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!

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”

The Cultural Hygiene In Your Ensemble

The Cultural Hygiene In Your Ensemble

I am unabashedly aware that I have a lot of steps in getting ready for my day. Specific shampoo for thicker hair, face scrub for shinier skin, shaving gel, toner, under eye cream, moisturizer…and we haven’t even gotten to styling products.

There is a routine we all follow, big or small, in maintaining a level of hygiene. It is the daily rhythm of how we stay clean and publicly presentable. Could there be a parallel to our ensembles?

Continue reading “The Cultural Hygiene In Your Ensemble”

Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

Questions: Fueling The Discovery Engine In Your Class

One of my many favorite parts about teaching is the discovery process that comes through questions, dialogue, and answers in a classroom. 

It is discussion, in this collaborative learning environment, where I feel the reach of understanding in a palpable way. 


Because questions provide the framework for exploration, not just regurgitation. But in large ensemble classes I can feel overwhelmed to acknowledge as many students in the conversation as I would like. 

So I’ve been working on this.  A lot. 

Here are some things I’ve discovered. 

  • Wait time. Be willing to walk around the room and give students a chance to reflect on their answer and to unpack their baggage around if it is OK and safe to raise their hand to begin with. I have gotten very comfortable with 30 to 45 second periods of silence while the kids snicker and giggle waiting for someone to talk.
  • Raise an obvious question that will lead to an obvious answer. There’s a place for some low hanging fruit now and again. I just own it by saying exactly that. “Alright, coming your way. An obvious question with an obvious answer…” And these seemingly obvious questions also give some of my more timid students an opportunity to feel like they can participate. A soft lob in the direction of a student who doesn’t always engage in conversation will help to build their confidence.
  • Make sure your questions are specific in scope and framed ahead of time when possible. Give the students every chance to succeed and participate by setting them up to form opinions ahead of the actual dialogue. 
  • I try to avoid asking questions with the end goal being my appeasement. I really want to know what they know. And I overtly state that guesses are welcome and wrong answers are OK. Wrong answers are simply a chance for us to understand new things. An opportunity for growth.
  • Good old-fashioned “think-pair-share.” Give the students a prompt and ask them to take 30 seconds to discuss with the person next to them. Then go around the room and have students share what their partner discussed. Then they are simply reporters. 
  •  Instead of asking for volunteers IF they know the answer, ask for volunteers WHEN they know the answer. Give it a few seconds and watch the hands come up. I did this just today in one of my classes and the rate of hands raised went from 3 or 4 to over 50% in a class of eighty 9th graders. All by shifting “if” to “when”
  • Be ready to support a student who gives an answer that doesn’t quite land correctly. You might be ready to offer a lifeline so that another student can step in to assist. If your read is that the student is comfortable, then you could walk them through possible solutions to get to a different answer. 
  • I find that when I ask opinion questions I have to frame them very specifically as such. By opening the door to the possibility that we could disagree and have different ideas there is a tendency to have more active participation.
  • I ask for mimimun numbers of participation. “After this next rep I’d like at least 2 volunteers ready to share their opinions about how the trumpets did in matching resonance player to player.”
  • Sometimes the “wrong answer” is an opportunity disguised as a mistake. What would happen if you went off script when a student took something in a direction that you didn’t plan for? Some of my most exciting moments have been the moments where I had to punt and figure out a new direction based on the information I was dealing with in real time. 

The final thought I want to share is that it is critical that you are willing to reframe a question if it seems like the dialogue is falling a little flat. Often times students know more than they are able to provide because the question is unclear. 

It is up to me to know if my questioning is clear and is leading the discussion in a direction that is helpful. As a teacher I must be willing to continually flex and adapt in order to get a true understanding of what my students are learning under my care.

Socrates was on to something. 

Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior

Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior

As a young teacher I was upset that the top group, THE TOP GROUP, PEOPLE, didn’t receive the coveted “Unanimous Superior” as a result of our sight-reading…

Continue reading “Sight-Reading Beyond The Superior”

Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act

Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act

Once upon a time 130 students sounded like a lot to handle.

Continue reading “Quantity & Quality: The Great Balancing Act”

It’s all in the plan.

Years 1-2 Plan EVERYTHING

Years 3-5 I’ve got this. No plans necessary. I know what I need to fix

Years 6-16 Rehearsal outline done for the next week Friday before

What you just read above captures the synthesized version of my personal journey with lesson planning. As I’ve said previously, I consider myself a Type A- personality. I’m selectively retentive and organized about some things.

Ok, who am I kidding…I’m retentive and organized about all things. At school.

At home? Not so much. Maybe that’s where the A- comes in.

I digress.

Lesson planning was something I thought (after I was out of my teaching infancy) experienced teachers didn’t need to do. And so I began winging it. I rationalized this by telling myself that I knew more than the students and could stand in front of them and fix what needed to be fixed and we would be fine.

And we were. We did just great. Got good ratings at festival. Started winning some band competitions. External metrics that told me I/we were doing a good job.

But whatever we were doing felt empty. Something nagged at me because I knew I wasn’t doing my best work to prepare for rehearsals. Maybe it was because the bands got better and I realized I needed to do the same.

My guilty conscious got the best of me after  I had embarrassed myself a few times on the podium. You know, not being able to count a rhythm, know a fingering, or solve a tuning issue because I didn’t know what chord we were playing.

So I resumed lesson planning, a task I still complete each week without fail. My lesson plans do look different than they did at the beginning of my career. Now it’s a weekly rehearsal schedule that I post for the students, too. They check it faithfully each day.

I do supplement the schedule with more thorough notes that I take at the end of rehearsals. Sticky notes on scores, a couple of minutes of reflection to add to the punch-list for each ensemble…all are short cuts I’ve developed to maximize my planning efficiency.

And for frame of reference, I am prepping 5 different ensembles (usually about 20 scores at any given time) so planning is paramount. I can’t tolerate the feeling of not having a plan any more. The adage “If it feels wrong it must be right” definitely does NOT ring true for me with lesson plans.

I’m not here to shame anyone for not lesson planning. But if you think you could do better and want some perspective on my thoughts, then here you go!

Lesson Plans