MAC Corner: Festival

Marcia Neel • MAC CornerTravel/Festivals • January 21, 2014

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Teaching to the Test: Preparing school bands and orchestras for Festival

From time to time, I read articles or hear news stories that focus on teacher evaluation and how “unfair” it really is to judge a teacher by the assessment of his or her students’ work. Each time, I am reminded how much we music educators have been doing just that all along! Hello, “Performance” Assessment – even that term is borrowed from our vernacular.

Being more about assessment than many of our fellow educators from the other academic areas, our students learn by “performing”; not necessarily in the concert sense of the word, but more generally in the “learning by doing” concept that is implicit in our instrumental music courses.

How many times have you heard it said that, “It’s much easier to get an A in Music.”  Well, of course! Our students learn through guided practice followed by directed implementation, so of course, it’s easier to learn this way!

Tennessee has been a leader in coming forward with a teacher evaluation model called the Tennessee Fine Arts Student Growth Measures System.


It is designed to:


… provide Fine Arts teachers with an authentic, individualized, and student-centered evaluation that contributes to professional learning and development. At its core, this system uses a peer review process to evaluate the growth evidence in representative student work samples. Teachers will collect, self-score, and submit evidence collections in a portfolio using a purposeful sampling process. These collections will be scored using a blind peer review process. The reviewers (trained, exemplary, content-specific teachers) will conduct reviews of the student evidence collections to measure growth towards state standards. They will use the scoring guide to determine a growth score for each evidence collection. As this portfolio is grounded in state and national standards, it supports and enhances teachers’ ability to deliver standards-based instruction. (TN Fine Arts Student Growth Measures System, Teachers’ Guide 2013-2014)


For music educators, this system is steeped in a more realistic appraisal of the work of the students. The measurement is actually designed by music educators, so, taking the lead from a model that will surely be replicated across the country, we need to ask how we can best assess students in our performance-based courses. Subsequently, we also need to know how to use these assessments in the teacher evaluation model.  In a nutshell, how can we substantiate that learning is taking place?


The Festival

Call them what you will – contests, festivals, celebrations, fests, and so on – the reason for these events is clear: to assess how students measure up to a prescribed “standard” and to learn from that experience so that improvement can occur. To make this “assessment activity” a solid measuring stick, the testing “instrument” should be made clear early on, and it should be shared with the students so that they know the expectations (in other words, “teaching to the test”).

Often, ensembles are adjudicated using a sliding standard, which is based on whoever the judges are that year. This can lead to inconsistencies from year to year and can certainly not only confuse the music educators, but the students as well. To solve this problem, an increasing number of districts are using a rubric that provides the test questions as well as the answers well in advance.

For example, let’s take the element of tone production. What does it mean to have “superior” tone production as opposed to “excellent” or “average” tone production? Students should know this information so that they can strive to achieve at the highest possible level. The sample “Tone Adjudication Rubric” provides one model.

Another assessment category may have to do with the literature itself. Performance descriptors for this category may come in the form of another rubric.

  Sample Literature Selection Rubric

Once these descriptors are determined, the best way to gauge student progress is to record them during regular intervals. A recording can be made within the first few weeks of working on the selection, and then again in subsequent rehearsals at regular intervals. When played back, the director can evaluate the recordings, but the students should also assess their own performance using the prescribed measuring tool/rubric. As we know, self-assessment is the ultimate goal, but that cannot occur without students knowing the ultimate target. So we must also ensure that students can identify “superior” examples in each of these categories. Again, playing recordings is the best way for young players to get this “sound” in their aural memory so that they will continually strive to produce it.

In Tennessee, the above kind of evidence collection is used in a portion of the state’s evaluation model for music educators. As we know, the great educators teach and this is exactly how students learn no matter what their socio-economic background.

In addition to these musical considerations, there are certainly many more from which students can learn. The following items may prove helpful in preparing younger players and reminding more experienced performers. Some of these will be completely obvious, but are always worth including in any sort of comprehensive list.


Student Attire

A uniform appearance (not to be confused with expensive uniforms) is expected at Festival. Students should wear appropriate attire that provides a uniform appearance. This instills pride and encourages a sense of “ensemble.” They should also understand that they are representing their ensemble and their school when wearing this attire and behave accordingly.

Students should wear their uniforms similarly, so make time to discuss with students how to wear the uniform. T-shirts or polo shirts may be appropriate for younger ensembles but they should be tucked in to provide a neater appearance. When wearing t-shirts or polo shirts, make a decision about the pants (for example: either all black, all jeans, or all khaki). Decide whether the shirt should be buttoned all the way to the top or left unbuttoned.

Hair should be worn off the face. This applies to both students and conductors. The reason for this is two-fold. First, it is extremely distracting to watch performers tossing their heads back because their hair is falling in their eyes. Second, and probably more important, we want to see the entire face of each student, since students’ expressions add so much to the performance. Whether singing or playing, it is important that nothing get in the way.



Earrings and necklaces should not be seen unless they are part of the uniform. If they are part of the uniform, they should be modest pieces that do not distract from the uniform.


Audience Etiquette

This particular performance is considered a formal concert setting, so it is important that your students (as well as their parents) know what to expect. If you give a Pre-festival Concert (and I highly recommend these, with feeder ensembles performing, as well) make this performance an “informance” and discuss proper etiquette with the audience, which will contain parents. If you discuss what the expectations are, all will behave appropriately. Please reinforce the fact that this performance is as much about learning how to be in the audience as it is about the performance itself.

The following should be expected while students are listening to performances of others:

• Students should sit tall in their seats and not slump.

• Students should be attentive listeners and focus on the exemplary elements of the performance they are observing.

• Students should remain seated during the entire performance and only move in or out of the hall between performances – not between selections.

• Flash photography should never occur during performances.

• Cell phones should be turned off.


Stage Etiquette

The adjudication begins the moment the first student steps onto the stage so it is important that students know how to “take the stage.” Once students are on the stage, they should go directly to their seat and prepare. They should not speak to each other unless absolutely necessary.

Rehearse entering and exiting the stage quietly and when to stand/sit when the conductor enters, and so on. All of this is part of the performance experience and shows a well-disciplined ensemble. The best advice is to rehearse all of this repeatedly so that nothing is a surprise at the event. You could demonstrate this at the Pre-festival Concert.


Director’s Festival Checklist

Directors can develop their own checklist based on their district’s requirements, but here are some recommendations that may be a helpful place to start.

•                 Order transportation and double-check arrangements at least one week prior to the event. Take a copy of the transportation requisition/contract to the event.

•                 Provide students with their own checklist so that they are fully prepared with all uniform pieces (ties, cummerbunds, black socks, and so on) and take a few extra of each of these to the event.

•                 Secure Field Trip/Medical forms and have copies in an envelope to take to the event. It is imperative that you know how to reach parents in case of an emergency.

•                 Take appropriate number of sets of clean director scores to be provided to adjudicators and ensure that measures are numbered.

•                 Ensure that student folders/scores are organized and ready to take to the event.

•                 Take blank copies of the adjudication forms to the event and have students adjudicate a given number of the other performing ensembles. This is a creative way to assess whether students have learned to identify the elements of quality in each performance.


Conductor Attire

•                 Because the director is the role model for the students, it is vital that the director’s attire is cleaned, pressed, and ready on the day of festival.

•                 For formal festivals and concerts, women should wear a longer dress, skirt, or formal pants. Sleeveless is never recommended. Clean black pumps are always appropriate. Ladies should always err on the conservative side.

•                 Men should wear a suit or tux. Check the “gig line” to be sure tie, buttons, and other elements are aligned. Check the hemline in the pants to ensure they are level and that pants fall appropriately on the shoes. Press pants so that they have a crisp crease.

•                 Shine shoes or have them shined. Dust on shoes can actually be seen from the audience and it gives the impression that the director is not attentive to detail.


Details, Details, Details

If we are going to be attentive to all of the musical details, why spoil it by not attending to all of these other details, as well? Although it can be a challenge, there should be an overall sense of calm pervading the festival experience. Too many ensembles move into panic mode because their nerves are on edge. When students are fully prepared musically and understand what is expected, they will perform at their best.

As we begin to prepare our students for these upcoming assessments, let’s be sure to involve them in the process of developing their skills using the literature itself as the vessel and the contests or festivals as confirmation of their achievements. Then, the next time that someone complains about being evaluated based on their students’ test scores, you can step up and say, “Of course – I’ve been doing that for years!”


Looking for more sample rubrics?

Contact Marcia Neel at for comprehensive collections for band, choir, orchestra, and mariachi festivals. For additional ideas on how to use the contest/festival experience to teach additional performance concepts, download “Tips for Success” from


Marcia Neel is president of Music Education Consultants, Inc. and serves as educational advisor to the Music Achievement Council. In this capacity, she leads sessions at state MEA conferences, district in-service days, and dealer workshops to provide practical success strategies to help educators with the many and varied elements of the successful program. Contact her at for more information or to inquire about the next session in your area. 

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