Anyone who has ever organized a choral festival knows that it is not a one-person venture. Location, staging, and audio equipment are just a few items on a very long list of things that need to be considered. Of course, one of the big questions is, what do you want the attending student groups to get out of the experience? Also, what is the over-arching theme, goal, and purpose of the event? To help sort all of this out, Choral Director checked in with several experienced festival organizers and educators.
Attleboro High School
Attention to detail and a timetable are crucial when organizing a festival. Organizing a festival is surprisingly easy if you allow yourself to do it in small steps, a little bit at a time. I also work with and get great support from secretaries, custodial, cafeteria, administration, colleagues, neighboring school systems, parents, and student volunteers.
Students certainly gain a wonderful sense of camaraderie from participating at a festival, but they also gain so much more educationally by working with different conductors and other like-minded musicians. The only downside for students happens if they are not adequately prepared for the festival. There is nothing worse, for a conductor and students, than having to waste time at a festival, learning notes instead of working on the music.
The positives completely outweigh any negatives when hosting a choral festival.
It’s immensely rewarding for the students, but it is also great to be able to touch base with your fellow music colleagues and share the passion we have for teaching music.
Director of Choral
University of Wisconsin Platteville
Students need to have a positive and powerful musical experience at a festival. If that is accomplished, even if perfection of notes and rhythms isn’t attained, they will have had a good day, and the teachers will be happy too. Both students and teachers will be able to take the enthusiasm home to their own choral program.
Our festival is somewhat unusual in comparison to most, I imagine. We have a standing women’s chorus of about 50 singers and a standing men’s chorus of about 50. We have a performance venue and a choral rehearsal room. We have our men sing during the day with the visiting male student singers (usually 50-70) and the women sing during the day with the visiting female student singers (usually 100-120). The greatest single benefit of this plan is that the visiting students are being mixed in with voices that are more experienced, older, and trained. Our singers are interspersed among the students so that they can be positively influenced by the collegiate voices. The college students then are able to mentor the high school students in a uniquely positive and practical manner. The fact that the collegians are being prepared on the literature prior to the event means that we have some control over the ending quality of the music that is, those schools who come to the festival unprepared are not being relied upon heavily for the aesthetic output. The separation of the genders seems to work well. We find that this separation inhibits poor attitude and/or misbehavior during the day. The collegians set a tone and the high school guests tend to follow that lead.
In our area, which is heavily agrarian and dotted by small communities with small enrollments, this festival gives students the opportunity to experience language options that they might not experience otherwise. Furthermore, there are very few high schools in our area that have male choirs. All these male students are able to participate in a men’s choral setting, which really excites many of them and encourages them to continue pursuing choral music at their school in the face of the typical anti-arts pressures they encounter.
I suppose that for many of the high school singers, they’re not used to having five hours of rehearsal in a day, and they tire. Because of the variety of schools we invite, there is a significant variance of the preparation of the singers. Recently we had 20 schools participating, each guaranteed of being able to bring a minimum of eight women and eight men. Some schools are so small that they treat this as an honor choir experience. They bring their very best singers, juniors and seniors, and they prepare them well. Other schools are larger and tend to view this as a building experience for their younger students, so we get a mix of freshmen and sophomores, many of whom are inexperienced.
When I first came to UWP, over 15 years ago, the high school choral festival was a mixed choir event, and there were no collegians involved. We simply took potluck with whatever high school students came on the day. If it was homecoming week for two or three of the really talented, stable high school programs and they couldn’t come, then we had trouble.
When we went to the current format, the improvement was immediate. It has worked very well for everyone. The collegians get to be mentors, and since a percentage of them are future educators, it’s a valuable opportunity. They also feel like it’s their special project. The high school singers come and don’t have to carry the weight of the project. They get to mix in with collegians and tend to feel more mature in the experience. And those that come tend to want to come back for several years during their high school careers.
Liberty Christian School
Huntington Beach, Calif.
The most important aspect of organizing a choral festival is having a common goal and purpose for having a festival in the first place, whether it is for competition, fundraising, community outreach, or a performance venue. The planning needs to start early. Plan for delays, and ask for feedback. I usually have 20 people working with me, depending on the number of schools participating in the festival. I suggest taking notes and keeping them for improving next year’s festival.
For the students, I think they really get a view of the bigger picture when they attend a festival. They see how other schools and choral groups work. They realize that their director isn’t the only one who harps on them for technique. I highly recommend attending festivals no matter what the size of the choir is. Teachers and students alike benefit in so many ways.
Director of Choral Activities
Pioneer High School
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Having a specific mission, a purpose for a festival, is the key. It’s also important to acknowledge the cost and benefit relationship. I determine the purpose first and start planning at least a year in advance.
If students get to see other groups perform that is significant. If they get time with an outstanding clinician, that is even better. For the past 35 years, all of my choirs have attended a festival. It gives us the opportunity to compare our performances with others and evaluate how we have done. Sometimes the performances of other groups are not inspiring. Sometimes the lack of organization of the festival results in wasted time or uncomfortable experiences. It’s important to be a good steward of your communities and your student’s money and time.
Steven M. Zielke
Director of Choral Studies
Oregon State University
The three most important parts of organizing a choral festival are planning, planning, and planning. Starting early gives you the time to make the right choices. Perhaps most important is choosing a date that will work well for the potential visiting choirs. The academic year is a minefield of problems, with different competing activities such as athletics, SAT and ACT testing dates, different finals weeks for different school systems, and of course, other choral festivals. Planning early will provide you the time to gather the information needed to make this decision. Early planning also allows you to choose the best venue and save that date. Getting information well in advance allows other choral directors to put your event in their performance calendar. Planning early also allows you to engage excellent clinicians, many of whom are booked 12 months in advance. The simple act of planning can make a very big difference in the quality of your event.
A festival must have a coordinator who is the conduit for all communication and information. It’s the go-to person that communicates with the attendees, the clinicians, and the venders, such as catering, marketing, printing, and mailing. In order for the festival to run smoothly, you need one person to know almost everything about everything. First, get a logistics coordinator, the person who handles all physical requests, such as moving risers, staging needs, warm up rooms, storage, and an endless parade of logistical needs. Second, you need a recording team to do audio and video recordings and editing. In particular, high quality video of performances and clinics can be a very valuable and memorable part of a festival. You need a person in charge of hospitality and registration, one who ensures every visiting group is greeted by a friendly face when they arrive, every ensemble has a guide, assistants are assigned to the clinicians, and makes sure that a hospitality room is maintained for directors, clinicians, and workers. Lastly, you need an array of wonderful volunteers to guide the choirs, work the doors, staff the registration table, and assist the clinicians. It takes a village to put on a choral festival.
It’s a community effort. Choral festivals work best when they offer unique opportunities to area choral ensembles, providing creative solutions to challenges in the classroom and exciting opportunities for the singers. By building teams in your organization to brainstorm how your festival can uniquely meet the challenges that music educators are facing, you can build an event that is not just another carbon copy of all other festivals. Furthermore, communicate directly with area directors on both the details of the event as well as big picture planning. Find out what will provide new and different opportunities for area choirs.
Students greatly benefit from the experience of administrating and organizing, from the opportunity and discipline of professional service, as well as the educational benefits from observing other ensembles and distinguished clinicians. These real world experiences are a vital part of the students’ education.
Hosting a choral festival is terrific service to your colleagues, and it is a wonderful way to promote choral music at your school. Plan early, get lots of folks involved, and enjoy.