If you’re a director of a school music ensemble, then you are now heading into festival and contest season. There are plenty of music festivals vying for your business. Most are good to excellent and offer something valuable (besides a ribbon or trophy) for you and your students to take home with you. With all of your options, how do you pick the one that is best for your group?
If you’ve found a festival you like, it’s a good idea to stick with that one. The destination can change from year to year to provide variety for returning students, and you can have confidence that all of the festival arrangements will be handled to your satisfaction. Sometimes, though, there is a reason to try a different festival. Perhaps the destination to which you want to travel is not offered by the festival operator you’ve used before, perhaps this is your first year going to a festival, or perhaps you simply were not satisfied with the operator you used last season. If you’re looking for a different music festival experience, here are some things to look for.
First, find out what your colleagues say about the various music festivals. We music teachers are a great networking resource for each other, and we’re more than happy to share good travel and music festival experiences with fellow music teachers. Finding two or three directors who have all had good experiences with a particular tour almost guarantees you will have a good experience with them too.
Second, talk to the person running the festival. Have him come out to your school and talk to you in person about his or her festival. While you’re talking, ask about the philosophy of the festival. Is it highly competitive, or more focused on providing feedback and encouraging low competition experiences. Ask about who the judges are. Find out how long they’ve been adjudicating, and how long they have worked for that particular music festival. You should also ask if they are current or former music educators themselves. There’s a big difference between how a former music educator and a first chair symphony player approaches adjudication and kids. The last thing you want is for your students to be playing for an adjudicator who doesn’t understand the difference between professionals auditioning for a symphony chair, and students looking for a positive and musical learning experience (and who can’t wait to get to the amusement park).
You also want to know ahead of time where your ensemble will be performing for the adjudicators. If you are going to an amusement park after your adjudication, how far away is the park from the performance venue? Will there be a satisfactory warm-up room or area, how long will you have to warm-up? Once you are on stage, will you only be adjudicated, or will the adjudicator also give a clinic to your students while you are still on stage? The facilities at which you will be playing are important because they affect so many aspects of your experience. A facility that is too small can create a logjam of ensembles waiting on busses to enter the venue because there aren’t enough warm-up areas to handle the number of groups performing. The people “on the ground” at the venue also influence how smoothly things run. An efficient operation will get groups on and off the stage on time, and efficiently move people from warm-up area to stage, and off again in a timely and organized manner. I ran an adjudication for several years, and was gratified by directors who returned because they knew I would get them in and out on time. Talk to other directors about how smoothly this part of the festival was handled.
It is also good to know how the awards ceremony is handled. This is where the philosophy of the festival will be most apparent. The festival for which I ran the adjudication site had their awards assembly at the amusement park toward the end of the day. Awards were given out to top scoring ensembles in different size categories, so smaller schools did not have to compete against large ones. There were also awards given for soloists and accompanists, and, perhaps best of all, there was an award for “esprit de corps.” This was given to the school that handled itself with the most class, showed a high level of cooperation within the ensemble and with others. It was given separately from any performance award, and was saved for last giving high profile infant of all the ensembles.
If you are attending a festival as part of an overnight trip and are visiting tourist attractions, then this adds another dimension to your search for the best festival. With this kind of trip, you also want to find out about their bus service, if provided, and about their tour escorts. I was pleased with one company we used who met our chartered coach at a prearranged location, directed the driver to the drop off place, and then staid with us for our entire stay, directing us to restaurants, performance venues, and attractions. The arrangements I made were flexible according to what I wanted to do with my students while I was there, and everything was arranged just as I asked when we arrived. Some festival operators will do more or less than this. The important thing is to ask questions before you depart from home, and know exactly what will be done for you, and what, if any, additional arrangements you will have to make on your own.
If you can find one, choosing a music festival that will host some sort of culminating party for your students the evening before your departure is a big plus. This is a big deal for the kids. They look forward to getting dressed up for each other and having a good time together. Often this event is a dinner and dance, with a d.j. provided by the festival operator as part of your package. I remember one year, we were all at a MLB baseball game, and when the game went into extra innings, the kids started stressing out over being late for the party and not having time to get cleaned up and dressed up. A well-done end of trip party is really important.
As one last bit of advice, I would add this. I took the time I told parents we would return to school very seriously. I always made sure I departed on time, held to a strict schedule as far as dinner stops were concerned, so that our bus would pull into the school on-time, or very near to it. In fact, because I knew something would surely delay us somewhere along the way, I told the parents we’d arrive 45 minutes later than I planned. Over many years of doing overnight trips, only once was I more than 30 minutes off. Parents appreciated that, and I was proud of being known for keeping my word on this. For those of you going on trips and to music festivals, have a great time, and a great musical experience. Your students will remember those trips for the rest of their lives.