  • V: “Poor”

We advanced two choirs to state contest from district contest, a “mixed” chorus and a “treble” (or “women’s”) chorus. If both choirs receive “Superior” ratings both on stage and in sight-reading, we will be given an additional award: “Sweepstakes”.

Now, I don’t want you to think this is turning into a rant against music contests or the way they are conducted. I think contest is important for my students and for me. I like that in addition to receiving a rating, we are given feedback from the judges. They have to tell us why we were assigned this rating. They give us suggestions for improving our performance, and often point out what is going well. I also have some control as the director because I get to choose the music. Yes, there are guidelines, but with hundreds of music selections to choose from, it isn’t too difficult to find something that is accessible to the particular group I am directing and fits the guidelines.

But I cannot imagine these few hours on this one day serving as the sole indicator of my students’ success and growth.


Most of them have been with me for 161 days of instruction. We have given concerts. We have auditioned (and many were selected) for honor choirs and all-state choruses. We have given community performances. We have learned, and laughed, and learned some more. They have truly transformed their skill through hundreds of hours of rehearsal. More importantly, we’ve gained confidence, we’ve learned work ethic, we’ve formed bonds, and so many other things that cannot be measured.

These are three years worth of contest plaques from my last school, grouped by the year they were awarded.

File Apr 23, 10 24 17 PM

You’ll notice year three was kind of a banner year. We took six choirs to contest. All of them received “Superior” ratings on stage, and all but one received “Superior” ratings in sight-reading. We were awarded two “Sweepstakes”. You might also notice the other end of the wall where just two plaques are hanging.

What those two lonely plaques don’t tell you is that it was the inaugural year of this school. The entire choir program, and even the school, was primarily comprised of freshmen and sophomores. I had only nine seniors in the entire program (I had 28 four years later). My classes were made up of students from all seven of the other secondary schools in the district, as well as kids from private schools, home-schooling, and out-of-state. Those students learned and sang the alma mater for the first time. They established the traditions and the standard of excellence for their school. What those two lonely plaques don’t tell you is that the kids who earned them were the pioneers that laid the groundwork for all the successes that followed.

And all of those plaques are just a snapshot of what my students accomplish. They seem important at the time that we earn them. But when my former students reminisce through social media or stop by to say hello in person, they rarely (if ever) mention contest ratings.

Ms. D., do you remember that French piece we worked so hard to learn?

Do you remember when we performed ‘Pirates of Penzance’ on our opera concert?

Remember that super-hard 8-part spiritual? That was my favorite piece!

Remember that 7-minute tap number from ‘White Christmas’?

Do you remember making the Ferris Bueller video for the 80’s concert?

Man, I miss singing. I miss choir!


Today, I gave the “you’re more than just a score” talk to my students. I know teachers all over the state are giving their kids, some as young as eight years old, this same pep talk. I know this because I have seen countless posts on twitter and facebook of the letters, cards, gifts, and speeches that teachers are bestowing upon their students. And it makes me sad that education has come to a place where teachers must add to their already long list of obligations the task of minimizing the damage from high-stakes testing before it even occurs. I am worried that by opening the testing window, we have closed the door on the real purpose of school: to help kids discover their best selves.


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