By Dr. Russell L. Robinson
What is the difference between festivals and competitions? None, really, but most are called festivals now. Most festivals are still “competitive” with ratings in school festivals (or as we call them in Florida, Music Performance Assessment – MPA). And, of course, the private festivals sponsored by theme parks or festival companies have awards for the first in category, overall “grand champion,” etc. I remember when choirs were graded numerically from I through V. Then, in the 1980s, most festivals (school and private) went to qualitative ratings, i.e., “Superior, Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor.” Of course in the Roman numeral system everyone wanted a “I” rating, and when receiving a “II” or a “III” (“IV” and “V” were rarely given), music groups felt as if they had failed. So, we went to the qualitative categories above. I’ll never forget walking out in the hall on break when students were looking at their posted results, and I heard a student say, “We were terrible, we were only excellent!” The teacher’s perceptions and philosophy about competition will always be reflected in their students, for good or bad.
While deciding to participate in festivals/adjudication, take these 5 points into consideration:
1. Decide what the festival’s purpose is for you, the teacher.
Is it to win or get the highest rating? If that’s true, then this competitive “winner take all” attitude will be reflected in your students as well, and it may set you up for failure.
Is it to give students the best experience, through the rehearsals leading up to the performance at the festival, the actual performance, and the comments on paper, the recorded comments by the adjudicator(s), and/or the clinic by the adjudicator? If this is true, you and your students will have a much better experience.
Many times, there may be a difference in the ratings of multiple judges, for example: Excellent, Superior, Excellent; or Superior, Superior, Excellent; or even (rarely does this happen, but sometimes) Superior, Excellent, Good. So, if the ratings are the reason, you and your students might be disappointed. Believe me, I want music to be played/sung at the highest level and be recognized for such! But to have a goal of every singer performing at their highest level while enjoying and learning from the experience is much more satisfying and educationally sound.
2. Selecting appropriate literature is paramount.
Again, I’ve seen it all in the festivals that I have done. For example, I have heard/seen choirs in the concert choir category perform show tunes, sometimes with choreography. What was this director thinking? If it is a typical concert choir category, then the repertoire should exemplify appropriate concert literature for this category. And, if your festival is to be three pieces, choose three diverse pieces, i.e., a piece from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical periods; a 20th or 21st century piece, and perhaps a Spiritual or Multicultural piece. Of course, there is a wide variety of material in the category, but don’t perform a show-tune, jazz tune, etc., in a “concert” category as these styles have their own defined categories. If it is the show choir category, it must be choreographed (not necessarily, if you do an a cappella ballad as one of your selections). In the jazz choir area, these must be “jazz” pieces. And, I suggest at least two jazz standard arrangements.
Not only is appropriate literature by category important, but another consideration is: Does the literature fit the choir’s/ensemble’s level? A young high school choir is better off doing easier repertoire well, than very difficult literature poorly. Text is important in the selections. Silly texts = silly choirs. My goal with my choirs (and in my writing) has always been to have the choirs look and sound intelligent and proud. You can’t make high quality music with trite literature. Unfortunately, I have also seen high quality literature performed poorly, either because of lack of rehearsal techniques and strategies or the literature was too difficult for the group and could not be achieved.
3. Follow the specific guidelines for the festival.
Every festival has their own specific guidelines. You must follow them to the letter! Read all, including the fine print.
There is another rating that I’ve seen or been told to give: DQ (Disqualified). This can be one of life’s most embarrassing moments—as a teacher, you paid for (and perhaps raised money for) transportation, housing, outfits, music, chaperones, etc., and are disqualified for not reading a specific part of the guidelines. These include: providing original published copies of the music (not Xeroxed, illegal copies!), being on time for warm-up and performance, and staying within the time limits for these; turning in your paperwork on time; providing the proper stage requirements for your ensemble. Any of the details that are not followed can result in points being lost, a lower rating or disqualification.
4. Dress appropriately.
For concert attire, you cannot miss with black and white. Black tuxes and bow ties and long black dresses (this avoids various and inappropriate hemlines). I have also seen young choirs and bands perform in black slacks and white shirts/blouses that look very nice and uniform. Basically, I’ve never seen a great ensemble that looks sloppy, and I’ve rarely seen a great looking ensemble that didn’t perform very well. Look like a group that is going to perform well before you sing or play your first note.
Also, all need to remember that from the time the performers walk on stage until they exit, they must look professional and proud.
5. Be prepared in every way.
Let the music be heard. Precise and correct notes, crisp diction, projection, dynamics, phrasing. All of these are not magic, but happen through careful rehearsals prior to the performance.
Conductors should not have to use flagrant gestures in the conducting. Remember, this is not your first rehearsal, this “the” performance.
In addition, if given the opportunity have your groups stay and hear as many other ensembles as possible. This is a great experience for your musicians.
I do hope that these suggestions lead you to satisfying musical performances and festival/adjudication experiences. What are some ways that you’ve prepared your ensembles? Let us know in the comments below!
Dr. Russell L. Robinson has been on the faculty of The University of Florida since 1984 and is Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Education. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in choral music and music education, and has made over 300 appearances as a conductor, speaker, and presenter at festivals, workshops, honor choirs, all-state choirs, and conventions all over the world.