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It’s Not Too Early to Think About the Concert Band Festival

William L. Berz

The fall is a very hectic time for band directors for one very obvious reason: marching band. However one also needs to plan for the time when the number of marching band contests and football games has passed. While preparations for the concert program may not be on the front burner during the early fall, one still hopes that at least some thought has been given for a strong concert band.

As I travel around our state, it seems that there is a growing emphasis being put on concert bands and wind ensembles. Paralleling this interest, it appears that participation in the various NJMEA Concert Band festivals is on the rise as well. As directors plan winter and spring activities, it is not too early to consider participating in one of the region festivals.

Some directors might be intimidated about taking part in festivals, feeling that their bands are not ready for this activity. While this emotion is understandable, it has been my experience that the festival organizers in New Jersey have done a great job in making the festival experience non-threatening. And they are continuing to work to make it even less so. Just as marching band festivals and contests have promoted that activity, concert festivals can do the same for the indoor band. Directors should strongly consider participating. It will help concert programs to develop positively.

In 2000, I wrote two separate articles for Tempo on concert band festivals (see below). Both of the articles, and especially the one from May, discussed the benefits of attending festivals. In some ways, this article will follow a method popular in New Jersey: recycling – at least in part.

Festivals do not exist in a vacuum but serve as a part of a cohesive educational plan. If one is going to participate, it stands to reason that conductors should try to make the experience as positive as possible. It has been my experience both as a former high school band director and as an adjudicator that the quality of the festival experience for both conductor and student is greatly effected by festival logistics and especially by the selection of the music to be performed. Careful planning should help to make for a more positive experience for all concerned – and lead to a better evaluation. It seems that many directors do not fully understand this and that their students often suffer needlessly.

Music Selection

In many ways, selecting music for festival performance is no different from choosing literature for any performance. The director must be especially careful to pick works that are both educationally valid and suitable for the particular kind of event. In many ways, choosing music for festival or contest presents even greater challenges than for regular concerts. In addition to the normal aesthetic and educational judgments, conductors must consider festival logistics as well as how the adjudicators will perceive the performance of their selections.

Over the years, I have observed a number of factors relating to the choice of music to be played at festival that seem to greatly influence adjudicators’ evaluations. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Play music that fits the technical abilities of the ensemble.
    One of the most serious concerns is that some bands play music that is simply too hard. I remember an adage that was given by a famous DCI judge, “it is not difficult to play difficult music badly”. And performing difficult works poorly will result in low ratings. Even more importantly, too much rehearsal time must be devoted to learning the notes when studying music that is too technically challenging. Often there is too much rote learning, and the learning process is seriously compromised.
  2. Conductors should play music that will put the band in the best possible light.
    Every band (and conductor) does some things better than others. For example, large bands tend to have a wonderfully sonorous tone but do not articulate very well. Conversely, performances by small bands are often quite clean but may not present the same kind of rich tone quality. For the festival experience, directors should choose repertoire that is suited to the type of ensemble. Wind ensembles might play music that is more rhythmic; symphonic bands might perform music that is denser in texture and style.
  3. Play literature that features the ensemble’s strengths instead of weaknesses.
    Instrumentation is a primary factor that conductors must consider when selecting repertoire. Avoid works that feature prominent solos for instruments that might not be particularly strong in the group. It is better to choose a work that features strong players rather than weaker ones; highlight your best! If a particular work has a predominant oboe solo and the group does not have a good oboist, perhaps the director should choose a different selection.
  4. Observe festival time limits and especially do not over program.
    One of the most common mistakes is to program too much music with the result that the festival performance exceeds time limits. A traditional format for band festivals is three pieces, often a march and two concert selections. However this assumes that the two concert selections are not very long in duration. In many cases, only two works should be programmed if they are extended. Do not exceed time limits! (Read the rules and guidelines.)
  5. Avoid popular music.
    While this genre of music might be very suitable for the spring concert, it is not appropriate for any type of concert band festival.
  6. Avoid the most oft-performed repertoire.
    The most standard and familiar repertoire, including the suites by Holst and Vaughan Williams, should NOT be performed at band festival. Never perform The Stars and Stripes Forever or Irish Tune. Certainly, every high school band should perform this literature – just not at a band festival. Many adjudicators have very strong opinions on the interpretation of these masterpieces, and only the absolutely best performance is successful in their eyes. Bands are almost always penalized when performing this standard repertoire
  7. Avoid marches in 6/8 time.
    This subdivision is very difficult, and leaves one open to harsh criticism. Even the best groups have problems achieving the lilt of the compound subdivision.
  8. Avoid concerti.
    While concerti may feature and highlight particular ensemble strength, an exceptionally gifted soloist, it places the adjudicator in a difficult – and unpredictable – position. Does the adjudicator rate the soloist or the ensemble? Balance can also be very problematic.
  9. The unfamiliar gem?
    The quest for new and interesting literature is a wonderful challenge. If the conductor can find a worthwhile piece – new or old – that is not frequently programmed, the rewards will be endless.
Preparing for Festival

Rehearsing and preparing for a festival should probably not be particularly different from other kinds of performances. Perhaps the only real difference is in the degree of technical refinement. The points listed below might well apply to any rehearsal situation not just to festival preparation.

  1. Do not focus solely on technical mastery.
    The amount of rehearsal time spent on achieving technical proficiency should not overly dominate. This often becomes the case if the music is too difficult (see above). Directors will need to spend too much time correcting performance errors, and rote teaching might become the norm. While rote teaching certainly has a place in performance teaching, it can easily become over-used.
  2. Remember the basics, especially ensemble sound and intonation.
    Conductors should remember to allot ample time for the other aspects of performance away from technical mastery, especially on blend, balance, and intonation. The overall sound of the band is very important. After many years as both a conductor and adjudicator, I have come to the conclusion that many judges make decisions about ratings after hearing only the first few measures of the first piece, and their evaluation is usually based on the overall ensemble sound. Encourage your bands to play with a refined tone quality; do not over blow.
  3. Learn about the festival experience if you are a less experienced participant.
    Ask experienced teachers about their ideas on festival participation. There are a great many highly successful high school band conductors in New Jersey. It has been my experience that they are very willing to share their expertise. (Most would be flattered to be asked for advice!)
  4. Don’t work alone; get other ears to listen.
    This is certainly related to above point. It is very easy to become satisfied with the ensemble’s performance level, good or bad. Invite guest conductors to listen or work with your ensemble.
  5. Record rehearsals; use your own ears to listen.
    Conductors can evaluate the group’s performance level without having to worry about teaching strategies, discipline, school announcements, pacing, or any of the many distractions that occur during the course of the regular class period. I record almost every one of my own rehearsals and then listen to them as I prepare for the next session.
  6. Help students to understand the festival experience.
    In over very competitive society, competition is very common and it can serve as a highly effective motivator. However with concert band festivals, this kind of motivation can easily be over-done. Since it is not a contest in a pure form, students need to understand that it is not a “battle of the bands”. They need to work to do their best and not worry about how they compare to the other bands. Directors need to help their students understand the nature of the activity so that learning can be maximized.
Festival Logistics

Up to this point in the article, all of the emphasis has been placed on preparation. The festival experience itself presents a number of special challenges and concerns to the director.

  1. Tune, warm-up, and rehearse in the warm-up room; perform on the stage.
    From the time that the band begins to enter the stage, the performance has begun. Adjudicators will instantly begin to formulate impressions that will effect their decision-making. At all costs, conductors must avoid tuning individuals on the stage. Asking those students with poor intonation to play will tell the adjudicators who is out-of-tune; it will focus their attention on the negative. Remember that anything that is heard is part of the performance, and is being evaluated. If there is no warm-up room, it is appropriate to ask the judges to leave the room; any festival organizer should accept this request as reasonable. No matter what the rules may say, adjudicators never turn off their ears or eyes.
  2. Provide original scores for each judge.
    If photocopies must be used, they should be approved by the publisher or distributor and be of good quality. Some adjudicators, especially those who are composers, take great offense in using unauthorized copies.
  3. Number each measure of each score.
    This really helps the adjudicator to focus her/his comments.
  4. Encourage students to act professionally on the stage.
    While this may not seem particularly important, it does greatly influence many judges. Over the years I have overheard many adjudicators talk endlessly on their tape about poor stage deportment. The adjudicator’s remarks would seem to be more beneficial if they focused on music rather than on sloppily worn uniforms.
  5. Balance, the need to adjust quickly.
    Since most ensembles will perform in unfamiliar surroundings, an auditorium at a remote location, balance might be a problem. There is only a limited amount of adjustment that can be done during the performance. Students must be aware of the need to be flexible, percussionists especially; they almost always play too loudly.

One of the great strengths of school band programs is that they provide such a rich and varied set of experiences for students. While this is certainly a challenge for the band teacher, careful planning can help to enliven an already great band program. While not excluding other kinds of experiences, an emphasis on the concert band can provide a wonderful learning environment where the prime energy is directed toward music making.

Participating in a concert band festival can provide an excellent educational experience for instrumental music students – one facet of a successful band curriculum. While placing too much emphasis on festivals and contests can greatly diminish potential benefits, not participating at all seems shortsighted. I would encourage secondary school directors to consider taking advantage of this opportunity, and to make the experience as positive as possible for their students. It can be a “winning” proposition for the band.