The highlight of the year for many school music programs, choral festivals represent a unique opportunity for students, educators, and communities to come together, learn, and strive for their very best. For an in-depth look at the latest trends in choral festivals, performance tips, and some insight into navigating logistical hurdles, Choral Director recently spoke with Catherine Connor-Moen, the choral director at Norwood (Mass.) High School and district fine arts coordinator for Norwood Public Schools. Cathy also served for 15 years as the festival chair for MICCA, the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association, coordinating the annual state choral festival for the Massachusetts Music Educators Association.
Choral Director: You’ve been involved with festivals for close to two decades at this point. How have choral festivals evolved in that time?
Catherine Connor-Moen: There are more different kinds of festivals out there than there used to be, which is very positive. Depending on where your program is, you can find a festival out there that will fit your needs, whether that happens to be a smaller destination festival at an amusement park, a bigger trip, or a state-run festival that is really all about the performance.
There are so many positives at all of these events. It’s great to be able to perform in other venues, and kids have so much they can learn through the opportunity of hearing other groups perform. The excitement that is generated from these events is really positive for the music programs. Sometimes a kid might join an ensemble because he or she is interested in the travel aspect of it only to find that he or she loves what is happening in the choir. It can be a huge boost for the community and a great way for kids to have a successful experience.
CD: Where does the MICCA festival fit in along the scale of festivals that you just mentioned?
CCM: There are destination festivals, which are the ones that combine a travel experience, and then there are the ones that are sponsored by music education associations like MICCA, ACDA, NAfME, and so on. Both types of festivals can be fantastic opportunities for music students, although the latter type of festival, such as ours, tends to be a little more rigorous. We give a very honest evaluation. It’s not just a feel-good event. We definitely want kids to come back year after year, but we want to be very honest in how we evaluate the groups that participate. One of the things that we do with my own music program at Norwood High School is look at the MICCA festival as analogous to our state-mandated standardized testing system. Our festival has requirements of suggested literature that groups have to prepare. Students have to perform music at a certain level – we tend to use the NYSSMA manual – and present a variety of pieces that give us a really good sense of what the kids can do.
Destination festivals also have their place. We have used them ourselves, and they can be great for certain groups and certain levels. There comes a point in time, though, when most groups want a slightly more rigorous evaluation. The state festival has a clinic piece to it, where there is an intense rubric (available online at www.miccamusic.org) that we use for adjudication. Maybe a third of the communities here attend this festival – not everyone chooses to participate. I’ve been affiliated with MICCA for 15 years, and in that time, I’ve seen the number of groups that participate increase substantially, although it has leveled out at about 80 ensembles every year.
I don’t want to sound dismissive of the destination festival; they just have a different purpose and role from the festivals that we put together.
CD: Has the downturn in the economy manifested itself somehow in choral festivals?
CCM: I haven’t noticed that the economy has had a major impact. We haven’t seen a drop in the number of schools attending our festival. In fact, because we’re local, we may have seen an increase in part because perhaps some schools are choosing to participate here rather than do a destination festival.
CD: Let’s talk about performance. Aside from misunderstanding the evaluation rubric, are there any somewhat obvious pitfalls that groups tend to fall into?
CCM: The biggest error that people often make is in programming; directors will tend to program music that is too difficult for their group. Many people will program music that they really like – perhaps they had a great experience performing a particular piece in high school or college – but it might not be particularly suited for their current group, so they can’t necessarily be as successful as they should be. It’s so important for the director to sit down and really evaluate what a group can do well. Certainly, everyone should try to challenge their students, but it needs to be a reasonable challenge, and one that’s attainable. That’s one area where groups often make errors. We see the kids doing the very best they can, but maybe there aren’t enough voices, maybe there isn’t a great balance, maybe the group doesn’t have enough range – it can be clear when sometimes the music just isn’t a good fit for a particular group. It might be great music, but it has to be a great fit with the choir.
CD: Repertoire selection aside, what about the flipside of that last question: are there any little things that the really successful groups do that other groups might want to take note of?
CCM: This is a little tricky because sometimes it’s impractical for some schools because of budget issues, but it’s always advantageous if there is a dedicated accompanist, so the director doesn’t have to be the one who is also doing the accompanying. Otherwise, it is just hard for the director to hear what’s going on.
The other thing is that a choral director at the public school level needs to know how to teach students to sing. It’s not enough to just teach the notes. This is really tough, particularly in school systems that have small staff and have instrumental educators also teaching choirs. In those cases, many of those people have great skill and talent teaching notes, rhythms and phrasing, but most choral students don’t take private lessons – the choral rehearsal is their private lesson, that’s their pedagogy time. So if an educator isn’t comfortable teaching kids how to sing – how to teach a boy to handle a falsetto and a voice break, teaching breath support so that tone stays warm and in tune – that’s another issue that we pick up on in our festivals. e see groups that can sing the notes accurately, but still, with a lot of technical issues.
The biggest tips I can think of are understanding the technical aspects of teaching kids how to sing and programming appropriately, where you stretch but don’t over-reach. Directors really have to analyze their groups as they pick out music, and that’s something I think not everyone does.
CD: What about factoring in what adjudicators might want to hear? How big a role should that play in the selection of music and preparation for a festival performance?
CCM: Ideally, adjudicators should be listening for a variety of music: a program that demonstrates an ensemble’s versatility with appropriate tone and phrasing in, say, a gospel piece or a sacred-type a cappella piece. Ideally, the different pieces selected will display the different aspects of a group’s skills. An adjudicator would likely be negative to “cheesy” or inappropriate repertoire. There’s a lot of contemporary and popular repertoire that’s really good, but there’s also a lot of music that isn’t. I don’t think you’d find any judges say, “I don’t like that song so I won’t give them a good rating.” However, they might say, “That’s not a great choice.” It’s kind of like planning a menu. Are you going to feed the kids a good balanced, well-rounded diet, or are you going to feed your kids a lot of junk food? Yes, you’re going to want a novelty piece here or there for the kids to have fun with, but would that be the piece you’d want to bring into a festival?
CD: How about navigating the festival – are there any logistical or other non-musical elements that might actually make the music and presentation of the music a little smoother?
CCM: What we do here at my school is something that works really well for us: all the pieces that we take into festival are pieces that we’ve already performed at a concert at some point in that season. That helps alleviate some of the performance nerves. Also, we spend an awful lot of time reminding the kids that they are in performance as soon as they enter the public eye. This sounds like common sense, but not everyone thinks of it. There is plenty of time spent practicing getting on and off the risers, which side they will enter or exit from, spending time on the actual risers so that the students know how to space themselves. Sometimes the logistical details can really make a kid nervous. We put the kids on stage in advance so they know what they will sound like in a hall, as opposed to a classroom. We have an accompanist come in for some rehearsals before the festival, so the students are used to really watching a conductor, as our classes aren’t normally accompanied. We make a big deal about appropriate dress because that’s the first impression that the ensemble will make. If they look put together and classy, that will help create the right frame of mind. A lot of time is spent talking about the professionalism and the discipline of performance, and we take it very seriously.
Most festivals will include some warm-up time, and we usually warm up their instruments, but we also take them through the pieces to think about some of the pointers they should keep in mind; it’s probably somewhat similar to the pep talk a coach might give going into a sporting event, minus the “rah-rah, knock ‘em dead” kind of stuff. It helps give focus.
CD: What are your thoughts on the role of competition in vocal music festivals?
CCM: I have very strong opinions on this issue: I am not a fan of the sweepstakes type of finishes. I am not supportive of that at all. The state festival that we work in is a standards-based festival, with gold, silver, and bronze medals, so the groups aren’t competing against each other so much as competing against themselves. Our rubrics explain that really well. The MICCA festival is a three-day festival over two different sites, and you could go through a whole day and maybe never have a gold medal performance on one day and another day maybe never have bronze medal. With our rubric, you can take the recording of the performance and sit down with the students, following along and evaluating your own performance in a great learning experience.
All kids want to be a part of something that is successful, and school systems will support something that is very good. That element of performing and receiving medals is a real positive for the school and community – it’s a positive affirmation of what the kids are doing. But I don’t like the first, second, third place rankings, because that means that second place is still somehow a loser. If you’re the one group that wins those types of competitions, that’s awesome, but if you did the best job that you could possibly do and it was the most amazing performance you’ve ever given, and you only come in fifth, that’s kind of crummy. You want every group to have a chance at a great experience.