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Roundtable: Maximizing the Festival Experience

Eliahu Sussman • Travel/Festivals • June 21, 2013

While a band festival can take many different forms, in every case, both students and educators should feel rewarded for having participated in these events. Deciding on the best festival in which to participate, properly preparing students musically, selecting appropriate repertoire, and knowing what to expect are just some of the keys to a successful festival experience.

SBO recently caught up with three educators who each have decades of festival experience for this roundtable-style discussion on preparing for and measuring success, choosing the right festival, and the latest trends in school band festivals.

What are the most important elements for educators to think about when considering participating in a music festival with a school ensemble?

Eric Haenfler:Directors should do what they feel is best for their program and ascertain what a festival would do to help the program prosper. The director of an established program should consider a festival to be validation of what has already taken place and assurance, both for themselves and the students, that they are on track. A goal may simply be an adjudication panel affirming to the students that they have been taught correctly. In addition, credibility is given to directors that they are pursuing the correct concepts. For directors of less mature or beginning programs, feedback is needed in order to aid in growth.

New directors should take the lessons learned from the performance and integrate them into the curriculum. They need to know what it takes to excel at a festival, and what better way to learn is there than to listen to comments identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the performance? Care should be taken, however, when discussing the festival results with students. Always use it as a learning experience and not the ultimate determining barometer of success.

Dana Pradervand: There are several elements that I look for when shopping around for a festival to attend. One of the most important is the venue for the performance. Our high school auditorium is where we perform most of our concerts and it is not the best place acoustically or aesthetically in which to perform. Giving my students a chance to play in a premier performance hall helps to motivate them. In addition, the quality and experience of the adjudication panel is important to me. I love for my students to receive feedback from people who are considered the best in our field or perhaps even a composer of one our pieces. Again, this enhances my students’ overall experience. I am also interested in the quality of recording that we will receive. This is something that we archive in our school history and we often use the festival recording for our state competition.

Rob Bryant: Bands attend festivals for three main reasons: feedback from colleagues, as a learning experience for their students, and motivation. Directors use feedback to focus their efforts for continuing musical improvement. It’s not uncommon for directors to concentrate on specific elements particular to their own strengths and sometimes miss items that an adjudicator, who may have different strong points, may hear. In addition, the evaluator will often reinforce concepts already taught by the director. This offers the students multiple sources of advice, which in turn provides them with a more in depth understanding.

How do you define a successful festival experience? 

DP: A successful festival experience is one that provides opportunities for all of our bands (Wind Ensemble, Non-Varsity Concert Bands and Jazz Ensemble) at a premier venue, as well as the chance to be evaluated by prominent music educators. Participating in a good festival can help promote your program to your school, your administration, and your community. It can also serve as a great motivational tool for your current and future band students.

Our students love attending festivals where they can hear other outstanding groups from around our state. They enjoy playing in concert halls where famous performances have been given by well-known professional ensembles. And of course, the attractions at places like Disneyworld and New York City are really important to our students.

I also look for the pre-festival organization of the festival. Communication is very important. I look to make sure that we get clear information regarding scheduling, maps to the venue, maps of the venue, the adjudication requirements, and contact information and persons. Outstanding customer service is important.

EH: A successful festival experience does not always mean you were awarded the top rating. The real learning happens in the detailed rehearsals before the festival. The payoff is a fine performance. Students feel a sense of self-worth and pride from participating in an outstanding performance. The musical benefits they gain may not be noticeable at first but will pay dividends for future performances. Part of the music educator’s job is to create lifelong consumers of music. Working toward certain goals during festival preparation helps this development of consumerism become a reality.

RB: I would define a successful experience by the amount of student learning, positive feedback, and constructive criticism from the adjudicators, and the impact on student motivation for future festival events. Both teacher and student should come away from the experience with a feeling that the outcome was worth the price of preparation, as well as the extrinsic costs of participation. Too many directors focus on the rating (present company included) and forget we are first and foremost here to educate. We see this at play in just about every aspect of education, as teachers are scripted to “teach the test” rather than draw upon their own personal life experiences to present subject matter in creative and interesting ways. Typically, the highlights for students include positive reinforcement (getting that division “I” rating), school and community recognition, and ultimately a sense of accomplishment.

What was your worst festival experience? What did you learn from that, in terms of things to avoid or watch out for or what to do differently in terms of preparation?

RB: My own personal “worst” festival experience stemmed partially from a less than competent evaluation. With four adjudicators, the band received a “I” from three of them while the fourth gave the group a “III.” The criticisms were in stark contrast to one another, with one judge singing praises for the very item the adjudicator next to him was criticizing. The festival was also poorly organized: it had students waiting outside in the rain after warm up and before taking the stage, and then ran thirty minutes behind schedule. The manager was beyond flustered, which in turn led to rude and discourteous behavior toward directors and students.

In managing any event, it’s important to be organized, keep your cool, set rules, and abide by them consistently for all participants. As far as student preparation, my advice is to focus on choosing and making great music. There are intrinsic rewards for an artistic performance that will long outlast ratings and trophies. In selecting a festival, consider the history of the festival and if it has a positive reputation for running on time, consistent adjudication with strong evaluators, and an organized format that includes arrival, warm-up, and performance times.

DP: My worst festival experience was a comedy of errors. We did not receive much communication from the festival host. The schedule had been changed and I was not informed so we were late to our warm up time. The performance venue ended up being in a gym and on top of it all, the Outstanding In Class trophy that we had been awarded, broke before we got it to the bus. What I learned from this was: ask a lot of questions; do your research, and communication is key!

EH:I can honestly say I have never had a bad concert festival experience. There are some performances that I felt were not our best effort but I always learned from comments received and utilized the suggestions given. My students benefited from festivals and learned to be more disciplined performers. Hopefully they also became music fans in the process. Sometimes they even found out their director knew what he was talking about.

What are the latest trends in festivals that you’re noticing? How have they changed in recent years?

DP:Festivals have done an excellent job of improving their customer service over the years. Because it is such a competitive field, companies rely on repeat customers. I have noticed that the better festivals are trying to offer more in terms of quality of venues, world-renowned adjudicators, instructional clinics after a performance, and higher quality of recordings and DVDs. For me, the company that provides the best customer service with the highest quality experience for my students gets my business.

RB:Current trends I see in concert festivals include a more analytical approach, an increasingly competitive atmosphere, and somewhat lower musical standards. As for the marching band festivals, I see a trend to evaluate and reward the “what” more so than the “how well.” Bands that employ expensive drill designers, extensive props and guard equipment, synthesized sounds, and a catchy concept tend to place higher than groups who focus more on simply playing and/or marching well.

Most concerning is the fact that bands are getting smaller. Fewer students are participating in band in my state of Kentucky than ever before. Many bands here in Kentucky that previously sported 100+ members now have only 20 or 30. I see several reasons for this. First, in many schools, students who participate in sports receive significantly more recognition than students who participate in band. Second, school administrations are so focused on test scores that they adopt master schedules that often force stronger academic students to choose between academic core subjects and band.

Third, the time requirements of a comprehensive band programs are more extensive than many students are willing to commit to. Fourth, band members are often portrayed through the media – particularly on television and in movies – as backwards “nerds.” Unfortunately, this stereotype has been the deciding factor in whether some children join the band. And fifth, most band programs receive only a fraction of the funding they received 10 years ago. With the cost of transportation, music, instrument maintenance and repairs, uniforms, and so on, many programs are unable to take major trips or attend the festivals that serve as motivating factors for continued student participation.

EH: Festival formats have changed little, though directors must be wary of the performance venues being used. A live (or dry) auditorium can provide an ensemble some difficult challenges. Performers must be prepared to adapt to the stage and the acoustics that are present.

What has changed in the last number of years is choice of literature. Too often directors will get in the habit of doing the “latest and greatest” composer or style. Standard literature is abandoned and an ensemble performs the same piece year after year even though it may have a different title. If state required lists are employed, directors should make use of the lists and either inquire about or find recordings of some of the standard literature that has been in the repertoire for many years. Music on these lists has generally stood the test of time.

Additionally, it cannot be stressed enough that the choice of literature can be the most important aspect of a festival performance. Instrumentation, musical maturity, and rehearsal time are just a few of the aspects that must be considered when selecting a festival program. Adjudicators are more interested in how well you perform rather than what level of music is chosen. They would much rather hear an ensemble play with nice balance and blend, intonation, and musicality than hear how many notes that group can play. Choosing literature that fits the ensemble is the most important decision directors make.

Final thoughts? 

RB: Festivals need to be educational, but also fun. Our concert band festivals consist of playing for four judges and twenty people. I would encourage festival managers to incorporate listening times for all bands, so the groups performing have an audience. I would also suggest doing away with the “ratings” or placements and just make the festival a performance for the audience. I would still have the adjudicators offer a critique, just take the “grade” out of it and encourage groups to make music for music’s sake.

Rob Bryant is the director of bands at Madisonville North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky. In February of 2012, The Madisonville North Hopkins High School Symphonic Band under his baton was selected to perform as a Feature Showcase Ensemble in the New York Wind Band Festival in Carnegie Hall, where they world premiered “Pasodobles para Santa Cecilia y los Heroes de Espana” by Stephen Melillo. They were later invited by Mr. Melillo to make a “Cameo Guest Artist” appearance on his Chapter 21: Won Way album released January 1st, 2013. The band professionally recorded “Seiben Gluckliche Jahre” by Mr. Melillo.

In addition, Mr. Bryant has 9 KMEA State Marching Band titles, 17 KMEA State Marching Band Finals appearances (top four bands in semi-finals advance to finals), and a career total of 61 Grand Championship Titles. In October of 2012, he received a Citation of Excellence from the National Band Association. Bryant was the 2008 KMEA District Two Teacher of the Year and received Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1999.

Eric Haenfler was a high school band director for 25 years in South Dakota and another seven years in Gilbert, Arizona before his retirement in 2006. He is currently the director of the Phoenix College Concert Band, the AMEA Conference Coordinator, and has served as the Area/State Festival Coordinator for the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors’ Association for the past seven years. He also served as a Region Contest Manager in South Dakota for 16 years. He is a member of ABODA, MENC, SDBA, SCSBOA, TMEA, and Phi Beta Mu.

Dana Pradervand is in her 26th year of teaching and is currently the music administrator and director of bands at New Braunfels High School in New Braunfels, Texas. Ms. Pradervand has found success teaching band at the middle school, junior high, and high school levels. Her bands are consistent Texas Sweepstakes Award recipients and her ensembles have performed at the National Youth Concert in Carnegie Hall, the “Remember the Heroes” concert at Pearl Harbor, and the Bands of American National Concert Band Festival.

Ms. Pradervand is an active adjudicator and clinician, as well as a member of TMEA, TBA, Texas Adjudicators Association, Midwest International Association, and Phi Beta Mu. She currently serves the TMEA Region XII Vice President and is also a charter member of the board of trustees for The Foundation of Music Education.

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