Festival season is upon us in North America and I have had a bit of a different take on things this year. Besides my usual adjudication schedule, I traveled to the US with one of our school ensembles to a competitive festival. I was traveling as a chaperon, rather than a director and this gave me an opportunity to sit back and observe without being hindered by getting the band ready to perform, etc. This experience coupled with a recent adjudication of an elementary level, non-competitive festival got a number of thoughts running through my head.
As music educators, we need to spend more time thinking about what the festival experience is all about. Festivals can be an outstanding experience for student musicians and their directors, but only if the reason for working toward a festival experience is clear to all. I was amazed at the number of bands that I heard at the competitive festival in the US that had an amazing ability to play accurate technique with poor sound and little expression. I will admit, that I did not have the opportunity to listen to all of the bands and this may have only been the case with the few ensembles that I was able to hear. But it seemed that notes and rhythms were drilled at the expense of all else. We have a strong tradition of recordings of ensembles that have presented immaculately prepared technical recordings at the expense of expression, but they realize that tone is an essential ingredient to any performance. Good tone allows good technique and expression. The approach of drilling notes and rhythms seems akin to cramming for any academic test - you have a "good" one-off but no long-term understanding.
I've also spent some time wondering about the repertoire that was performed at both festivals. There is the obvious question of quality that is a popular topic in WASBE discussions. What concerns me, and it is directly related, is what we are teaching the students through our repertoire choice. I am more concerned about the sameness of repertoire than what particular pieces are being played. If one formulaic overture is performed, the argument could be made that the one piece teaches certain aspects of form and technique and allows an opportunity to work in a dance style and contrasting legato style. Is there a need to play two pieces on the same program of the same genre? I think not. Likewise, I would never program "pop" repertoire on a festival program, but that doesn't mean that there isn't anything to be learned from "pop" repertoire. An exposure to a variety of styles and musical traditions is essential to a good music education. But, do we need an entire festival program of the top hits of our current pop idols? I don't think so. A variety of repertoire allows more interest on the students' parts and allows the teacher an opportunity to teach more music.
The dangers of competitive festivals are well-known and documented. Excessive emphasis on competition leads to focus on the athleticism of music. How many technical hurdles can each band navigate to gain as many points as possible? In my local area, competitive festivals disappeared nearly 20 years ago, but this has lead to a different set of problems. Especially prevalent in the younger teachers, who have not experienced a competitive festival is the lack of understanding of what a festival experience is about. A not uncommon expectation from non-competitive festivals is that it is simply another performance but where an "expert" praises you and boosts your confidence.
What every music educator/director needs to have clear in his/her mind as festival preparations are undertaken is exactly what is expected out of the experience regardless of whether the festival is competitive or not. This philosophy must be understood by the musicians. In my mind, a festival experience must give the ensemble (including the director) an opportunity to learn and grow. This requires performing a well-balanced program of repertoire that pushes the ensemble but allows them the opportunity for a successful performance. The music should allow the musicians to experience a depth of contrasting repertoire that will challenge them technically and musically. It should be planned with the adjudicator in mind and the format of the festival. If there is a clinic/workshop involved after the performance, there should be ample repertoire for the adjudicator to demonstrate and work with the band on a variety of concepts.
A well-thought out festival experience can be invaluable to an ensemble in that it provides a high-level performance experience that evaluates current progress and allows for future goal setting. It is first and formost an educational experience. With this in mind, a lot of the stress goes away and the process becomes a positive experience regardless of what place one comes in or what individual adjudicators say.
I'm anxious to hear others' thoughts on festivals. Please, feel free to press the comment button and chime in!