Although I do not believe that contests where a “winner” is picked are educationally defensible, I enjoy judging band festivals where the accent is on helping students (and band directors) become better musicians, rather than just “racking up” trophies. I hope I am qualified as a judge for the following reasons: first, my many years as a band director/teacher on all levels; second, my many years of hearing and judging bands, both concert and marching, on all levels; and third, my good fortune to travel extensively in my role as a judge, enabling me to compare many band programs throughout the US, Canada, and several other countries. Consistently, during all of these judging opportunities, I have noticed certain characteristics that set excellent bands apart from mediocre ones. All, or most, of these elements are under the control of the band director, and could be changed in mediocre groups if the director realized what was wrong with the presentation. Most of the following suggestions seem self-evident, but come from my having continually observed these common-sense rules being broken by band directors, both young and old, who seemingly do not understand how to prepare young musicians to perform at the peak their ability.
Before the Festival/Contest
1. Choose music to fit the group’s ability
If the band is fortunate enough to have a fine young oboist (or any other instrument), choose repertoire to feature that person prominently at some time in the concert. Even more important, don’t feature players (or sections) who are not musically mature enough to represent the group well in a solo capacity. Be realistic. Challenge your young performers, but do not choose repertoire that is obviously unplayable by the students in the ensemble. Fine clinicians don’t just count the number of notes played when giving a rating. Musicality, tone quality, intonation, and style are much more important than difficulty, in my opinion. On the other hand, it is also obvious to experienced adjudicators when the conductor deliberately “undershoots” the ability of the group in order to “insure” a good rating. This cheats the players by cheapening the learning experience just to gain a trophy (or piece of paper with a “good” number).
2. Utilize sectional rehearsals to check individual and group progress.
Note and rhythm mistakes can be corrected much easier in sectionals. Sectionals enable the director (or coach) to get down to the “nitty-gritty” technical problems of one group of instruments, rather than boring most of the members of the band while spending an inordinate amount of time correcting a small group. Utilize full rehearsals to teach style, precision between sections, and ensemble intonation.
3. Stress the need for private practice on each part; keep the teaching of notes and fingerings to a minimum in full rehearsals.
The great majority of band students almost never practice their parts outside of the band room. They know from past experience that the typical rehearsal will be spent in “scrubbing” the wrong notes painfully out of the parts, not playing the music through for continuity and style. In this type of rehearsal, those few students who learn their parts outside of the class room are doomed to participate in boring “note-check” rehearsals they don’t need. They soon learn to “go with the flow,” and practice something else at home, if at all.
4. Establish a consistent grading policy based on individual preparation of parts.
One of the best ways to motivate students to practice their parts outside of rehearsal is to establish a fair and equitable policy that rewards private practice with a good grade on the report card. This means that a person in authority at stated intervals must hear each student playing his/her individual part for a grade. Many teachers hesitate to put such a plan into practice because of the time involved; however, they will find that it is time well-spent in terms of freeing up rehearsals for making music, not just finding wrong notes. An added bonus is that teachers who just gave blanket A’s or B’s in the past will now have a defensible grading system that allows them to “prove” to parents and administrators the reason for each mark.
5. Prepare a “handout” listing the rules and responsibilities of all students while engaged in festival activities.
Many students have no idea what is expected in band because “no one ever told them.” A good, comprehensive handbook listing objectives of the course, duties of the students, rehearsal and concert behavior, trip behavior, grading and practice policy, and the many other aspects of a fine band program gives the students needed advice, and simplifies the unscrambling of the inevitable confrontations that occur when “things go wrong.” For every trip, issue a supplement to the handbook listing a complete timeline for all events. Carry many extra copies for those who “forget.”
6. Check all instruments for proper adjustment, and reeds for playability (make sure students have spare reeds; band director must carry emergency extras in a “festival kit” for all reed instruments.)
Many fine bands make the “instrument and reed check” a monthly feature of sectional rehearsals. In any case, an “instrument and reed check” is a necessity before festivals. All directors should also carry an assortment of reed clippers for clarinets/saxophones, and a brass-mouthpiece remover (purchased for them by the school).
7. Pick up all music at the final rehearsal (or when students assemble for the trip), and keep it together until the final warm-up before your concert presentation.