Selecting the Best Music for a Festival

by Oliver Boone and William Hickman

Selecting the right music is one of the most difficult aspects of the job of the band director. This is obviously where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the front line picture of the job because of our music, and how it sounds, is how we are valued in the profession. Selecting the right music can either make your band sound great or weak.

This is true in either genre you are pursuing at the present time, whether it be marching band, concert band, wind ensemble, symphonic band, jazz ensemble, etc. Selecting the best music is simply significant to your job.

Suppose you are a football coach. (Work with me here okay?) You are coaching in the big game for the big championship. Your team is behind and driving toward the end zone. The clock is ticking away and time is running out before the game will end. Suddenly it comes down to your final play. This is your one chance to make it in the end zone with a touchdown. You have to call the right play. You alone make the decision to call a sweep right only to have the entire defensive team swarm in your backfield and tackle you’re running back. You lose yardage, the down, and the game. You chose the wrong play.

Of all the plays you had in your playbook, you chose the wrong one. Maybe you thought it was the right one but obviously it was not because it did not work. All of your practice, sweat, energy and time for the last weeks have gone up in smoke. Your team has trained for this final moment and were depending on you-but you chose the wrong play.

You are booed and belittled by your adorning fans, who just moments ago were praising your team to a potential victory. Their hopes are dashed because you chose the wrong play. They do not care how much time you have spent in practice. They do not care how much you have worked – nor do they care how much energy and effort you have put into the game. You had your chance and you chose the wrong play.

Okay, by now you (hopefully) get the idea that the coach blew it…the question is…how is this scenario similar to your situation as a band director? Let me see if I can enlighten you.

Just like the coach in the big game with his team behind in the score and driving for the end zone as time is expiring-let’s suppose you, as the band director, have been preparing for the big concert. There are thousands of people in the audience listening to your band’s big moment. You have their attention. The announcer, or emcee, has announced you and all is quiet to hear your band. This is your one big chance to win the crowd over in support of your band and all of their hard work. Knowing that you probably have a small window of opportunity to capture their attention and maintain their respect, you reach for that one special piece of music which you know it will not fail. You know this because you have always loved this piece of music ever since you were in band…you pull out

Tchaikovsky’s “Love for Three Oranges”

You can almost immediately guess the results. Not only was your running back swarmed over by the defense, he was drilled into the dirt. It is not pretty. The crowd goes out of control and the laughter is quite embarrassing. You picked the wrong music.

Not only did you pick the wrong music, you picked music not suitable for the occasion. You picked music based on your ego and not your students’ abilities. You were trying to impress someone (perhaps a judge) and you made yourself look foolish.

Look at the problem from the coach and the band director perspective…


You are booed and belittled by your adorning fans, who just moments ago were praising your team to a potential victory. Their hopes are dashed because you chose the wrong play. They do not care how much time you have spent in practice. They do not care how much you have worked – nor do they care how much energy and effort you have put in to the game. You had your chance and you chose the wrong play.

Band Director

You are booed and belittled by your band parents and administrators, who just moments ago were praising your band to a great concert. Their hopes are dashed because you chose the wrong music. They do not care how much time you have spent in practice. They do not care how much you have worked – nor do they care how much energy and effort you have put in to the concert. You had your chance and you chose the wrong music.

Now look at the situation from the perspective of the crowd…

Now let’s learn how to NOT be loser. We will use some basic areas of focus to help you overcome this potential situation and make certain it does not happen to you…ever.

The first area of focus is…

Selecting the Right Music for the Right Setting

I recall a story told to me by a band performer who had the opportunity to play for the wonderful people of a nursing home. The manager of the facility had asked the local band to provide some music entertainment for their residents. What a wonderful concept this would be to perform music for some of our areas beloved citizens. The joy of music can be a relaxing, peaceful and tranquil moment for these beloved elderly members of our society. The concert would indeed be a rewarding experience for the performers.

The senior director assigned one of the assistant directors to select the music and prepare the band for the event. As the story goes, most of the music seemed appropriate until we were asked to prepare…

Death and Transfiguration

The performer and his band mates were astonished. Certainly a performer hopes his/her concert is a memorable one, but in this case they very well hoped their audience was not inspired or motivated. The assistant director picked the wrong music for the setting. Hopefully nobody perished.

Perhaps the music better suited for the setting would have been something from the time period of when these elderly people were in their youth. The music of Glenn Miller comes to mind, or perhaps George Gershwin. There is something about “In the Mood” or “Rhapsody in Blue” that can get the heart pumping. (And certainly, the residents of a nursing home certainly may need this medicine). There are a host of other ideas and selections, I am sure, you could think of here that would be better suited for the occasion. This type of occasion would want people to be roused, invigorated, and happy——not thinking of Death and Transfiguration (no disrespect to Bach).

What do you want the crowd (audience) to gain from your music? As the director, you should always keep this in mind without losing focus on the other areas to be mentioned in this course. If the performance is for a simple parade, what type of music would you pick? How about a concert in the park on a Saturday afternoon? How about those stuffy judges at a formal large group ensemble festival? Yes, each situation is different…and so should be the music…or else you could get tackled in the backfield.

3 Times a Year to Make the Right Choice

There are 3 basic areas of focus when selecting music for your band. These are:

  1. Music for Festival
  2. Music for the Spring
  3. Music for Marching Season

These are the 3 main areas where you will have an opportunity to pick a winning play for your team.

It is not that difficult to do once you learn some basic techniques of the selection. Let’s see what we have to work with. Hope this helps:

Basic Strategies to Work With

Finding Music To Please a Festival Judge

There is a world of difference between selecting music for a concert in the park and selecting music for a festival. I often tell students that there are only three people you must satisfy during a festival THE JUDGES. There are the only people who have an opinion of your performance. It does not matter what you think, what your mother thinks, or what your friends think…only the opinion of the judges’ matter at a festival performance. They must be satisfied by your performance. They are paid to give their opinion.

It is important to give focus to the word “opinion”. Yes, the judges have an opinion and frequently give it; however, their opinion is only an estimation of your band’s 15 to 35 minute performance. The judges do not know, or care, where you started at the beginning of the year, how far you have come and the obstacles you have to endure during your “year from hell”. They only care about what they hear at the present and if it is musical.

Sounds cruel, but it is the cold hard truth. The sooner you begin to realize this as fact, the sooner you will make valuable decisions on what is the best music to select for your festival performance.

Know you players and what they CAN AND CAN NOT DO. Make an assessment, usually by October of each year, of what the group honestly can do well and what they honestly can ‘t do well. Every band has strengths and weaknesses. (If you think your ensemble does not have any weaknesses, then your ego is writing checks that your groups’ ability can not cash) Learn early what your groups’ weaknesses are and work around them when selecting your music.

Don’t let your ego get in the way

I always strive to never play TO my groups’ strengths, but play AWAY from my group’s weaknesses. There is a big difference and I did not always know this to be factual. I learned the hard way by having judges slam me with a low evaluation. Finally, one day it hit me of how true the above statement is when selecting the best festival music.

My lesson was presented to me by a good friend and colleague. Let’s call him “Bill”. Bill, a director who possessed years of experience over mine, saw my disappointment at a low festival rating of a 3. I asked Bill for his assistance and he was happy to comply-thus giving me one of the most valuable lessons in band directing I ever received.

Bill advised me that I obviously picked the wrong music for my band. I explained to him, that I adored the music I had selected for the band. Bill replied, “your ego is killing you and your band”. Wow, I did not want to hear that piece of news, but I needed to hear it.

The Golden Rule of Bill

Bill advised me on how to select music for district large group festival. According to Bill, I should be reading through various types of music around October to November, in preparation for the festival in March. It is important to play some of the classics, but be advised to always seek out new selections on the state list because they are not that familiar to the judges (maybe) and your chances are greater for a better evaluation. (Hence: If you play material that judges know all too well, they will always compare you to what they think it should sound like to them -and that is always modeled by the Eastman Wind Ensemble).

By this time, he stated, you should have a good idea as to what weaknesses your band may have and learn to work around them. Try reading through several types of music, on the list, to see what might be a good fit for your band. Try several different levels for the band from Level 1-6 or Level D to A. (It should also be noted that while you are doing this bit of academic exercise with your group, that you are exercising your sight reading skills as well-doing real simulation drills see the Sight Reading Course for more details)

This process should take about two weeks as you should be able read through three to four selections within an hour and a half class block. At the end of the two weeks you should have been able to read approximately 30-40 selections of music.

I told Bill this was great but how do I pick which one my group should do for festival. Then Bill responded, “the piece you can sight read through WITHOUT STOPPING is the one you should give serious consideration to the festival. Find the level you desire, find the selection you can read through without stopping, and perfect the fine points of it at every corner.

I call this wise statement, “The Golden Rule of Bill”. Wow, Bill had made it all too simple. So I decided to try his theory. Obviously, I had wanted to end the year on a better note than making a three at the festival, so I took the same band, same personnel and changed music. After reading through some of Bill’s suggestions of literature, I chose two new selections and entered in a national competition with a Who’ Who of Adjudicators on its panel. The band had nine weeks to perfect the music (counting the selection process). I used Bill’s theory and the band made a 1-1-2. It would the last time my I would have a festival band make lower than a 1 again.

Now I don’t mean to propose the fact that The Golden Rule of Bill will guarantee you a superior rating, but the selection of the best music for your group certainly contributes to your chances for superior greatness.

Oliver C. Boone is the superintendent of education with the Wynnbrook Christian Schools in Columbus, Georgia. A music teacher for more than 20 years, he holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership and is an advocate for the promotion of the Arts in the educational curriculum.

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