Programming to Get the Most Out of Your Concert Assessment Concert Cycle

Sarah Labovitz  • December 2021MAC Corner • December 18, 2021

“Concert and Sight-Reading Evaluation,” “Concert Contest,” “Large Group Evaluation,” whatever name it goes by in your state, many directors find themselves programming for a capstone performance during the spring in front of a panel of judges. Whether the result of this performance is a rating or a ranking, it is often enough to make our largely process-oriented profession much more product-based during this adjudicated concert cycle. Coming off almost two years of atypical instruction due to COVID-19, our ensemble students need process-oriented instruction more than ever as chances are good you, as the director, have identified areas in their playing that are not where they typically have been during pre-COVID times. 

What follows are planning and programming suggestions that are aimed to keep directors focused on what is best for their students’ musical growth and development during this concert assessment concert cycle. By focusing on the journey, what students will learn to do and know by the end of the cycle, as opposed to the destination, the rating, directors can work toward large scale goals and objectives for their program in addition to a polished performance, as opposed to just a polished performance. 


Before you pick your concert assessment music, make a list of your ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses. These can be, but are not limited to, sections, individual players, and specific or broad components of musical skill and knowledge. This will be a helpful precursor to programming. 

Look at your list of weaknesses and decide which of them you would like to strive to minimize during your concert assessment cycle. Once you have identified what aspects of your ensemble you would like to improve, look at each line item and decide whether you would like to work on it through the context of your performance music, through the context of supplemental activities to your performance music, or a combination of both. If your list of weaknesses you would like to tackle could be largely handled through the performance music, you have just generated a set of criteria that your contest music will need to meet. If your list of weaknesses you would like to tackle should be largely handled through supplemental activities, perhaps you want to select performance music that is not at the top of your group’s ability level so that you have time to incorporate activities that will actively minimize your group’s weaknesses. 

For example, say you have clarinets that have trouble smoothly crossing the break. If you want to improve that skill this concert assessment cycle, you could select music that has the clarinets consistently moving back and forth between the chalumeau and clarion registers, you could decide to devote dedicated time on scales to help minimize this weakness, or you could try a combination of both. Say your ensemble has trouble playing in compound meter. If you never program something in compound meter, they will never learn from their mistakes. You could program a piece for concert assessment that has a section in compound meter, you could make time to talk about and do written theory exercises that help improve those skills, or perhaps you could do a combination of the two. If you plan before you program, the skills and knowledge your students will learn this concert assessment cycle can fit into your broad plans for the trajectory of your group. If you don’t plan before you program, you run the risk that all the learning that happens during this cycle will be by chance and not necessarily connect to your larger goals. 

As for your strengths, draw attention to them! If you have a particularly talented student perhaps you want to find a piece with a solo for their instrument. If your ensemble plays with characteristic sounds and a firm handle on intonation, ensure there is a ballad moment to showcase it. A well-balanced concert assessment concert program simultaneously highlights the group’s best aspects and provides an opportunity to work on aspects of your group’s playing and musicianship that needs to be further developed. 


In addition to meeting the programming criteria for your state and ensemble’s evaluation event, four other factors should be considered when selecting music for your concert assessment cycle to ensure you and your group are getting as much out of that music as possible. First, the music should help highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses as identified during the planning phase. Choosing music that helps achieve specific objectives for your group ensures that your ensemble is still actively and purposefully becoming better total musicians and not just better at those specific pieces. If you consistently program around your group’s weaknesses, those weaknesses will stay weaknesses. To eliminate a weakness, you must attack it head on. 

Second, the music you choose should be high quality. If we want our students to become high caliber musicians, they need to ingest high caliber music. Determining music’s quality is a subjective task but, according to Ray Cramer in the opening chapter of the first volume of Teaching Music Through Performance in Band we should look for music that has “a well-conceived formal structure,” “creative melodies and counter lines,” “harmonic imagination,” “rhythmic vitality,” “contrast in all musical elements,” “scoring which best represents the full potential for beautiful tone and timbre,” and “an emotional impact.” You also want to make sure that every instrument has an interesting part. If your low brass, low woodwinds, or low strings are always playing music where they have notes they can see through, it will severely limit their technical development. Try to ensure that everyone in the ensemble is being appropriately challenged in all component parts of music. 

Quality and taste are two different things. Directors and students can like music that is low quality and dislike music that is high quality. However, there is enough music out there that, with enough listening and searching, a director can find high quality music, that their students will enjoy, that also works on the objectives the director would like to tackle. Music is our curriculum. For the concert assessment concert cycle, or every concert cycle for that matter, make sure your curriculum is top shelf.

Third, the music needs to be attainable by the students. If a director over programs, the entire cycle becomes about getting all the notes and rhythms in order. Then, there isn’t any time left to turn those notes into actual music or to supplement ensemble playing with meaningful activities meant to help build students’ musical literacy and growth in non-performing ways. Many directors plan for the best-case scenario. With COVID-19 still being a factor that is impacting rehearsal time and attendance, it would be wise to plan for a less than best-case scenario. It is easier to add supplemental activities or practice sight reading more often if you feel you have under programmed than it is to make cuts or switch to an easier tune mid-cycle if you over programmed. 

Overprogramming also affects the rehearsal and performance psychology of the group in negative ways. If a director over programs, there is often an uneasy or rushed feeling to rehearsals. Students and directors can leave the rehearsal stressed and worried about the concert outcome. When students are anxious about a performance, it is harder for them to play their best. If a director makes a conscience attempt to not over program, they have more of a direct control over the rehearsal atmosphere. Good work can be accomplished at a regulated pace. Stress and anxiety levels can stay low, helping students to be in a place to have their best performance. 

Finally, the concert assessment music should make sense as an actual concert program. It should have a dedicated opener and closer. It should have tunes that contrast in varying ways including keys, length, volume, style, year composed, texture, and so on. You may also want to think about highlighting a piece by an under-represented composer so that your students are aware that anyone, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, can compose. 

Performance order should also be considered when putting together your concert program. Will students have enough chops left to play the closer? Is the opener a tune that your students can build confidence during to prepare for a harder middle tune? When possible, it is nice to be able to put the most difficult tune in the center of the program. Allow students to start strong and feel their best going into the tune that gives them the most stress. Then, if possible, close with a tune that allows the ensemble to finish confidently so that they exit the adjudication arena with pride on a job well done, regardless of rating or ranking. 

If planning and programming are done with care, your concert assessment concert cycle can contain music that makes an excellent program, that is attainable by the students, that is high quality, and works at simultaneously highlighting your group’s strengths while actively working to minimize their weaknesses. You might have to carve out more time than usual to settle on a concert assessment program that accomplishes all these things, but it is completely doable and will be well worth it when you see and hear your students getting better as total musicians and not just getting better at playing two or three pieces. Those two or three pieces will get put by the wayside after the performance but the skills, knowledge, and memories your students gain during the cycle can be connected and applied to all your group’s music making in perpetuity. 

An additional benefit to planning and programming your concert assessment concert cycle around your students’ musical journey instead of a particular rating destination is you leave the door open to have a successful cycle, even if you do not receive the rating you desire. Don’t leave the success of the cycle up to your judges. By shifting the focus from the rating or ranking to the skills and knowledge your students have gained by working purposefully through music that is attainable, high quality, and helps them to reach their goals, they have already achieved victory through the learning process before they even hit the stage!

Sarah Labovitz is the associate director of bands & coordinator of music education at Arkansas State University. She has served as a contributing author for The Music Achievement Council since 2019.

The Music Achievement Council is a non-profit organization which exists to help directors build and maintain their instrumental music programs through its in-person and virtual professional development presentations, and downloadable resources (complimentary at MAC also provides directors with monthly recruitment and retention tips to help them grow their programs. Sign up at

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