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The 411 on Festivals

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I get a lot of email from festival representatives. They all give me roughly the same spiel, usually containing the phrase “great opportunity.” That phrase jumps out at me because it has special significance in my personal life. I remember having a discussion with my wife about adding “just one more thing” to the choir department calendar. She said, “Before you commit to adding this to your calendar, tell me why you want to do it.” I said, “Well, it’s a great opportunity.” Her response was, “Anything can be a great opportunity – but an opportunity to do what? If the only reason to add something to your calendar is because it is an ‘opportunity,’ then everything fits that criteria.”

It is through this lens that I wish to discuss choral festivals. In order to decide (a) if you should attend a festival, and (b) if so, which one, we must first decide what opportunity you wish for. 

Step 1: Why do you want to go to a festival?

Why do you want to attend a festival? Is it just because that’s what choirs do? There are several reasons to make the trip, but they are all basically forms of external motivation. Younger people more often value external motivation (trips, t-shirts, praise) and we know this.

One reason to go is simply to create a goal for the choir. Many festivals contain either a ratings component or a competition of some sort. Having that quantified number or competition ranking looming in the future creates a feeling of urgency in the choir. Another reason to attend a festival is to create the perception of “reward” for being in either the top-level group or a specialty group (show choir or the like).

Another aspect of deciding whether or not to attend a festival is feedback. Some festivals have a performance component where the choirs are rated on a numeric scale, which is then translated into rankings like “Superior,” “Excellent,” “Good,” and so on. Others have full-on competitions (and we must assume that should you choose to compete, you are trying to win). Some have workshops available so that post-performance, you’ll get interactive feedback from a clinician.

The third aspect to consider is social interaction. Going to a festival means you are literally going somewhere. Whether you drive or fly, your group will be together for an extended period of time. This is good! There are many ways to make travel time into a bonding experience. In my college choir, long bus rides meant endless euchre tournaments (a Midwestern card game, for those not familiar). There are also meals to be eaten together, and hotel stays with typically four students in one room. Festivals can help bring a group closer together.

Step 2: Choosing the Festival

Since there are many festival options, choosing one can be difficult. There are so many variables it can be overwhelming. Don’t panic. Just think things through, one step at a time. Consider the following factors and rank them from most important to least.

First, there are the practical factors. How much does the festival itself cost? And how much does it cost to get to the festival? What are the other related expenses? Make sure you factor in everything to get an accurate per-singer price. The festival’s location matters in terms of travel expense and also student excitement – let’s face it: New York City sounds cooler than Columbus, Ohio. Is the festival well-equipped to serve your ensemble? Some festivals cater to specific genres (like show choir, jazz choir, or barbershop), while others take a “big tent” approach to include everyone.

Secondly, what is the type of feedback you’ll get at the festival? Ratings? Audio comments? Written comments? A DVD of your full performance? Will you get direct, hands-on coaching after your performance? Who is giving the feedback? These are key points for me, because the music always comes first in my world. Without performance feedback, I’m likely not inclined to go.

Lastly, what other activities are available on site? If the festival is in an amusement park, perhaps you’ll get a half day of free time after your performance. If the festival is in New York City, maybe you’ll be able to go see a Broadway show. If the festival is in Florida, perhaps you’ll hit the beach.

Based on these factors, I have divided all festivals into a few major formulas. (Forgive me for the broad strokes that were used for the sake of brevity.) They all have value in different ways. 

We have an amusement park in Ohio called King’s Island. It’s one hour from my school, and they have a “Music in the Parks” program where groups sing for a few judges, get comments and a rating, then run around the park all day. That’s one version. Another is if a high school or college in your area is hosting an event for multiple schools, perhaps with a headline act.

  • These are good if you want: quick, easy, fun, affordable.
  • Watch for: student-chaperone ratio. Free time in a large, scattered location means communication becomes paramount. 

The purpose is to compete, perchance to win. Some events are local, some claim to be national. Everyone understands winning, so the external motivation factor involved in competition is high. These can be especially helpful in terms of local publicity: “Kings High School to compete for National Title!” An example of this is the International Championship of High School A Cappella. The finals are held in New York City, and those who compete but don’t win might make claims like,  “Second-best a cappella group in the world!” Well, they are the second-best group of those who chose that competition, that year. But the hometown crowd loves to hear that, and it does sound great in a bio, right?

  • These are good if you want: heavy external motivation, “bragging rights.”
  • Watch for: managing group expectations if you place poorly. Heavy external motivation can quickly become heavy external de-motivation. 

Real estate and festivals thrive on “location, location, location.” Have you noticed the weight that destinations carry? For many people, anything located in New York City is a big deal. When I’ve gone there with high school groups, they often want to shop. Where do they shop? The Gap. We have a Gap in Dayton, Ohio. But this is a really big, New York Gap! Being 100 percent fair, there are some festivals that offer a standard educational experience, but their location makes them desirable.

  • These are good if you want: an “edu-vacation,” location-based experiences (Broadway shows, Chicago pizza, the beach).
  • Watch for: cost-for-benefit ratio. Paying for “experiences” is fine, just understand what you’re in for. 

Some festivals hang their hats on the prestige factor. Nothing wrong with that. “Sing in Carnegie Hall!” “Work with Eric Whitacre!” These can be great things. Some are auditioned, some are essentially “pay-for-access.”

  • These are good if you want: bio enhancement, star power to motivate your singers.
  • Watch for: overselling the achievement. Singing in a special venue doesn’t necessarily make you more special. Learning new skills from a master educator can make you more special if done properly. Keep your singers grounded to this fact.

Step 3: Plan for Success

Once you’ve decided what type of festival will fit your needs best, make plans to help ensure that the event will be a success. This includes managing expectations, having enough help, and planning for the unexpected.

Managing expectations is difficult. Imagine you order a package over the Internet. If your delivery date is listed as December 12 and you receive the item on December 15, you’ll be upset. If you receive the item on December 9, you’ll be excited. Make sure you convey realistic expectations of price, what the students can expect from the trip (educationally and experientially), and the degree of freedom students will have. Set your singers up to feel that the festival was better than they expected, and that they got a great value. This will engender good feelings and positive support for your next outing.

Work ahead of time to make sure you have enough chaperoning help for the trip. Consider the ratio of parents to students. This is helpful in big cities when perhaps pods of students wish to go in different directions during their free time. It can also help facilitate a break for you somewhere along the way! Also consider having at least one chaperone of each sex in case of illness or to provide supervision in a hotel if you have girls and boys on different floors.

Lastly, expect the best, but plan for the worst. What is your plan if a student gets very sick? What will you do in the case of a discipline issue? Do you have all the information on hand to contact all parents? No matter what happens along the way on your trip, make sure you document it. Keep a log of what you did, the problems that arose, and how you handled them. Parents and administrators want to know.

If you think in advance about what type of opportunities your singers need, you can more easily find a festival that suits you. No matter what you choose, plan ahead and make your festival a success on all fronts.

Brody-McDonald-SMALLBrody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit  campacappella.com and brodymcdonald.com.

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