Performance: Challenge Systems–Good or Bad?

Mike Lawson • Performance • February 8, 2016

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You are solo chair in the first clarinet section and the dreaded words leap of the form from the director, “you have been challenged!” It means that the person in the second seat may replace you in your coveted position.

The challenge notice identifies a specific section one of the compositions currently in the band folder being rehearsed for an upcoming concert. This composition has a particularly difficult portion for the first clarinet section. That is the portion specified in the challenge.

This implementation of a challenge system was in a school with a substantial population of well-trained musicians. The goal of the director was to develop a superior performing organization from this richly talented pool of students. The individual musicians and the entire band were expected to be at peak performing capability at all times.

Exactly what is a “challenge” system? This is a mechanism whereby a student in the band can “move up” in his section by performing the challenge music better than the person challenged. Most implementations allow a student to challenge only one seat ahead, but a few allow more aggressive moves. Generally the challenge is on a specific piece of music, usually in the band folder of selections being rehearsed. Some implementations expand on this with additional evaluation including sight-reading, scales, or other material. To avoid impacting the overall band performance capability, there are usually both time limits on how frequently a student may challenge and blackout periods, especially just prior to public performances. Judges usually are the band director(s) but some implementations include students, or even the entire band. Some implementations allow the challenged student to decline the challenge, i.e. forfeit the seat, while others require both students to actively participate in the challenge.

One result of a challenge system can be a constant state of readiness to perform and to master all the music in rehearsal by every band member.

The original seating of a school band for an academic year may be done by active auditions. The directors in some schools or districts will place the students based on their knowledge of past performance rather than conducting auditions. It is this initial seating that then can be altered by challenge activity.

The implementation of a challenge system varies across the country. The implementation that I operated under only allowed a challenge to the person immediately ahead of you. The person challenging would specify a section of one of the pieces in the current band practice folder. The judge was the band director and he designated the date of the challenge. On challenge day the two participants would each enter a practice room, turn on the intercom and play a few notes to indicate that they are ready to begin. The director would designate player number 1 and number 2. No conversation was allowed to provide total anonymity. The director would then indicate which player would perform. The director could also request playing other sections of the challenge selection or anything in the rehearsal folder. At the conclusion of the challenge both players would join the director in the office and be advised of the outcome, which player prevailed.

Other examples encountered might include performing scales or other assigned selections and would state how often the same challenge may take place, how soon can the challenge be returned, is there a “black-out” period for any challenges, who judges, who observes and listens and what music is the challenge based on.

School Band & Orchestra requested comments from band directors using the challenge system today. Actual field experience with challenge systems was surveyed including schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Ohio. Directors were asked when their challenge system was put in place, if it was patterned after another program, and to describe many of the specific elements described above.

A New Jersey high school band has had a challenge system in place for over twelve years. Seating positions at this school are initially established by auditions at the start of each year. Challenges are not a constant or frequent occurrence, but serve the purpose of allowing a student who feels that he/she had a “bad day” in audition can win their desired and deserved position. Challenges also allow for a student who improves their ability and skills during the year to be recognized for their improvement.

This particular school music program has subsequently implemented bi-weekly playing tests for all band members and is currently considering whether the challenge system is still beneficial in that environment. Judging of all challenges is by the director at this school and utilizes an evaluation scale developed by the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA). The director at this school commented, “I’m not really sure how challenge systems work at other schools, because this is not something directors ever talk about. So, I am very interested to see what other schools are doing.”

Another director with seventeen years experience utilizes challenges by listening to both the live performance and then following-up with a review of the recorded challenge session. Challenges can only take place after the first concert of the year with a one-week preparation time. The participants are judged on the specified challenge composition and also under an all-state sight-reading rubric. Any return challenge must wait two weeks. This is designed to force additional practice of the challenge piece by both participants. Forfeits are not allowed. This director’s high school has three different bands with students initially placed by the director’s evaluation. Challenges may only take place within each of the three bands.

An immediate “challenge” (director challenge) is utilized by some directors during rehearsal by requesting individual band members to perform the same material and possibly immediately changing the seating based on their performance.

The challenge system is only one tool that may be implemented by a band director or music department to further develop the individual student’s capability, not only in the band, but also in many of life’s endeavors. Challenges seldom operate alone but frequently in combination with auditions, rotational seating and director challenges. Like any other tool, the challenge system may not fit every school or every environment. It also may not be beneficial at all times. The director’s situational awareness is critical.

Comments about the use of the challenge system are encouraged and welcome! Direct to Marty at [email protected]



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