Jazz fest: Award changes shift focus

There will be no big winners and, therefore, no losers at the Maine State Jazz Festival final event this year.

Amid some controversy, the Maine Music Educators Association’s membership has decided that awarding trophies to the top three scoring entries at the annual instrumental and vocal jazz competitions is too upsetting for the participants who don’t get to take home a prize, resulting in them coming away from the event feeling defeated.

“This year, we moved to a medal system for awards,” explained MMEA Jazz Vice President Mike Sakash.

“Groups will still be competing, but not against each other. We’ve set a high standard for gold, silver and bronze awards. A group that achieves the appropriate score will receive one of these medals.”

He adds that awarding special honors to outstanding soloists will not change.

The new scoring method will be implemented for the instrumental finals at Nokomis High School in Newport, March 17 and 18, and for the vocal finals at Stearns, in Millinocket, March 31 and April 1.

In recent past vocal competitions, the schools with the top two scores from divisions one and two were invited to perform again in an evening program, after which the judges picked the overall first-place winners.

This year, however, all the gold medal-earning groups will be invited to perform in the evening showcase with no first-place trophies awarded.

“In this format, the evening event is a true showcase that will celebrate the great work of the top ensembles,” Sakash said, emphasizing that the standard for earning a gold medal will be high.

“For educational and artistic reasons, I favor this change,” he said. “My own groups are focused on performing to their best, not ‘beating’ another school. Comparing the state’s diverse music groups is like comparing apples and oranges, which can be “artificial,” he explained.

This opinion is not shared by most of the show choir directors in this area, and perhaps throughout the state, who believe competition can be a good learning experience and is part of the musical theater culture.

“While I voted against this change, I do see both sides of it,” said Mount Desert High School vocal director Bronwyn Kortge. “I don’t support a culture where you ‘fail’ if you don’t receive first place. I hope every performer is intrinsically motivated by their commitment and dedication; that is what I teach.

“On the other hand, I feel that competition is a good and healthy thing.

Students will compete for things their whole lives, sometimes achieving their aim; sometimes not,” she continued.

“As educators, we need to approach competition in the correct way and not make it all about the trophy. It’s easy to be proud of yourself if someone else tells you, ‘You won!’ It can be much harder to find that within yourself,” she said. “But I believe it is character building and helps us learn to be resilient humans who can find joy and meaning even if a goal is not reached or an award is not given.”

Although Sakash said he hasn’t seen a clear line between the vocal and instrumental sections of the MMEA membership, he acknowledged that most of the negative reaction to the new system has come from the show choir directors.

However, Ed Michaud, who directs both the show choirs and jazz bands at Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor, seems comfortable with the new format. He said he is not so sure making music should be a competitive exercise.

“Music creates community, heals you, makes you smarter and touches the soul,” he said. “Making music competitive seems like a secondary issue which perhaps can also serve a purpose, albeit minor compared to music’s inherent meaning and value.”

He said the competitive aspect was introduced in schools to validate the music programs using the same paradigm as the sports programs, but he is not convinced it is still a necessary or desirable approach.

Matthew Waite, the vocal director of Stearns High School in Millinocket, where the finals will be held this year, is another who voted against the new system, but he has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

“We’ll take this year to evaluate how these rule changes affect all groups and what feedback the students and directors give us,” he said, “and then we can discuss this, if needed, at our spring meeting.”


Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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