Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Edge of Incompetence

Last night, we had our 5 year old's "Dance Night." This is an annual event whereby the Preps and Grade Ones and their families are crammed into a large gymnasium and an event ensues. The event consists of an assortment of songs sung by children and dances danced by children all to the tune of whirring camcorders. The latter accompaniment comes from the families who jockey for position to zoom in on their moving child; trying to isolate them from the other hundred children doing the same thing. If I ever missed one of these events and had to watch it on video, the experience for me would be much the same. I don't think I have seen a child perform except through a camcorder screen! That is all I ever see.

Anyhow, the first dance is of course before the show as the experienced parents (those with older children) stake out the best locations. They then watch with amusement as the inexperienced ones flounder. This is particularly fun at our school as the best locations are not where you would think. Experienced parents head up high to the gallery whereby they can look down on the events and also pick off their child from above. They can then watch inexperienced ones as they jump for joy being able to find a front row on the gymnasium floor. Those parents then observe us up high and wonder what we are all doing there when we could get a seat so close to the action. Little do they know. A few smart ones work out the difference between us and them and switch (that is what we did our first time). But enough do not or even more amusingly, one parent argues for switching while the other doesn't in a wonderful hint of foreboding.

Then the fun really begins. When the children start performing, the parents in the front row realise they can't see their particular child. Dozens of others are in front. They then want to stand but of course cannot because there are parents behind them. A few more flee for the gallery but that it too full. They are then left with thoughts that they will have to plan better next year.

On to the actual show, I have come to a view that the standard upon which to judge childrens' concerts is how incompetent they are. However, this is not in the way you think. Incompetence is a good thing. Competence is bad. The reason is this. These shows will never have objectively good performances (you know, the kind that you would pay to see). There is always some hopeful music teacher conducting passionately in the front with a clear 'pain of hopefulness' expression that can never quite be relieved. Children just can't be -- as a group -- good enough for this.

Instead, the value for we as parents is to get amusement value from the whole event. I didn't quite realise this until the second time I attended. This is because the first was so darned amusing. In that event, my daughter -- the same age as my son this year -- could not help herself during the choir songs from moving her arms to the music and even a spot of air guitar. In a sea of children standing straight with arms by their sides, this was intensely amusing to me and made for one great video.

But it got better. When it came to dancing these skills were the skills of competence. Now you would think that by my metric this would have destroyed my enjoyment. No so. This is because this was the sort of dancing that involved another child. And this boy had the requisite characteristics for fun.

My daughter's dance 'partner' was, shall we say, uninterested. Unlike my daughter, the concept of moving was not really what he was in to. He wasn't against it, but effort clearly was not going to be expended. My daughter had clearly worked this out already from practices and so was ready. Basically, she handled him physically (she was quite a bit taller) and literally pushed or outright placed him where he had to be. If he had to kneel, he was pushed down. If he had to stand, his was pulled up. If he had to move around the circle, he was herded. If he had to spin around, he was swung. It was by far the funniest thing I have ever seen.

Which brings me back to my hypothesis on incompetence. The next year, it was round 2 for my daughter as she moved to Grade One. Imagine my thrill when I heard she would be partnered with the very same boy as last year. It was surely going to be a great ride.

But sadly no. Everyone had become much much better. The songs were sung without movement and the dances executed without drama. The boy had become interested enough not to require special attention. And all of the amusement value was gone. Another year of age had brought with it competence and removed all amusement.

So it was with great anticipation that we moved on to Child No.2 and back to potential incompetence. I was very optimistic for a great night last night.

But sadly no. Some school administrators had decided that the grueling one and a half hour without break performance was all too much. They had scaled it back to a light sixty minutes with lots of alternating breaks for individual classes. Moreover, the routines and songs were tame. It was all brought back to the child's level of competence and that is what we got. As a result, no fun was to be had.

To get an enjoyable performance from children needs two elements. First, we need an ambitious program. The children need to be set up to fail. Hard long dances. Plays with lots of hard words. No chance that anyone can hope to memorise them.

Second, we need this to be unmatched to the children's age. Lots of practice so that it looks like there was a serious attempt to do this right. But do not allow years of learning.

Add these two ingredients together and you get to the edge of competence. Only that will give you cherished video memories.