Competition Philosophy

Check out this fantastic article by Pope High School (Marietta, GA) band director Gary Gribble regarding competitive band programs.

Competition…is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Our philosophy on competition has evolved over the years into what we believe is a healthy, productive, and sustainable approach to being a competitive band program. We are not against competition, nor are we totally driven by the need to prove ourselves by winning a certain trophy. In order to understand our approach, you must consider a few different scenarios.

1). If your goal is to have a trophy, it is easier to just go to the trophy shop and buy one. No long hours of practice, no waiting to see if you will receive it or not…instant gratification. You can have it made as big as you want, with any title you choose. You could be the “Grand Exalted Omnipotent Champion of All You Survey”. 10 years from now, the trophy sits collecting dust and no one really remembers much about it.

2). If your only sense of worth is in being able to point at someone else and say “I’m better than you”, then simply hang around with really poor quality people and you can be the “best of the worst”.

3). If “winning is the only thing”, “Second place is the first loser”, or “Go big or go home” are the mantra of your group, what happens when you finish 2nd…or5th….or 16th ? Reality dictates that no single organization will be the champion forever. It is inevitable that you will not be the top finisher at some point. If the only motivation is winning, then you are sure to experience disappointment.

4). Have you ever seen the ugly side of competition? Team brawls, parents attacking officials, neighboring school groups that will not speak to each other or team leaders and coaches who will not share successful techniques in order to keep their “opponent” from improving are all too common.

Unfortunately, the band programs that are ultra-competitive often have periods of great accomplishment followed by a complete downfall. They implode when the demands and expectations cannot possibly be met and the anticipated championships fail to materialize. In some situations, the drive to win at all cost causes students to drop out of the program or to stop musical participation after high school.

Here is our philosophy:

Yes, we will compete. We will compete with our own level of achievement and will strive to be better than we have ever been. We will go to competitions, but we will go with the goal of delivering our best performance… not to beat someone else or to win a championship. If we truly achieve our goal of the best performance, then it should follow that we will be recognized and rewarded for our efforts. If our work has been taken to the highest level in our activity, then it will be worthy of being called a “championship” performance.

We will go to competitions where there are other high quality bands in attendance. Manipulating the contest and only going if we think that it will be “easy” or if the bands are likely not to be great quality, then we might “win” but then we are the champions of the mediocre. We will go to competitions that offer high quality feedback from qualified evaluators. This is how we learn and continue to grow.

By going to high quality competitions with great bands, we always run the risk of not being 1st place. That’s why we do not emphasize placement as the only reward. Something that we must realize is that we might compete with bands that are willing to do far more in preparation than we are willing to do. It is not uncommon to find bands at the top of our activity that rehearse 5 weeks of their summer, 5 days a week during Fall, and compete 11 times during marching season. Some will also spend far more money on band than we are able to spend. We have heard band fees of $1200 per student and budgets in excess of $300,000 for marching band alone. Some will have 20-30 full time staff members at every rehearsal. All things considered, the band that works the most, finances the most, and has the most professional instruction should be fantastic.

We try to balance our activities so that marching band does not become our primary focus. Many schools have experienced total program burnout from too much emphasis on one activity. Some do not offer any additional musical ensembles or opportunities beyond band class and marching band. We have numerous groups for our students, ranging from small ensembles to large group performance activities. Our program has remained active and healthy for over a quarter-century.

Here is our advice to the students:

Go out and work hard every day. Learn all that you can about your activity. Give your best effort. Approach all performances with the goal of doing better than you ever have before. Support others who also love your activity. Applaud their efforts when you see them perform. Help those around you.

With this approach, the PROCESS becomes more important than the PRODUCT. When we understand and can work through the PROCESS, then we can apply this approach to every aspect of our lives. The learning takes place during rehearsal, not during the performance. The rewards often follow and the championships occur…not because we expected them, but because the quality of our work was worthy.

Sometimes we encounter students and parents who say “If you’re not going to stress winning, then why practice and push the kids to do so much?”  The answer is simple. We practice because we believe that the traits learned through the PROCESS are invaluable for life. Set goals. Work hard. Stick with it. Help others succeed. Organize your time. If you do these things and give your best performance, then you can leave the event with a smile on your face, your head held high, and a sense in pride in your accomplishment….no matter what your placement.



Gary D. Gribble has been Director of Bands at Alan C. Pope High School in Georgia’s Cobb County School District since the school opened in 1987. Under his direction, the Pope High School Band has earned more than 400 awards of excellence and has been a Bands of America regional champion, a regional finalist 19 times, and a Grand National semifinalist twice. The Pope band received the Sudler Shield from the John Philip Sousa Foundation in 1992. The school’s marching band has participated in parades across the continental U.S., Hawaii, and London, England, and its symphonic bands have performed in state, regional, and national concerts.


Mr. Gribble earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from Georgia State University. He has served as an adjudicator, guest conductor, and clinician in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, and Florida. In 1996, Mr. Gribble choreographed a portion of the opening ceremonies for the Paralympic Games in Atlanta. In 2008, he was named a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction by the National Society of High School Scholars. Mr. Gribble was also selected for inclusion in the American School Band Directors Association and is currently on the executive board of the National Band Association.