When preparing for an adjudicated choral festival performance, the fundamentals of musical execution – pitch, balance, timing, and so on – are the first priority for every choral director. While that may seem obvious, there are also many other perhaps-more-subtle elements that will impact the performance, the audience response, and the ratings from the judges. For a closer look at what adjudicators themselves look for from school choral groups, CD went straight to the source, asking a panel of accomplished and esteemed directors and adjudicators for insight into this particular domain.
What are the most important qualities for middle or high school choral groups to display at a choral festival?
Alyson Shirk: Intonation, diction, and dynamics are the most important demonstrable qualities for choral groups to display at festival. Intonation can be fixed in part by uniform and spacious vowel formation. Crisp beginning and ending consonants are within the grasp of every choral group. Don’t wait until the final rehearsals to add crisp consonants; start them right away! Layer in dynamics right away as well. Terracing dynamics on repeats and paying attention to crescendos and decrescendos adds an impressive level of musical professionalism to a performance.
Tom Shelton: Choral tone is the most important quality. I listen for a beautiful supported tone with unified vowels that is energetic and has rhythmic vitality. I also listen for phrasing and singing in a musical line. All adjudicators listen for superior musicianship, but I can be forgiving with other areas of scoring if the tone is supported and beautiful.
Debbie Glaze: The most important qualities are an understanding of beautiful and healthy tone production and a sense of the text that they are expressing. For high school groups, every piece should not sound the same. What are the stylistic and cultural factors that guide the interpretation?
Harry Musselwhite: I look for a healthy full sung tone: breath-oriented and vibrant singing. I feel most choral singing I hear nowadays is undersung in the service of some sort of perfect accuracy. This leaves me cold. I also look for an attention to the phrasing of the vocal line: moving air and a sensitivity to the line as indicated by the composer. Absence of vocal energy turns me decidedly off.
Tom Wine: After pitches and rhythms, the most important thing is that the group has a defined concept of choral tone. This is presented by the way groups focus breath (technique), match vowels (diction), and address intonation.
When adjudicating school choral groups, what are the most common errors that you see?
Tom Wine: Some directors approach contest as an entirely academic exercise. They assume that singing the correct notes at the right time will constitute a superior (I) rating. As a judge, this is only the starting point for a top rating. More important is how the director has made musical decisions regarding the performance. Is there nuance in phrasing? Have diphthongs been adequately addressed?
Alyson Shirk: Aside from easily taught uniform vowel structures, the most common error I encounter is, shockingly, director repertoire selection. Too many directors choose from repertoire that is beyond the performance capability of their students. As a result, chords are badly tuned and many musically nuanced elements are missed. Choose repertoire that your students can read in part by sight. Never choose music for festival that you must teach entirely by rote. A group that can perform a less-difficult piece with beauty and musicality will always score higher than the group that poorly performs a song that is too hard for them. While uniform vowel formation drastically helps intonation, nothing is a substitute for basic music literacy. Whether using fixed or moveable do, numbers, or other syllable systems, if students can sing intervals in tune by sight and by ear, they will apply such skill to reading repertoire.
Tom Shelton: I see difficulty unifying the vowel sounds and having the singers really listen to each other to create one beautiful sound.
Another common problem area is singing the line of the phrase. Notes and pitches are normally accurate, but I have experienced a lot of “notes” at festivals that could have easily been put into a beautiful phrase.
Particularly with middle school choirs, repertoire selection can be problematic for some conductors. Is the vocal range appropriate for the baritones/tenors/basses? Is the selected repertoire accessible to the choir? To quote Jean Ashworth Bartle, “Simple things sung exquisitely are far better than difficult things done badly.”
Debbie Glaze: The most common error that I see is programming music that is too difficult for the singers, either given the time they have to prepare or the level of proficiency that the singers possess. A difficult piece performed poorly is always disappointing to listen to and, most often, difficult to perform under adjudication pressure. A choral director should always strive to set his or her students up for success and keep teaching until he or she can successfully achieve more difficult literature.
If singers are struggling just to get through a piece, there is no joy on their faces, in their sound, or textual expression.
Harry Musselwhite: I often see undersinging. Also precious perfection that takes the emotional content away from choral performance, and a lack of attention to musical detail.
Do you have any simple or not-so-obvious recommendations for educators on how they can improve their group’s festival ratings?
Tom Wine: Judges tend to listen for different things. Where one judge will focus on diction and energized consonants, another judge might focus on balance and matched voices. My personal “pet peeve” is choirs that do not sing in tune. Try to bring guest directors into the classroom before contest. Get a different set of ears in front of the students to help sort out areas that might not be a priority to the director.
Debbie Glaze: Don’t get so bogged down teaching notes and memorizing texts that you forget to always have them breathe together, in the shape of the vowel they are about to sing. Good breathing habits and vowel shapes will immediately improve a choir’s sound, blend, and intonation, and create beauty. Alive faces will also energize and beautify their sound, as well as express the text more fully. Too often, an adjudicator can tell that the choir has spent the majority of their rehearsal time on learning parts and has neglected to build habits that inform their sound and expressive elements.
Tom Shelton: Choral Festival is a wonderful performance opportunity for the singers to share their musical growth and musicianship. It’s not about the product – it’s the process. If your process is sound, then your product will be sound. Use the warm-up process in your rehearsal to focus on listening and unifying vowel sounds. Have the singers make the connection between the warm-ups and the repertoire. As you are teaching the music, listen – detect errors and fix them quickly – and do not allow the singers to sing out of tune or sing incorrect notes and pitches.
Teaching musicality is part of the teaching process. If you have not worked on singing a legato phrase, you can’t add that articulation to the rehearsal before the festival and expect it to stick.
Prepare your students for the non-musical elements of the experience – what the stage is like, where the adjudicators will be, what the adjudicators are listening for, will you announce the songs, and so on. The “unknown” causes “unrest.” Preparing them as much as possible beforehand will make the experience calmer and more rewarding.
Harry Musselwhite: When a choral group enters the adjudication space, at that moment, they are performing, and so is the conductor. Enter the space in performance posture and performance attitude. Let this lead to the actual vocal presentation that you have worked so hard too execute.
How important are non-musical elements, such as posture, facial expression, wardrobe, and entering and exiting the stage?
Tom Shelton: First impressions are very important. The performance starts the moment the singers step on the stage. Singers should take the time walking to the risers to focus and prepare themselves for singing, which will lead to a better performance. Choral singing is working together. Having a unified “look” helps foster the feeling of “we are in this together.” Posture/alignment is the basis for good choral tone, so even though it is “non-musical,” it is monumental!
Harry Musselwhite: I feel these items are sometimes as important as the actual sound a choral group makes. Pride of performing power is not to be underestimated!
Debbie Glaze: Choirs who carry themselves with a sense of pride will enter and leave the stage professionally and wear appropriate attire for their performance. This is important, because it’s one of the few times in a student’s life that this sort of disciplined teamwork is essential to the success of the group and builds community and confidence for individual students. In terms of adjudication, it is always noted, though appropriately scored less heavily than musical aspects such as quality of sound, musicality and technique.
Tom Wine: Posture is very important, as it is directly related to vocal technique. Lack of focus on posture indicates lack of preparation on breath support. Facial expression can be a positive because it tends to indicate connection to the text, but it is not a negative if students sing with good tone and musicality. Matching outfits can help create a positive first impression, but will never be the defining item in a final score.
Alyson Shirk: As an adjudicator, I am always impressed by how students present themselves and the precision with which they enter the stage. Wardrobe is important, too. A uniform look allows for full concentration on the musical performance. A well-choreographed entrance and exit and a spiffy look never detract from a performance! Students who show expression in their faces generally show expression in their music. Only a few children are gifted with natural ability to emote facially – most students must practice. It may seem like time is better spent working on the music but when students engage emotionally (as they must even to fake a facial expression), I find they sing more musically and better in tune.
Any additional thoughts or tips on preparing student performing groups for a festival performance?
Harry Musselwhite: Worry less about perfection and worry more about expression. Engage the text, the vowels, the sounds, and execute through these aspects.
Alyson Shirk: I recommend inviting a clinician you know and trust to come to a rehearsal several weeks before the assessment. Students will hear the recommendations that you give them on a daily basis differently from someone else and will benefit from the work of an outside party. It is also helpful to record a full rehearsal for the director’s edification and to record a partial rehearsal for the students’ growth. The director will pick up on things she or he has missed and the students will benefit from hearing the good things that are happening in rehearsal as well as the things that need improvement. If they can make meaningful commentary on their own performance, they will own the process.
If space and rehearsal parameters allow, take the students to a different rehearsal location and have them practice walking on risers and singing in a different space. Just the experience of a different acoustic and a mock riser load-in can add a level of serious concentration that will counterbalance an attack of nerves that often arise when students sing in unfamiliar spaces.
Tom Shelton: Plan ahead. Make long-range and short-term goals for your choir. You don’t want them to “peak” too soon, but you want them to be comfortable, self assured, and confident in their performance. Singing in a choral festival is a great educational tool. Go over the adjudication sheet with the singers several weeks before the festival. This explains exactly what the adjudicators are listening for, and can be a wonderful assessment tool for you (and the singers) in the rehearsal. Don’t just go for the “rating.” After the festival, listen to the taped (or written) evaluations with the singers and discuss the comments with the goal of improving before the next performance.
Debbie Glaze: I like to think of the festival performance as a culminating experience of weeks of hard work and rehearsal. It is a time to put it all together and do the choir’s best work, yet enjoy the process as well as the product. Rather than looking only at the adjudication numbers or ratings, look at how much the choir has grown and improved in the process. This is easier said than done, but singing in a choir is for life; a festival score is a measure of that day. Go to a festival to hear other great choirs and hear new and wonderful pieces.
Finally, festivals are always more satisfying when the choir can read a wide variety of music, so remember to teach musical literacy continually, giving them lifelong tools and facilitating more productive rehearsals in preparation for festival season. A good choral conductor is a good teacher.
Dr. Alyson Shirk is the director of Music for the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore and the artistic director for the Children’s Chorus of Maryland. A lyric soprano, Alyson has a healthy respect for the pedagogy of both choral and solo vocal technique. She is a frequent choral clinician, adjudicator, and master class teacher.
Tom Wine is professor of Music Education and director of Choral Activities at Wichita State University. Wine was the recipient of the 2009 WSU President’s Distinguished Service Award as well as the 2009 Burton Pell Award from the Wichita Arts Council. This is his 19th year of college teaching following 10 years of public school teaching. Wine is editor of the book, Composers on Composing for Choir, published by GIA Press in March, 2007. Wine is also past-president of Kansas ACDA and currently serves as the Youth and Activities R&S board member for KCDA.
Debbie Glaze serves as the coordinator of the Music Education Program at Portland State University, where she teaches courses in Choral Methods, Elementary General Music, and Introduction to Music Education, while also supervising student teachers. Debbie has also been a high school choral director for 17 years and is the assistant and interim director of the Portland Symphonic Choir. She has served as the president of the Oregon Music Educator’s Association, a board member of the Oregon American Choral Director’s Association, and as a state certified choral adjudicator. She is active as a clinician and an adjudicator in the choral arena, an active member of both ACDA and MENC, and is currently president of the Northwest Division of MENC.
Tom Shelton is assistant professor of Sacred Music at Westminster Choir College where he teaches classes in Sacred Music, Conducting, and Music Education. Prior to teaching at Westminster, he was a middle school choral director for 18 years in Winston-Salem, NC, and served as associate director of Music for Children and Youth at First Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC. Mr. Shelton has conducted elementary, middle and high school choral festivals in 14 states, and has served as a choral adjudicator for Paramount Carowinds Theme Park Choral Festivals, NCMEA Regional Middle School Choral Festivals, NC Elementary Honors Chorus Auditions, NC Governors School Auditions, National ACDA Performing Choirs Listening Committee, National ACDA Middle School Honor Choir, and the Southern Division ACDA Performing Choirs Listening Committee. He has compositions published by Colla Voce, Heritage Music Press, Hinshaw Music, and Santa Barbara Music.
Harry Musselwhite is senior lecturer in Music and director of Choral Activities at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. As a soloist, his basso voice has been heard throughout the United States and Europe, and he has led his choral groups throught England and Europe. He is an award-winning filmmaker and recently released, with Hal Leonard, his first children’s book, Martin the Guitar.