Getting Ready For Festival

Getting Ready For Festival

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)


  • 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!


2018: The Great Unbalancing Act

2018: The Great Unbalancing Act

2018. The year I…

  • got engaged to Ryan, my partner of 12 years
  • completed my second AIDS Lifecycle
  • conducted 94 of my incredible students at Carnegie Hall
  • attended my first conducting symposium
  • was introduced to the power of meditation and mindfulness

2018. Also the year I…

  • made some of the most difficult professional decisions in my career
  • felt defeated and unsure of my skills as a teacher
  • was lost as to the direction of my life
  • experienced the crippling and accelerating presence of anxiety in my daily life
  • dealt with panic attacks that caused me to feel like my world was falling apart

We spend a lot of time putting our best foot forward to the world. Through the curated digital life I create for others (and myself) to see, I have built an imbalance that I am working to reset. Sharing here is a starting point towards clarity; writing is cathartic and it’s helpful to pull back the curtains to make sense of the messiness. Maybe this will help you to think about how to care for yourselves, too.

When your passion is the problem

As a band director I find I am able to feel secure and valuable in the non-stop busyness of my daily work schedule. I thrive in the 12-16 hour days of teaching, making music, planning, trouble shooting, problem solving, and generally being “on.” Driving home I decompress with phone calls, usually to other band directors, to talk about my day so I can arrive home to Ryan with a clean slate, ready to do it all over again the next day.

Wash, rinse, repeat x 250 days.

But what about the other 115 days? Cue the second list I detailed above.

And you know what? In talking with many of my teacher friends, I’ve learned I am not alone and that this is something that we should be talking about more. In the absence of daily and monthly schedules that have driven my purpose and my identity, I collapse emotionally and physically from the inside out.

My thoughts catch up to me. My feelings catch up to me. My lack of exercise catches up to me. My screen-time catches up to me. All the old tricks to keep me from myself are no longer working.

Ready, Set, Action

So it’s time to get clear about what I need to help myself. This transcends resolutions (though they are a great starting point). Self-care is a very popular buzzword at the moment but it rings true in it’s intention. If you give everything to something or someone else you don’t have anything left for yourself.

Things I know help me that require little effort for me to do:

  • Moving (yoga, cycling, running)
  • Meditation/mindfulness activities
  • Alone time (daydream, write, read, go for a drive)
  • Putting my phone down
  • Focusing on my breathing and having body awareness
  • Releasing the physical sensation of holding on, clenching or tightness
  • Creating something beautiful (floral arrangements, decorating, photos)

My relationship to my anxiety (and the related panic attacks) is new but one that I am developing an understanding of how to handle. I recognize triggers and signs (both physically and mentally) and am learning how to get in front of caring for myself in advance of and through anxiety as it manifests.

As teachers we are charged with caring for others. It takes work and bandwidth we don’t always have to care for ourselves. So what if I approach this work like I would help a student with learning a new skill?

By showing them:

  • Patience
  • Grace
  • Kindness
  • Compassion

So my request of myself (and maybe you, too, if this resonates!) is to take time to listen to my body, my breath, my mind and to cultivate a deeper relationship with that little voice. The one that is tugging at my proverbial pant leg telling me exactly what I need to do to be balanced, to listen, to pay attention and to take action when necessary.

I’ve moved past the idea that any part of me needs fixing. As a band director I am a fix-it person by nature. But years of working through my own struggles to come out and live with visibility have taught me that trying to fix myself implies that who I am is broken. I’m coming to an awareness that my body is sending me signals that I’m not broken, just out of balance.

One resolution I have for 2019 is to write more. I am thankful for the opportunity to share with you and for your time reading. May you find balance in your life in 2019.

With gratitude,




Oh hi there…

It’s been a minute. That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking about writing (as I’ve certainly had lots on my mind.) I even thought at several points about actually posting something.

And then I didn’t. And then I thought about it again. And then I did nothing.

Continue reading “Oh hi there…”

That Time I Biked 545 Miles

That Time I Biked 545 Miles

In June I participated in the AIDS Lifecycle (ALC), a 545 mile bike ride to raise funds and awareness for AIDS/HIV research, care, and prevention. I am new to cycling as a sport and this was my first time doing the ride, which this year had 2200 participants and 700 support volunteers, all of whom raised over $15 million dollars.

What follows is not a play by play of my experience (check out my Facebook, Instagram or Strava feeds for that piece of the story) but rather an effort to gather in one place the things I learned.

Continue reading “That Time I Biked 545 Miles”

Remember the why and love/survive/handle/navigate/overcome/enjoy the what/how/when/where. Continue reading “Why Do We Do It?”

Lesson Planning

Lesson Planning

The quick and dirty? I love lesson planning. It brings some front loaded calm to the anticipated craziness of any given work week. And what teacher doesn’t appreciate some calm in whatever form they can get it?

Click on the links below for a look at the documents that guide our rehearsals at Amador Valley. Continue reading “Lesson Planning”

March Madness

March Madness

It’s the middle of the 3rd quarter.

(This is not about basketball) Continue reading “March Madness”