Who Should Attend Festivals? You!

David Hensley • ChoralCornerFebruary 2024 • February 19, 2024

The time is right for every ensemble to participate in a festival! Whenever our backs are facing an audience, our credibility is on the line as directors. Unlike a soprano or alto section whose many voices work together, we are the only one performing our role. Self-evaluation is a necessary part of conducting. Attending a choral festival gives the singers and their conductors the opportunity to be adjudicated. Some beginning conductors fear festivals or contests because of the possibility of less than favorable comments from adjudicators, but just as a young quarterback learns from playing the game, we also learn from our experiences. A festival presents at least three opportunities for learning in one venue. It gives you and the choir an opportunity to be professionally evaluated, to hear other ensembles, and an opportunity to perform for peers. All these reasons should be shared with singers and administrators so they will understand and appreciate the event in advance. 

What constitutes a choral festival? Although festivals may vary depending on the sponsor, there are, basically, two types: adjudicated and non-adjudicated. In an adjudicated choral festival, one or more expert clinicians evaluate the performance of the choirs according to certain standards. However specific the standards, there is necessarily an element of subjectivity in this evaluation. Non-adjudicated festivals usually involve choirs performing either for one another or in combination, and while the opportunity to be professionally evaluated may be missing, performing for and hearing other ensembles make these worthwhile events. 

Choral festivals have long been a part of music education, giving student singers a goal to achieve a high rating as evidence of a performance of high quality. These events can be sponsored by local, county, regional, or statewide music teachers’ organizations such as the National Association for Music Education or the American Choral Directors Association. Each of these groups has standards for evaluation, which are usually printed on a generic form used by adjudicators at all their events. The goal is to have all performing ensembles sing for adjudicators whose reputation and expertise are trusted and whose comments and ratings will be shared. Many school choirs make festival participation an annual expectation. Administrators often see festival ratings as verified evidence of the success of their choral programs. From time to time, a community-based choir or collegiate choral department may host an adjudicated festival. These festivals may be on an invitational basis, with the organizing sponsor inviting choirs that are known to be at or above a particular level of proficiency, assuring a quality performance by all who participate. Having experts as clinicians is at once a reason for choirs to attend the festival and an opportunity to meet higher than usual standards. There are several organizations that run “for-profit” choral competitions, often in conjunction with some sort of amusement park, popular vacation destination, or significant performance venue. While they may employ competent, noted choral experts as adjudicators, the very existence of these organizations is based on having enough choirs pay for the privilege of traveling to the festival site and taking advantage of the non-musical amenities that are offered. The cost of attending these for-profit festivals often includes lodging, meals, and amusement park tickets. There are many regions where vocal jazz, show choir, or popular music festivals offer the same competitive options to ensembles. Some commercially sponsored festivals offer performance categories for these types of ensembles. The role of the adjudicator in any of these festivals is to evaluate each participating choir based on a set of criteria that are known to be standards of excellence. At most festivals hosted by a music teacher organization, adjudication can result in an overall rating. The terms “superior,” “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” and “poor” are common. Some organizations appoint adjudicators based on the reputation of their choir’s performances. While this logic appears sound, not every successful conductor is fair when evaluating the work of other choirs and conductors. Some festival hosts have a training process for their adjudicators, which strives to achieve some sense of uniformity in evaluations. Other hosts, usually of invitational events, rely on the recommendation of other choral teachers for persons to serve as an adjudicator. The typical festival sponsored by the state or local music educator association will give ratings that are posted for all to see. Along with the overall ratings are ratings in specific categories of choral skills. Some schools or districts require their music ensembles to attend festivals and principals or music supervisors may ask for the adjudication forms. While most festivals take place during the spring semester, some are in the fall. There are even a few festivals during the first two weeks of December. They can become an excellent opportunity to share holiday literature with others. Whenever the festival is available, directors should avail themselves of the opportunity to participate. This is especially true for those who are new to the profession, since it is a great opportunity to share and learn new literature by other choirs, while being evaluated in a professional environment. There are few if any opportunities that provide so many teachable moments in an hour or two of performances. As your career develops, consider it a responsibility to yourself and your singers to perform at choral festivals and learn from the experience.

A version of this article was in ChorTeach and appears with permission of ACDA.

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