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The Ingredients for a Great Festival Experience

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From local events in high school auditoriums to national and international gatherings in venerated concert halls, vocal music festivals come in all manner of shapes and sizes. While there are some universal elements that students can enjoy, such as the camaraderie of their singing peers, the experience of hearing other groups perform, and the chance to sing in front of unfamiliar audiences, each festival carries its own benefits and potential pitfalls. Any way you cut it, finding the right event and then preparing your ensemble appropriately are not tasks that should be taken lightly.

For greater insight into what school choral directors around the country are looking for in a choral festival, as well as the latest trends in such events, Choral Director turned to its readership in this recent survey. And as you peruse the following various graphs and comments, keep in mind that this article represents significant collective wisdom over 80 percent of responding CD readers have indicated that they regularly bring their groups to vocal music festivals.

Do groups from your choral program attend choral festivals?

Yes – 82%
No – 18%

Do you prefer competitive or noncompetitive festivals?

Competitive – 15%
Non-competitive – 42%
Both – 43%

“Both can have value with the right clinicians. I don’t want my students to always think that it’s all about competition. The most important thing to me is that it be a positive experience for the singers and that they can take away some valuable information.”
Joyce Bertilson, North Canyon High School, Phoenix, Ariz.

“I prefer to enter for ‘ratings only,’ but my students respond strongly to the trophies and the bragging rights of winning a competition. I caved in after we found out that we had better scores than the choir that won on one occasion, and I almost had a mutiny!”
Kay Maddox, Flint Hill School, Oakton, Va.

“My students are young they can learn more by performing for comments than they can by stressing out about competition.”
Becky Luce, Bernice A. Ray School, Hanover, N.H.

“Administrators love the ‘hardware.’ They get that glaze in their eyes. Newspapers also respond to trophies, as do politicians and donors.”
Drucilla Pluhowski, Nyack High School, Upper Nyack, N.Y.

How far does your program typically travel for a choral festival?

Nearby only, in district – 25%
In state – 32%
We sometimes go to other nearby states – 29%
We travel across the U.S. – 12%
International/Overseas – 2%

Other than cost, what is the most important factor you consider when selecting a festival to attend?

Quality adjudication – 16%
Learning opportunity – 14%
Location/distance – 13%
Good/appropriate competition – 2%
Notable performance venue – 1%
All of the above – 46%
Other – 8%

“I don’t look for competition in the Elementary Choir. Along with the opportunity to learn, I also think having a good performance facility (since we don’t have one) and the opportunity to sing with a large group of students is important.”
Louise Kienzle, Humbolt Elementary School, Canyon City, Ore.

“I believe that the combination of quality adjudication and the festival serving as a learning opportunity is the most important factor we need to consider when selecting a festival.”
Brian Kelly, Millbrook High School, Winchester, Va.

“I think venues are important, however, I believe that quality adjudicators are very important for education. I integrate the various categories on the sheet in our curriculum, for example: vocal technique, breathing, vowels, blend, balance, stage presence, and so on. My students always want to see the adjudication sheets following festivals.”
Marshall Butler, Jr., Sanderson High School, Raleigh, N.C.

For young singers and choral groups, what are the primary benefits of attending choral festivals?

“The feedback from other professionals is, I think, the greatest benefit. I also think it helps having something for the students to work towards.”
Trisha Scheidies, Carmel Middle School, Carmel, Ind.

“We are a smaller class B school, so festivals give our choral students an opportunity to perform with bigger groups and experience a quality large ensemble experience. They also meet others students and get to hear others choral arrangements.”
JoLynn Keller, Shiloh Christian School, Bismarck, N.D.

“While the social benefits are off the hook in the students’ eyes, the primary benefits include adjudication and feedback from a qualified director/adjudicator, as well as the opportunity to observe the on- and off-stage discipline of a well rehearsed choral ensemble or choir.”
Bob Johnson, Seattle Christian High School, SeaTac, Wash.

“Working with other clinicians is a fantastic way to re-teach what we are already doing, but also give the kids a fresh outlook.”
Shelly King, Gering High School, Gering, Neb

Is there anything that choral directors should avoid or be wary of when selecting and preparing for a festival?

“Avoid only rehearsing the three selections to be performed at the festival. Festival selections should be taught during the normal span of a concert preparation, not since September.”
Victor Izzo, Minisink Valley High School, Orange County, N.Y.

“Some companies place more emphasis on the ‘trip’ element than the educational aspect. We’ve experienced some very less-than-satisfactory performance venues (hotel meeting rooms complete with heavy carpeting and drapes, second-tier convention centers where the piano had not even been tuned, et cetera). In addition, a festival with a clinic should be a must.”
Don Krudop, Salem High School, Virginia Beach, Va.

“It should never, ever be about winning. Get recommendations about the clinicians/conductors with whom the singers will be working. Just because someone has great credentials does not mean that they are ‘nice’ people to sing under.”
Brian Williams, Lassiter High School, Marietta, Ga.

“I would advise directors to make sure the event is not merely an occasion to collect trophies. Good judging, good feedback, good facilities a lot of preparation goes into those 15 minutes of singing. I want my students to get an experience that is worthy of the time and effort they put in to get there.”
Deborah Divine, Enterprise High School, Redding, Calif.

“Look for festivals that suit your needs. Don’t simply jump in for flash or glitz. A quality festival should have highly qualified adjudicators, and the possibility of a clinic to reinforce good choral concepts. None of this needs to cost too much, either. The bulk of your money should be going to travel, lodgings, and meals. Any good adjudicator will deserve compensation, and those who are hosting the festival deserve the right to earn something from their efforts, but there are plenty of great festivals that provide all you need without taking all you have.”
Joseph Allred, Gunnison Valley High School, Gunnison, Utah

Additional thoughts?

“Festivals are beneficial to both the singers and myself. It is a check in for me to make sure that I’m doing what I should be with my singers. For my singers, it is an affirmation of what they are doing and also reinforces what we’ve been working on in class. I think festival attendance is vital to building and improving any choral program.”
Bruce Lengacher, Acalanes High School, Lafayette, Calif.

“I find that traveling to locations away from our school is a huge boost to my music program. Some students’ initial reason for joining may simply be to attend the festival. It is then my job to get them hooked into the world of music making. Attending these festivals is the motivation my students need to learn several pieces of music to perfection, not just at a performance level. It gives me a chance to really dig in deep on just a few pieces of our repertoire.”
Charles Bateman, Susquenita High School, Duncannon, Pa.

“Select literature that is developmentally appropriate for your choir. Perform music that can be done well. This will allow for more specific feedback from adjudicators on the musicality of the group, articulations, nuances, et cetera, rather than intonation, notes, and rhythms.”
Jonathan Hall, Rock Hill High School, Rock Hill, S.C.

“In our district, getting students out of school, or using a Saturday is difficult. The cost of transportation and having the required number of chaperones is also a problem.”
Charlene Flygt, Jack Young Middle school, Baraboo, Wis.

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