Challenging for the Chair

There is always a battle for first chair, even at the tender age of eleven. At that age, it is quite validating to be considered the best — this is what the students at my middle school would brag about. However, when I was in eighth grade all the music teachers at my school decided to eliminate the “chair” system in which the students would compete for the seat in which the supposedly best instrumentalist would sit and get to play all the solos. The question is: are chair competitions effective and optimal for middle and high school ensembles?

In my middle school ensemble, if one wanted to attempt to move up a chair, he had to “challenge” the person sitting in front of him. The challenger would pick an excerpt from the music we were playing in class, and in one week the teacher would listen to both students individually play the part before or after class and determine who played it better. If the challenger lost, then the seating positions would stay the same, but if he won, he would get to move up and then the other person would have to move down a chair. This was an extremely effective way of getting the kids to practice their music; our little egos pushed us to work harder than we had in elementary school, when there was no competition. Even if there ultimately was not too much chair movement in the sections, students practiced more than they would have without the challenges, and that led to the band sounding better overall, and students generally being more engaged in class.

However, the teachers began to become quite annoyed, as there would be multiple challenges everyday, and it became both a hassle and often a waste of time. It also led to tension within the sections, and even accusations towards the teachers that they were assessing the challenges unfairly. Furthermore, the students in the last chairs of each section lost interest since they were in the back, complaining that they would never be able to rise in the ranks and that there was no point in trying. They were unmotivated, and the students near the top were not always too kind to them. Overall, negative attitudes arose from all for different reasons, and the teachers felt that it was time for a change. Under the new system, everyone would take turns sitting in different spots, and playing different parts (1st, 2nd, and 3rd clarinet for example) for different pieces. It eased some of the tension, but then students stopped practicing as much. Ultimately, there were pros and cons to both systems, and what will work best for your ensemble is dependent upon your needs. In my high school, there were no challenges and my teacher would rarely change chairs, but if a change was necessary for the sake of the sound of the band, he would act accordingly. It merely takes time to experiment and determine what benefits the students and their education the most.