Festivals and Contests: What For? Part 1

“I’m sure all directors at one time or another have reflected on why we take our students to festivals,” says MENC member Chris Bruya. Here are a few of his ideas to consider for making festivals an educational, positive experience for your students.

Is it about the hardware?

Many students will say it is about the hardware, i.e. winning and losing. In our sports-dominated society, it’s easy to see why. Even professional music organizations get in on the action: witness the Grammy awards.

We’ve all witnessed truly outstanding performances by our groups that go unrecognized in the media. These performances are not less valid and the performers aren’t lower-class musicians. Apply this thinking to a school festival and even the lowest scoring group has some meaningful musical value.

After all, why do humans create music? I’ve always thought it was to express some aspect of the human condition, to communicate with others. Perhaps some refocusing can help students see festivals as a sharing experience.

Modeling a positive attitude

If you focus on hardware, so will your students. Early in my teaching career, the hardware mattered a lot. After losing at a festival where my band had played at the top of its musical abilities and had really communicated, the students were crying on the way home.

I decided to focus my students’ attention on their own playing. Tired of hearing them criticize peer bands and judges, I felt that the judges’ ratings, while important, were not the only reason we attempt to make great music. It’s actually about us, the students and me, creating something beautiful.

I was able to turn the students’ attitudes around to include looking inward, feeling great about our accomplishments during the performance, and understanding what real success was. Winning or losing was secondary, but in the end, the critiques and performances improved, and the “hardware” started to come our way more often.

Chris Bruya is director of jazz studies and associate department chair at central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. His jazz band has consistently been recognized as one of the best in the Northwest, appearing often at the MENC All-Northwest, WIBC, and WMEA conventions. Their CD entitled In A Mellow Tone was released to wide acclaim in 2008 on SeaBreeze Records. Chris is often called upon to adjudicate festivals, present clinics, lead workshops and guest direct jazz ensembles throughout the region.

This article has been adapted from an article of the same title by Chris Bruya, Jazz Curriculum Officer. It originally appeared in the March 2008 VOICE, a publication of the Washington Music Educators Association. Used by permission.

–Anne Wagener, September 14, 2010 © National Association for Music Education