The selection of music to be studied is central to music education. When choosing music to be performed at festival, the director must be especially careful to pick works that are both educationally valid and suitable for the event. In many ways, one needs to be a bit defensive when choosing music for festival or contest.
First and most importantly, avoid popular music. While this genre of music may be very suitable for the spring concert, it has no place at a festival of any sort. Even at commercial festivals sponsored by travel agencies, it should be avoided. They will accept such selections, because it is in their best interests to keep directors happy. However, judges will tend to not give their best efforts in evaluating this kind of music.
Second, I feel it best to avoid the most standard and familiar repertoire, including the suites by Holst and Vaughan Williams. Certainly, every high school band should perform this literature just not at a band festival. Many adjudicators have very set opinions on the interpretation of these masterpieces, and only the best performance is successful in their eyes.
Many conductors include a march on the program; some festivals require it. If this is the case, I might offer two suggestions. First, avoid marches in 6/8 time. This subdivision is very difficult, and leaves one open to harsh criticism. Second, avoid familiar marches for the same reasons as outlined above. Also, remember that many of the most standard marches (such as Stars and Stripes) are often very difficult to perform well.
Instrumentation is a primary factor that conductors must consider when selecting repertoire. Avoid works that feature prominent solos for instruments that might not be particularly strong in the group. It is better to choose a work that features strong players rather than weaker ones; highlight your best.
Difficulty is always a consideration when selecting music for performance, and it is especially true when selecting festival music. By choosing music that is too technically challenging, too much rehearsal time must be devoted to learning the notes, with too little effort on other musical concerns. Music that is not well prepared does not lead to the best learning experience for students. I remember an adage that was given by a famous DCI judge, “it is not difficult to play difficult music badly.” And performing difficult works poorly will result in low ratings.
Preparing for Festival
Rehearsing and preparing for a festival should probably not be very different from other kinds of performances. Perhaps the only real difference is in degree of refinement. Adjudicators’ ears are probably less forgiving than those of most band parents.
As mentioned above, time spent on achieving technical proficiency should not overly dominate rehearsals. Most adjudicators assume that the ability to play correct notes and rhythms is a given. Conductors should remember to allot ample time for the other basics of performance, especially on blend, balance, and intonation. The overall sound of the band can be very telling. After many years as both a conductor and adjudicator, I have come to the conclusion that many judges make decisions about ratings after hearing only the first few measures of the first piece, and their evaluation is usually based on the overall ensemble sound.
Often the question of how to cope with poor instrumentation arises. What should the conductor do if the score calls for an oboe solo and there is no oboe in the band? The conductor should not hesitate to re-score the work as long as common sense prevails. Adjudicators (and composers) want to hear the best possible performance. Making substitutions is far better than leaving out an important part, something that I have too often heard at festivals. However, one should use some common sense. I still remember an electric bass playing the tuba/euphonium line at the beginning of the Holst Suite in Eb; I don’t think that Holst would have liked to hear his beautiful, sustained melody plucked in rock-band fashion. I know that I didn’t, and I believe that my rating accurately reflected my opinion.
When I was a high school band director, I found that inviting other conductors to listen or guest conduct a rehearsal was particularly worthwhile when preparing for festival. Many times I held a special, extra rehearsal in the evening so that the band director from a neighboring school would be available to visit. First, the experience of someone from the outside working with the students is valuable in itself; students receive a different perspective. Second, the director will have the opportunity to critically listen to the band detached from having to conduct and teach.
Another worthwhile method is to tape rehearsals for later review. This is a procedure that I still regularly practice. You can become your own assistant conductor. With careful and analytical listening, the conductor can better prepare for the next rehearsal. It is amazing what you will hear when not moving your arms around.
William Berz is Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. He has given premières of many new works for winds, and he has won the praise of many distinguished composers, including Charles Wuorinen, David Del Tredici, Roger Nixon, Walter Hartley, Eric Whitacre, Martin Ellerby, Adam Gorb, Jonathan Newman, Kenneth Lampl, John Mackey, Mark Zuckerman, Daniel Ott, Eric Moe, Michael Daugherty, Frank Ticheli, Norman Dello Joio, and H. Owen Reed. He served as Music Director and Conductor of the New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra from 1988 until 1994. From 1984 until 1989 he was Assistant Conductor of The Jupiter Symphony and Naumburg Orchestra, both of New York City. In addition to his work as a conductor, he is active as a researcher and writer, and has published a number of articles and presented many sessions in music education and conducting.