An Adjudication System for Every Band

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 16, 2011

Share This:

by George Hopkins

After 23 years and close to 2,000 marching band competitions, the U.S. Scholastic Band Association of Allentown, Pa. recently changed the adjudication criteria for many of the participating bands.  Although it has been using singular criteria that serviced 700 or more bands per year in 12 different categories of competition, the USSBA team has decided that, perhaps, there is a better way to assist and support the bands of this ever-growing association.

A bit of history

In 1988, the then Garfield Cadets, a four-time Drum Corps International World Champion, hosted a single marching band event at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Twenty-Four bands participated. In 1989, the newly formed Cadets Marching Band Cooperative managed 12 events, and in 1990, 20 events. Fast-forward to today: the now-named U.S. Scholastic Band Association is the promoter and organizer of over 130 events in 16 states with over 725 participating bands.

Why the growth?

Perhaps the USSBA was at the right place at the right time. Perhaps the fact that the sister program, the Cadets Drum Corps, now 10-time Drum Corps International World Champions, are intimately involved in the administration of the USSBA. Perhaps it has grown so much because the three-fold foundation that serves as the centerpiece of the USSBA calling for bands to participate offers:

  • • A commitment to provide opportunities in excellent venues
  • • An office that provides service from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. most days of the year and all days of marching season
  • • An adjudication system that contracts with quality teachers and technicians, all committed to supporting and assisting bands from the marching world.

Well, yes, all of the above contributed to the expansion, but what I believe truly drew bands over the years was an overarching attitude of care and support, combined with an adjudication system that used scholastic scales to assign scores at events from coast to coast.

An attitude of care and concern 

The USSBA has worked hard to train adjudicators and administrators to the over-arching idea that their role is to support and care for bands. The USSBA’s job is to assist the band director in maintaining and growing his program. This organization is not interested in penalizing a band for poor performance, or passing judgment upon a band that may not have the best in personnel or program. Instead, its goal is to keep music in the schools by encouraging students to join and stay in band programs. The USSBA wants to be part of the solution.

See, for those in the USSBA and its parent company, Youth Education in the Arts, music is very important. Music and arts education are critical components in the lives of many young men and women. But at a deeper level, and with the knowledge that 95 percent or so of high school band students will not pursue a career in music education or music performance, it’s still possible to assist students and teachers in a program that contributes to life education. In band students learn about:

  • • Teamwork
  • • The value of persistence
  • • Sportsmanship
  • • Self discipline
  • • Self motivation
  • • How to lead and how to follow
  • • And so much more!

So creating band events allows band directors the chance to do their job, and providing service at the level that the USSBA does allows the band director to concentrate his or her efforts on the band and the students, not the details and worries of marching band festivals and circuit administration. And through it all, and across so many events, the adjudicators and the administrators come to the events knowing they are part of the solution – a solution that is far more than assigning a winner.

An adjudication system that makes sense 

Speaking of winners, this is clearly a competitive environment, but a few characteristics make the process more palatable.

First off, the USSBA makes sure that bands compete only in like categories. Bands are separated first by size of the band, not the size of the school. This allows for a comparison of like entities. Who is to say why a band has only 60 members with a school size of 1,400? Perhaps there is a new band director. Perhaps the middle school system is not strong. Perhaps there is a history of small bands and marching is not supported at various levels of the environment. It would be foolish to pass judgment on this sort of criteria. Adjudicators should evaluate only what is presented on the field. With this in mind, the USSBA has 6 different groups categorizing bands as small as 35 members (Group 1) to 150+ membership (Group 6).

Bands are also separated by ability level. The USSBA has two different classes of competition, “A” Class and “Open “ Class. “Open” is for the better performing, more mature bands, and “A” class is for those schools that perform at a lesser level of excellence. Now, this in itself is a philosophical point. Why is a band not achieving excellence and why should they be judged, and even be given awards, alongside those bands who performed at a higher level with the same instruments, the same rules and the same opportunity?

Again, the USSBA has taken a position that it should simply assist bands in moving to a new level of performance. There are just too many possible factors to issue a snap judgment. How many hours does a band spend in rehearsal? Does the band director have marching experience? Does the school come from a history of marching excellence or does the community pay more attention to other program offerings? What about the equipment? What about the in-class schedule?

Point of order, there are so many variables. And in actuality, many of the issues are not so much a judgment or a reflection of the students but a reflection of the director and his or her history. And is that really our place to be critical? Is that why there are marching band competitions?

And finally, inside of the groups, the classes and what can be 12 winners at each and every event the USSBA manages, there is a basic scoring agreement that runs alongside what we have all grown up with in school:

A – Excellent (93+)

B – Very good (85+)

C – Good (77+)

D – Fair (70+)

F – Failure (below 70)

The criteria used as a staple of the USSBA’s adjudication program allow for scoring that reflects what the community understands. The goal is to create a system to which people can relate.

In fact, this philosophy is most critical to the success of music festivals and competitions: Scoring criteria that Mom and Dad can understand, that the principal relates to, and that the other students in the school “get.”

A student in a band can understand after explanation that a 57.0 is just a number and finishing 23 of 34 bands in a competition is admirable. Inside a band room we have time to explain, we can rationalize, and we can create a shared appreciation for the process.

However, when a score is announced over an intercom, a placement is written up in the school newspaper, or the school website reports on the results of the state championship, there is no time for explanation. A 57 is a failure. A 75 is a C, and a 90 is fabulous. This is what schools and their communities understand, and this has been the model we have used over the years.

Add that to a general approach which is supportive (we have given only 2 penalties in 23 years) and you have the ingredients for success.

So, why change the grading system in 2011?

The New System

Since 1988 the USSBA has used one scale or system of criteria. Although “A” class bands did not compete against “open” bands, they did use the same criteria. “A” bands would perhaps achieve an 88 or 89 at the end of the year but an excellent rating was not possible. That was reserved for the open bands.

Was this what was wanted? Would a student in Algebra only be allowed to achieve a “B” because the top marks were saved for the Advance Placement students? That seems unfair, if not silly, but, with introspection, perhaps this is what was happening?

“A” bands make up 70 percent of the bands of the U.S. Scholastic Band Association. Why not allow these bands, which admit to shortfalls in performance, the opportunity to gain the top marks at the level they are choosing to compete? And in fact, why not give these bands a framework that allows for success and perhaps pave the way for a higher level of performance and success in the years to come?

To address this change in philosophy, the USSBA had to change the criteria for the “A” bands. Teachers would never expect different levels of classes to generate the same levels of achievement. Why should festival organizers?

After examining the criteria, and what specific achievement was really wanted from the mid-level band, as well as shortfalls of the adjudication system, it was recognized that these “criteria for all” actually may have pushed the middle level band to do far more than was necessary.

As an example, the criteria under Repertoire Effect might include:

  • • Creativity
  • • Variety of Effect
  • • Coordination
  • • Impacts and Climaxes
  • • Audience Appeal

Well, no one really expected a class “A” band to create a band show that was never seen before. Judges were not looking for great speed or wild musical arrangements. In fact, what I have personally stated time and time again comes to mind:

  • • Play together
  • • March in step
  • • Catch the stuff you throw in the air

It sounds pretty simple and easy, but this is rarely achieved. In fact, it is not achieved by too many marching groups anywhere. Indeed, we all talk about achievement, and with good reason, but at some level, good old fashioned execution may be all that is needed?

So what did the U.S. Scholastic Band Association do?

  • Took the sheets for the “A” Bands and re-wrote the criteria
  • Made the expectation performer-centric
  • Lessened all expectations related to demand and creativity.

The five levels of criteria were also adjusted so that the “A” bands could more easily receive the highest ratings. After all, if, at the level selected, a band achieves at the expected level, the band and the students should receive an “A.”

This change was rushed to the field this year because the USSBA staff believed in the possibilities. And, in fact, the early reports are positive. Indeed, as noted, 70 percent of the bands in the USSBA are “A” class. With that in mind, why not make the highest marks available?

After all, marching band is an art form. Some call it a sport because of the physicality involved, but, indeed, music is art. And band is art because the level of quality achieved will always be subjective. Clearly effect is a subjective caption but even discussions of achievement are in the eye of the beholder. I may give more credit to rhythmic challenges and another judge may be more impressed with quality of intonation. Which is more important? Who is correct? It is subjective? And, in fact, much of the adjudication process is subjective.

So… the criteria was changed and, today, the weekends are still being spent ranking and rating the performances of bands. However, the USSBA believes that bands are returning home happier than in previous years. Parents are more hopeful, principals will see more value in the effort of the band, and the community will connect to the newfound achievement level of the bands. Hopefully, over time, this newfound enthusiasm will lead to better bands: maybe, just maybe, more band directors might stay in the profession and more students might stay in the band. If more people are learning music, that might translate to higher level of performances, and, maybe, better bands!

Speaking of better bands, what about the open class bands? Are they not affected when they see bands at “A” class now with the same numbers, or even higher ratings?

Well, as was expected, open bands are led by smart and capable directors. These directors can explain to their students and staff the value of a system and the differences of systems. And at the root, higher numbers for one class does not devalue the performance level and rewards of those at the higher-level one iota.


Time will tell if this change is for the positive, but if band director response is an indicator, it is already a success. In recent post show evaluations, 95 percent of the comments related to the system have been positive. Many have asked, “What took you so long?”

Well, we are here.

The U.S. Scholastic Band Association made a change that allows for a higher level of perceived success. Hopefully this will carry the message and program to more bands and more students over time, with a goal of reaching 1,000 bands before the close of 2013 and to help tens of thousands of students make a difference in the world. We hope that these kids will use the lessons learned in band as a foundation for all that they might accomplish.

The Cadets will carry the banner of music education for years to come. The U.S. Scholastic Band Association carries the banner of music education from state to state and school to school. And the parent company of each, Youth Education in the Arts, will continue to develop programs and opportunities that hopefully will support many young people on the road to magnificence.

And creating that possibility is why we get up and go to work each day.

George Hopkins is the CEO and executive director of Youth Education in the Arts, a not-for-profit organization with headquarters in Allentown, Pa. He is also a member of the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame and the Cadets Hall of Fame. He has been on the DCI Board of Directors since 1982, the DCI Executive Committee from 1983-1999, and 2005-present, the NJ Music Educators Board of Directors from 2000-2003 and the president of the NJ Coalition for Music Educators from 2001-2003.

Youth Education in the Arts (YEA!) is a youth agency committed to supporting the development of young people into magnificent human beings through their participation in the performing arts. Program offerings include the 20-time national champion Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps and the US Scholastic Band Association. Over 70,000 young people across the country are involved in programs supported by YEA! with festivals, performances, and clinics scheduled each year from coast to coast.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!