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Contest Considerations for Spring 2022

Lesley Schultz • January 2022String Section • January 19, 2022

After a shortened or non-existent contest season last school year, it seems like most states are going ahead with some

sort of adjudicated contests this year. Some states are sticking with partially or fully virtual, while others are doing in-person contests with restrictions. As always, this is a per state or region consideration, and the rules are different everywhere, so check with your state MEA to get the exact details.  

This brings up an interesting question. The pandemic has left a lot of us rebuilding and re-teaching skills. We as teachers know that our groups are perhaps not in the same place pre-pandemic. Should we even take them to contest, knowing that our product differs from it has been in past years? Throw in that in many of our high school programs, at least half the students, if not more, have never been through the process. It is easy for teachers to lack confidence. I maintain that going to an adjudicated contest is a valuable experience for both the students and the teacher, and even in this year of transition, it’s important to not lose the outside opinions on your student’s playing that contest provides. That said, here are some tips to make sure it is as a positive experience as possible for you and your program.

If you can, take a smaller string choir (or two) to a solo and ensemble contest. This would enable you to split off your group into different levels, which gives everyone in the group a more personalized learning experience. You would have to watch the rules on the number of students in the group, and if a student is allowed to perform in more than one group. State rules differ on these points, so check your rulebooks. In Ohio, we are not getting this option this year, because ensembles are limited to no more than six performers for social distancing and safety considerations, but your state may have more flexible rules. If your state is restricting the number of people in a group, then consider quartets and quintets. There are many levels of music out there for these groups, so again, individualizing student experience and learning is pretty big in education right now, so this can be a smart move.

Large group contests this year are again running the gamut of back to normal, to modified contests to keep performers and venues safe. In a normal year, selecting literature for a large group contest may be tricky, and this year, some states are going with shortened performances (two pieces instead of the traditional three) or cutting out elements like sight reading where music has to be passed around. This means literature selection becomes an even more important consideration when you only have two pieces to showcase the best of your group. Perhaps this is the time to try something contest worthy but new. Most rules allow the director to choose a piece not on a list. Perhaps explore options that feature BIPOC composers and arrangers. Use this time to educate and diversify the contest literature. Find that “diamond in the rough” that is not well known, but should be included on contest lists going forward.  

And now, a challenge to those of you who judge contests this year: Yes, we should have high standards, and students should be prepared and perform well. However, there is a difference between valuable feedback for the director and performers and being excessively nitpicky and comments that bring students down. I myself have had the experience of “Why take these kids to contests and receive feedback that is excessively nitpicky and not valuable.” Yes, mention that the F-sharps vs. F-naturals are out of tune, but mention it, and move on, don’t continue to mention it. Be sure to mention things they do well, like following their director, or dynamics, or that their vibrato is developing well, and offer things that can improve that for the individual and/or group. The way you frame your comments to the students and teachers helps determine whether the experience is valuable, and whether the director views this as a valuable tool for their students in the future. 

Overall, adjudicated contests can be a very valuable feedback tool for you and your ensembles. Set up your ensembles for success through literature selection, and if at a small group contest, grouping the students effectively.  Take the feedback the adjudicators give you and use it to inform your practice going forward. It can be scary, but very worthwhile for you and your students.

Lesley Schultz currently teaches secondary general music and orchestra at Princeton City Schools (Cincinnati, OH). She earned her Bachelors of Music Education from West Virginia University and her Masters of Music Education from Ohio University. Lesley is a Level 2 Google Certified Educator. Lesley keeps an active performing schedule around the state of Ohio, performing with several regional symphonies on viola. She is a member of TI:ME (Technology In Music Education) and serves as the Ohio Chapter president and on the national conference committee. Schultz is a columnist for SBO Magazine. In her copious amounts of spare time, she enjoys knitting, watching West Virginia Mountaineer sports and spending time with her family and making TikToks about her cats.

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