Performance: The Solo Festival

Mike Lawson • Performance • May 19, 2014

Tips on Helping Students Prepare for a Great Festival Experience

The start of solo festival season means thousands of young musicians preparing to perform scales (from memory), solos, and sight-reading for adjudicators across every state.

For some students, this event brings much trepidation, fear, or performance anxiety, and for others, pure excitement. The opportunity to perform in front of a musician who is trained to critique fairly and positively is a great learning opportunity for the student, the parents, and the judge.


Mental Preparation

The whole point of the solo festival experience is performing music and having fun! We play music to feel certain emotions and make the listener feel those emotions too, but the student needs to have fun performing. The energy emitted from a performer who is enjoying him or herself is infectious.

The outcome can be positive or negative, depending upon how students perceive their performance relative to their goals for the festival. “What you think about, comes about,” notes author Mark Victor Hansen. Why not “think about” having a great, fun performance? Music teachers can encourage this by giving feedback on the student’s stage presence. I personally am a huge fan of The Voice, and I believe that the energy of the performer is a key factor in getting the judges to initially turn around for a contestant and to continually support the artist.


Here are a few questions the teacher can think about and address with the student:

·       Was the performer’s posture confident or unsure?

·       Did the performer look like they were enjoying themselves, or did they look terror-struck?

·       Did the performer get distracted and thrown off by a technical mistake, or did they brush it off and play through it?

·       Did the performance “say something”?

·       Was it emotional?


If the student has thoroughly prepared the memorized scales and solo and has practiced sight-reading diligently every day, he or she should be well prepared. The goal is, as stated above, to have a fun time expressing yourself through music and sharing your performance with someone else.

The teacher can suggest a process called visualization, where the student is away from the instrument, their eyes are closed, and they are imagining themselves performing their piece in front of the judge. During this process, it is important to feel as if one is actually performing: as if the muscles in the mouth and fingers are coordinating to perform each passage in a very relaxed fashion. To take this further, the student can use this visualization while actually practicing and imagine a positive response from the judge.

For older students who get extremely nervous, recommend that they read books like Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, or the Inner Game of Music by Barry Green. (The latter was an adaptation from the famous Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey.) These books will help music students (and for that matter any person) understand how important the mindset is for achieving success.

Teachers should remind students that the score is not everything! Students can use the objective feedback and comments from the judge to improve their craft on their instruments or voice. But I find that many students don’t care about the comments, and only worry about their grade. The idea behind the comments is to help the student improve on a technical or musical aspect of their performance, where a point value cannot address a particular issue.


How Teachers Can Help

I always have my students pick out their solos in November for the following spring festival. I play through three selections that I think they will like (or I play them recordings) and have them choose which piece they enjoy the most. (By the way, I don’t show them the music for the piece until after they choose. I do not want to be distracted by what they think may be too challenging for their abilities.) I try to pick pieces that have recordings available so the student can listen to style, articulation and phrasing.


Mock Auditions

One of the great ways to prepare for the festival is to do mock auditions. You can provide positive feedback and critique to make the student aware of the areas that need work. Many teachers use copies of actual adjudication sheets as a guide. This is a perfect opportunity to get to know how your student thinks and reacts to criticism. You can notice their reaction, and can explore other ways for them to deal with critique. Does your student take these comments too personally, to the point of stifling the performance? If the student gets very anxious, use personal stories from your own experiences. Tell them how you dealt with your own auditions, how you prepared, and how you accepted the critique from the judge. (I would recommend again having the students read any one of the books I mentioned earlier.) It’s important for your students to know that their score and performance does not reflect who they are as a person.


Get Certified

Another way for teachers to help their own students be more prepared is to register to become a certified judge (adjudicator) with your local or state music association. With each festival that you judge, you will improve your critiquing skills and notice problem areas much sooner. You will also improve your ability to articulate (no pun intended) the best solutions because you will notice that many students make the same types of errors. In addition, you will become very well versed in the terminology of the assessment, and will have a better grasp of the overall picture. As an added bonus, you will hear pieces that are new (to you) that you can use for your students in future festivals. During dinner and lunch breaks, you can network with a whole bunch of other caring educators and get insight into how they critique and how they prepare their own students.


Enlist Parents

Parents are not usually aware of what exactly a solo festival is; it can be a good idea to compose a letter that outlines the entire process from picking music to the actual performance. Send the letter out a couple of months before children have to sign up for the festival. In my letters to my students’ parents, I give the dates and location of the festival, information on local or internet music stores to purchase their solos, suggestions for obtaining recordings of the piece, and tips for the actual day – time to get there, how to warm up, and so on. The more informed parents are, the calmer their children will be on that day, and they will appreciate your efforts in keeping them informed.

In the letter, advise the parents that it is best to choose the solo at least by December for the following spring festival. Order the original copies of the music in December before the mad rush of everyone else ordering at the last minute. Remember, no photocopies are allowed at the festivals (unless they are approved copies).

If possible, see if there is a recording available on iTunes or Amazon. The sooner the recording is available, the better, because it will provide the student with good information that can be used to not only check notes and rhythms, but style, phrasing, and articulation. For the pieces at the highest levels, more than one recording from different artists is essential for various interpretations.

Remind the parents that at first the piece will not sound great; they need to be very supportive. Every child wants their parents’ approval.

Encourage them to create a consistent practice plan, with clear goals that are achievable with each day or week. Writing down (or journaling) each practice session is also great for keeping track of goals that are accomplished or that need more work.

Another suggestion is to encourage a family concert a couple of weeks before the festival. This provides family support and performance practice in a safe, loving environment.


Action Steps

1.     Choose the piece in November or December (before the spring festival) and order the original copies needed at that time.

2.     See if there are recordings available to purchase. (For advanced solos, look into purchasing recordings with different soloists.)

3.     Teachers can get to know their students better by seeing how they react to critique. Share your own festival experiences. Guide students through visualization techniques.

4.     Teachers should become certified adjudicators with their state music organizations! It benefits you and the students.

5.     Teachers can help parents encourage their children to consistently practice and follow a practice plan.

Most importantly, students need to have fun! Isn’t that what music is about?


Keep it Positive

Solo festival season is a fantastic learning opportunity for students, teachers and parents. I personally have learned so much from reading the comments on my own students’ evaluation sheets. Keeping the event positive for the student and parent yields much better results. I will never forget what one of my school principals said to me as his guiding vision for every school day: “At the end of the lesson, the student should leave the room feeling happy.” And that is what music can do – make us feel happy!


Donna Schwartz has been teaching band, jazz band, and general music in public schools for over 13 years, and private brass and saxophone lessons for over 26 years. She is known for coming up with solutions to common performance problems, in particular brass embouchure issues. Schwartz has studied with Vince Penzarella, Laurie Frink, Ed Treutel, Mel Broiles, Lou Doboe and Jeff Lange. She has her own radio show, entitled “The Music Teacher’s Resource Guide”, on the BAM Radio Network at: Contact her at and

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