Where I teach (in the San Francisco Bay Area) we are in the thick of CMEA festival season. I have fond memories of attending district and state festival as a band student in Michigan and appreciate the value of a non-competitive event to get feedback on where we are at as a program. Festival is not the end-all of our objectives for the year but is a useful metric we use to guide our instruction.
Every state runs festival differently. CMEA Bay Section doesn’t ask us to choose from a required repertoire list or to perform a march (though we do plenty.) But we must program art music and stay within 25 minutes of time. Also, there are different classes we can place our ensembles in (our 3 developing bands are Class 2, the 2 wind ensembles are Class 3). And we have a sight-reading component.
As both a judge and a participating band director in festivals I thought it might be helpful to share a few of my thoughts and observations on tips for a smooth and successful experience at festival.
- Pick music that your group can achieve successfully in the allotted class time you have to get ready for festival. Think here of achievement as your ensemble playing at a high level of musicality and technical proficiency, not just “getting through the piece”. I’ve always prioritized process over product as I want my students to enjoy our time with the music we are preparing and our festival set is no different
- Make sure not to get sidetracked by difficulty or grade level as the most significant baseline for choosing rep for festival. If you feel like your group would benefit from a stretch piece save that for a concert
- Consider a balance of genres/styles/length/composers
- In each week of your rehearsal cycle plan for 1 day to be a program run. A few years ago I started doing Friday run-throughs early in our rehearsal process. This was hugely beneficial for me and the students even when those early run-throughs were pretty rough
Here is what we are programming for festival with the 5 bands at Amador Valley:
Wind Ensemble 1
- Through The Looking Glass (Jess Langston Turner)
- Of Our New Day Begun (Omar Thomas)
- The Purple Pageant (Karl L. King)
Wind Ensemble 2
- Early Light (Carolyn Bremer)
- Blessed Are They (Johannes Brahms, trans. Barbara Buehlman)
- Chester (William Schumann)
Wind Symphony Purple (non-auditioned 11-12th grade)
- The Young Lions (Jukka Vitasarri)
- Ancient Flower (Yukiko Nishimura)
- Within The Castle Walls (Brian Balmages)
Wind Symphony Gold (non-auditioned 10th grade)
- El Capitan (John Philip Sousa)
- The Sun Will Rise Again (Philip Sparke)
- Cajun Folk Songs (Frank Ticheli)
Symphonic Band (9th grade)
- Bugles & Drums (Edwin Franko Goldman)
- At Morning’s First Light (David Gillingham)
- Variations on A Korean Folksong (John Barnes Chance)
Have a plan. Type it out, write it up, but have a plan. If you have 30 minutes know that 5 minutes of that time will be entering and exiting the room. Another 5 minutes will be transitions and getting settled so really you have 20 minutes for warm-up. Ideally you would practice your exact festival warm-up in the 1-2 rehearsals prior to festival so there is no surprise for the students. I like to do a short breathing sequence and then 2-3 of our warm-up activities followed by repertoire specific exercises they already have in rotation.
I suggest having 2-3 items to spot check in each piece but have them be areas that don’t need last minute rehearsing if you can avoid that (I’ve been there, too…) Spot check in reverse order so the last thing they play in warm-up is from the first piece they will play on stage. After the spot checking we tune.
Think of the warm-up room as the place where you connect to one another and the music you are about to make. I try to stay cool, calm and collected as I think that energy is a helpful transfer for students who may be nervous, distracted, excited or any variety of emotions. Oh, and did I mention: have a plan!
- Make sure you know how students are expected to enter and exit the stage before you start your performance. Ideally you and your students would be able to see at least one band perform and you would know what this looks like
- Practice how you are going to enter and exit the stage (especially with your newest or youngest musicians)
- Let your students know that the first visual impression they make while they are on stage is a critical one. Details matter, including professional deportment. This is a necessary skill for any performance, not just festival
- I prefer to avoid playing on stage, including taking a tuning pitch (unless the stage is significantly colder than the warm-up room)
- Ensure your percussion have a clear plan for setting up and arranging equipment as needed so that everything feels as similar as possible to your rehearsal room
- Work with your timpanists ahead of time to have a plan to tune the timpani in a professional manner. Avoid having a student play a reference pitch and ensure your percussionists know how to tune timpani
- Practice how the transitions will work between each piece and/or movement so the students (and you!) know how long things should take. Don’t start a piece until everyone is ready…I’ve seen many times where a nervous director is missing several musicians at the start of a piece because they didn’t notice the students weren’t ready
In an earlier blog I shared the curriculum I’ve built to create music literacy beyond a superior rating at festival. For the purposes of this post I will share some different strategies I use with my groups in the 5 minute prep time we are given in the actual sight-reading room.
In CMEA we are not allowed to make any sounds on our instruments but can practice fingerings. Teachers are not allowed to prompt students on how rhythms go, what fingerings to use or what terms mean but students can generate that information for one another. It is, by design, a very student centered process (which I love)
- Give the students 30-45 seconds of individual/partner preparation. The students know their strengths and weaknesses better than we do. Giving them time to work at their own pace for a short period of time will help them to have some ownership in the sight-reading room (and encourage your kids to NOT work chronologically…zoom in on the toughest looking thing on the page and start there)
- Sensitize the ensemble to the gestural vocabulary of the piece. Have the group watch you do some sample conducing and count quarter notes. Ask them to match their counting to your style, your conducting frame, your tempo. This will allow you to practice all meters, all styles, all tempos and even accelerandos and rallentandos. And bonus: they are watching you the whole time! This doesn’t need to take more than 30 seconds
- Work from the end of the piece first (often directors run out of time and the band never knows how the piece ends)
- Utilize sizzling, rhythm tapping, note name spelling, wind patterns. In our festivals we are allowed to have the students practice in any way we’d like except for making sounds on their instruments so we are able to take advantage of a variety of strategies
- End with the beginning of the piece (as it’s the first thing they play)
MISCELLANEOUS FESTIVAL LOGISTICS
- Make sure necessary paperwork for the festival is done ahead of time (repertoire sheets, seating charts)
- Prepare an equipment list for your percussion so the day of the festival your students have something to reference when you are packing for the event
- Create neat and organized judges binders with scores numbered (and free of rehearsal markings) and pages in the correct order
- Assign students to help with things like brass mutes and folders
- When planning your itinerary for the event provide some buffer time for things that might come up that are out of your control. I personally add 5 minutes to all of my intervals to account for travel time and other hiccups that always occur
Whether you are a new or veteran band director I hope these offer you some ideas, reminders or points of consideration to help your festival experience run smoothly!
Take care and good skill!