Taking your band or orchestra to festival is a great way to challenge them to strive for higher levels of musical excellence, but it can be hard for students to receive negative feedback. In my experience, I have found that if I want my middle school students to have a positive experience at festival, then comprehensive preparation is vital. First, I must choose the music carefully. Then I must make sure my students are completely prepared for their performance. Finally, I must take care of the logistics and help my students be mentally prepared for the experience of the day.
While we’ll cover all three topics in subsequent blog posts, in this article I will focus only on the first level of preparation—picking the music.
Observe Other Groups at Festival
Before we dive into repertoire, however, if you are new to the festival experience, it’s important to learn what is traditionally expected at festival. If possible, go to a similar festival as an audience member to listen to the ensembles perform. (If you have a smartphone, you might be able to follow along with the scores online.)
Here are some questions to consider while observing at festival:
- How does the chosen repertoire help or hinder their students’ ability to be successful?
- Was the music too hard? Was it easier than you expected?
- Were there common mistakes you heard across multiple ensembles? Are your students likely to experience the same problems?
- What are the positive and negative elements you hear?
- What rating would you give the performers? How does your rating compare to what the judges agreed on?
The choice of music for festival can have a huge impact on the result, so be sure to give this careful thought. Think critically and honestly about your own ensemble:
- Which sections are stronger?
- Which sections are weaker?
- What notes are comfortable or uncomfortable? For example, think about your individual clarinet players: Who plays well over the break, and who doesn’t?
- What rhythms tend to be problematic for your students? What styles of music tend to capture their energy and enthusiasm?
Keep all these things in mind as you select the music you will perform.
For a festival performance, you want to choose music that is “quality” repertoire. (This is not the time to perform a pop medley.) Lists from state associations or the “Teaching Music Through Performance…” series can be helpful in finding quality repertoire at any level.
Mix It Up
Try to create a contrast in your program so that you don’t have three of the same type of piece. Think of it like a meal: a salad, a main dish, bread, or soup. Most people wouldn’t want to eat a meal that consisted only of steak, tri-tip, and filet mignon: Variety is important.
Many times directors go with a fast-slow-fast arrangement of pieces, but the middle piece doesn’t necessarily have to be slow. A waltz is another way to “mix it up” and play lyrically without playing slowly. The important thing is to use that middle slot to create contrast. Or course, a march is always a great way to open or close your program.
Fit Your Ensemble
But don’t think only in the abstract about the repertoire choices–it’s important to choose music that will fit your specific ensemble.
- What are the technical and musical demands of this piece? Are your students prepared for them?
- Think about specific students that play each instrument: Who will play the Trumpet 1 part? Can they reach those notes?
- Does your group have the required instrumentation?
- What about the percussion parts? Do you have those percussion instruments? Are there too few/too many parts for the number of percussionists in your ensemble?
Thinking in this very granular way about the music helps ensure that you find the right pieces for your group.
Level of Difficulty
It’s very tempting to pick music that ends up being too hard for your students. I know I have fallen into this trap when I get excited about conducting a specific piece and don’t really take seriously the challenge it will be to my students. “After all,” I think, “it isn’t that hard for me.” But when you are studying the score, ask yourself if every student in your group would be able to play this music with greater than 90% accuracy by the time of your performance.
You’re going to need to spend time focusing on tone, tuning, phrasing, and expression. If your students are struggling to line up notes and rhythms, then the music won’t really be able to be expressive. If my students can’t get through the piece on a first reading, I usually won’t program it for festival.
Another thing I have discovered is that each piece of music has its own pitfalls. If I play the same piece with a different group of students, they make the exact same mistakes in exactly the same places. It’s kind of like playing a video game. The first time you play the game, you are surprised by the challenges at each level. But when you play the game again, you are prepared and ready to defeat those challenges. In a similar way, if you as the director have taught the piece before to a different group of students, you will already know where the problems are likely to be found. (On the other hand, please don’t use festival to perform music you have done over and over since the fall concert.)
Once you have some possible music selections, and before you start preparing it in class, study the score with an eye on how to teach it. I use a planning guide to help me with this.
It’s true that for groups with instrumentation challenges, the choice of music is even more critical. If you have instrumentation issues, you may be forced to make some adjustments to the written score. For example, if you have too many alto saxophones, consider creating an Alto Sax 3 part by giving them the Baritone Sax part. You can also create a Trumpet 3 part using the TC Baritone, or a Clarinet 3 part with the Bass Clarinet part.
If you don’t have many low voices, be sure that the notes of the bass line are played somewhere else in the ensemble. You don’t want to leave out important notes, like roots or thirds of chords. Realize that some composers, like John Edmondson, Anne McGinty, or John Kinyon, have written music that is geared toward groups that may fall short of full instrumentation.
Making a Final Decision
Usually, as I go through this careful process of study with all the pieces I am considering, it becomes clear what the best choices will be for my ensemble. Sometimes I narrow it down, but still have two equally good pieces. In that case, I will either let the students have a choice between those two, or rehearse both for a week and see which one coalesces faster.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “Oh No! I already chose my music for festival!” That’s ok—but now go back through the pieces again and ask yourself these questions we’ve been examining. That will help prepare you for what’s ahead. I hate getting to the point two weeks before festival when I realize that there is a problem I didn’t anticipate. I never said you would find the “perfect” piece for your group. Every choice has its pros and cons—we just have to be prepared for the challenges hidden in the music.
As a final piece of advice, choose music that both you and your students can “live with” for the next 6-8 weeks. Does this music have some kind of spark that will keep the energy going until it’s time to perform? It’s hard to make the music come to life when you actively hate it. Listen to the recording 3 or 4 times in a row. If you get tired of it after just a few hearings, imagine what will happen by the second week of rehearsal! It’s much more fun to be excited about a melody and have it stuck in your head all the time.
Coming up next: Now that we have chosen the music, how do we prepare our students for the challenge of adjudication?