Could we celebrate music without the competitiveness?

That New Zealand is hosting a major international choral event, with more than 11,000 choral singers in 250 choirs from more than 30 countries is a tribute to our choral reputation and excellence, says Gregory Camp.

Large choir at Auckland Town Hall

One of the great unexpected joys of my life since I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand 10 years ago has been my participation in the local choral scene. Since joining the Auckland Chamber Choir and Voices New Zealand I have got to perform in fabulous venues and for prestigious events, singing classic repertoire and learning about new (to me) languages and cultures, often through excellent music by my University of Auckland colleagues and current or former students.

The choral community here is tight knit yet diverse, and full of people with extraordinary expertise in all sorts of areas – musical and non-musical. For a country of our size, our choral scene punches well above its weight.

The secret about New Zealand’s choral excellence has long been out: in mid 2020, Auckland was meant to host the World Symposium on Choral Music, a non-competitive conference where choirs and choir directors and administrators gather to share ideas and repertoire, but Covid intervened and the event was cancelled. This month, we get another go at hosting a major international choral event: more than 11,000 choral singers in 250 choirs from more than 30 countries are about to descend on Auckland for the World Choir Games.

That these two large events could happen in New Zealand shows how well respected our local traditions are in the choral world. Choirs are central to our culture, both in the various Western-influenced meanings of the word and in Indigenous group performance traditions such as kapa haka. Most of the Kiwi opera singers active on the international stage today (and there are heaps of them) got their start in school, church, or community choirs. The national choirs (New Zealand Secondary Students Choir, New Zealand Youth Choir, and Voices New Zealand) have been especially instrumental in training these singers and in spreading New Zealand’s choral excellence around the world, winning competitions everywhere they tour. The Big Sing is a major annual competition for secondary school choirs, the centre of most schools’ choral curriculums and an exciting event for all involved, and unique in the world.

The World Choir Games will offer an opportunity to hear a panoply of what a ‘choir’ can be: children’s choirs, youth choirs, adult choirs, large and small choirs, choirs whose membership is based around specific identities, choirs from megacities and from small communities, choirs that sing everything from Western classical music to all sorts of folk traditions.

The event involves workshops, forums, and celebratory concerts, but at its heart it is a competition between choirs in nearly 30 categories. In Auckland we will be able to show off our city through the medium of music, and events like this are wonderful advertisements for the host country, prime examples of cultural diplomacy, in addition to allowing us here to learn about other cultures.

It is too easy to focus on the result of a competition and not on the process of building the excellence that should lie at the heart of what we do in the arts.

In addition to being a choral-minded place, New Zealand loves competitions, especially sporting ones. In nearly every field you can think of, months or years of work culminate in major events where victors are crowned and losers depart gracefully. Competitions definitely have their place, but we may question whether the arts are the right place for this mindset.

Framing the arts, such as choral music, around competition does make some things easier. In an atmosphere where funding is hard to come by, and is itself usually competitive, if you can say ‘we won X competition’ it offers a measurable result for the funding body to assess, and money, which can be used to fund preparation for further competitions, will more likely be forthcoming.

But it is too easy to focus on the result of a competition and not on the process of building the excellence that should lie at the heart of what we do in the arts. Choirs competing in the Big Sing spend the bulk of their year preparing for a single concert. Even directors who would rather take more time to develop a range of repertoire and musicianship skills in the choir room (which, anecdotally, actually seems to be most of them) are forced by the superstructure of competition to narrow their focus onto that one concert.

School administrators want to see a gold medal; that’s easier to measure than deep musicianship skills and it’s a clearer way to justify funding a choral programme than favouring the less tangible results that music has on general wellbeing and mental and social development. But eventually it is a self-defeating system, as students end up with a more limited knowledge of music that doesn’t help them in the long run either as musicians or well-rounded citizens.

This is not to disparage the Big Sing or the World Choir Games (at least not too much). At the end of the day, these are events where people can come together to sing and to listen to singers, and that can only be a good thing. But what message do we want to send to our young singers: that music is worth pursuing for the knowledge it can give us about our culture and history and that of others, and for our personal aesthetic fulfilment, whatever that means to us? Or that music is a competitive space with concrete awards in monetary or social capital?

By all means, let’s turn out in droves for the World Choir Games. But let’s read the games and other such events against the grain and see them as a celebration of choral diversity and excellence rather than as a competition.

Dr Gregory Camp is from the University of Auckland School of Music and teaches in musicology, music theory and musicianship. A long-time choral singer, he sings regularly with the Auckland Chamber Choir and Voices New Zealand.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, If only we could celebrate music without it being competitive, 9 July, 2024

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