Sing [subtitled]


The better known Sing released in 2016 is the feature length animated movie with the singing animals. This is a different Sing, though certainly not a completely obscure one, as it won that year’s Academy Award for the best live action short film.

This Sing, a Hungarian film, begins with a young girl on a tour of her new school. She is understandably shy and not fully at ease, but then her mood improves markedly when she is shown the school’s choir, and she finds out that everyone is welcome in the choir, which has won many competitions and honors.

Singing is her passion, and being in the choir becomes the highlight of her time in the new school. She even makes her first close friend there. Everyone seems to especially love the teacher, who has led the choir to such great success.

But things take a dark turn when the teacher takes her aside one day and convinces her that it would be best for all concerned if from now on she simply mouths the words and doesn’t actually sing. She assures her that it will be their little secret, and that of course she’ll be allowed to remain in the choir and enjoy any victories and perks they might amass in the future, including the exciting foreign trips that are sometimes offered as prizes.

It’s not that the girl is a comically bad singer or anything. Not that I’m a good judge of such things, but I’m pretty sure she’s fine. It’s just that apparently she is not at the level the teacher feels is necessary to win major competitions with other schools.

The girl is crushed, and uncertain how to respond. Ultimately, though, word gets out, the kids figure out if this is an isolated case or something the teacher has done with others in the past or present, and they decide what to do, if anything, in response.

This is a solid little film, I think actually a little deeper and more interesting than it at first appears. I mean, on the surface it’s a feel-good film about a villain—the teacher who leads the choir—acting selfishly and deceptively, and ultimately getting her comeuppance from a plucky bunch of kids who band together in solidarity to support those of them who have been wronged. And if that’s all it was, it would still be a worthwhile, entertaining film.

But it made me think a little beyond that. What is the purpose of a school choir (or other such extracurricular school activities, or I suppose even broader activities)? The film seems to set up a conflict between seeing the purpose as giving kids an opportunity to experience the joy of singing together versus seeing it as geared toward winning singing competitions, and to come down squarely on the side of the former. But is that correct; are people who would approach such activities competitively in the wrong?

In a way it’s just another instance of the debate over whether the recent trend of giving every kid a “participation trophy” and de-emphasizing if not eliminating winning and losing in their lives has been a step forward or a step back.

I’m not disputing that the teacher is a selfish bitch, and that her efforts to justify her policies in terms of how they are all to the benefit of the kids (in that her maneuvers make the choir more likely to win the singing competitions and enable its members to enjoy the fruits thereof) are self-serving rationalizations. But does that invalidate caring about winning and losing?

When I think about this, one thing that keeps coming back to me is that opening scene when the new student sees the choir practicing and lights up. You can see what pure joy singing is for her. It’s not that she’s looking forward to winning prizes or any of that; she just wants to sing with other kids in the choir. Surely it is valuable, all else being equal, to facilitate children being able to have such treasured experiences.

So to me, the question is not: Should such activities be arranged so as to enable kids like her to experience joy like that, or should they be arranged as competitions with an emphasis on winning and losing?, but instead: Should such activities be arranged only so as to enable kids like her to experience joy like that, or is there also a place for versions of such activities that are competitive with an emphasis on winning and losing?

As to this second question, I’m inclined to go with the second option. That is, yes, there should always be choirs (and sports, and art, and science projects, and various forms of play, etc.) that have nothing to do with competition but are just about really getting into the activity and having a good time. Childhood should be, in part, about fun; this girl should be able to sing her heart out in a school choir, bond with the other participants, make friends, etc., and not have an authority figure shut her down. On the other hand, I think we lose something very valuable when we seek to eliminate competitive versions of school activities.

There should be, I believe, school sports teams where not everyone makes the team, where not everyone who makes the team gets to be a starter, where the practices and such are geared toward enabling the student athletes to perform at their best as a team in order to defeat other teams, and where winners are recognized and celebrated more than just generic “participants.” There should always still be room for kids to play those same sports amongst themselves as seriously or unseriously as they want, as competitively or non-competitively as they want, in whatever way they most enjoy, just as there should always be room for them to have fun singing, dancing, painting, acting, programming, and doing whatever else in whatever way gives them the most joy, but one way that kids can feel most intensely positive about an activity and enjoy it most is when it is approached competitively.

So let’s come back then to this woman and her choir. Since I believe there is a place for both non-competitive choirs that are solely for the enjoyment of the participants, as well as competitive choirs where only the best get to sing, does it follow that I agree with how she runs her choir as an instance of the latter type?

No, for multiple reasons. One, evidently this is the only choir in this school, and so if it is run her way it means that there will be no choir for kids like the protagonist, and all you have to do is remember her face when she first became aware she could join the choir at her new school to know why that’s a bad outcome. Two, it is revealed early in the film that the principal has determined that the choir will be the type that accepts and includes everyone who is interested. Though he doesn’t oppose the choir also participating in competitions, it would be contrary to the school policy he has set if the desire to win caused a deviation from the requirement that singing in the choir is open to all. Three, the teacher is behaving deceptively in pressuring one or more kids to only pretend to sing. This isn’t a case of, say, a basketball coach openly rejecting some people who try out for the team, or openly benching a player when he thinks another player would do a better job. This is a matter of surreptitiously taking an activity of one type (open to all, for the purpose of enjoyment) and turning it into an activity of a different type (open to only the best, for the purpose of winning). Even if both those purposes are legitimate, pretending to do one while deceptively doing the other isn’t.

Anyway, Sing is a very good little film even if you just enjoy it on the level of kids humorously outsmarting and punishing an egotistical adult who has been using them for her own selfish glory, but it’s even better if you also give some thought to what precisely, if anything, is objectionable about what she’s doing, and what broader implications that has or doesn’t have for such things as the role of competitiveness in student activities.