April 12 was a day filled with concert band music at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Ill., as band director Scott Casagrande’s department hosted the 14th annual Chicagoland Invitational Concert Band Festival, bringing in 38 concert bands and about 2,400 students from the area’s high schools and middle schools.
The performances, which took place at three separate locations in the high school, were evaluated by a dozen expert adjudicators, who traveled to Arlington Heights from four states, including Richard Floyd from the University of Texas, Austin. Students and directors receive comments about their performance at the festivals, and they put judges’ feedback to good use when they get back into rehearsal.
“Really this is the most important music educational aspect of the festival,” Mr Casagrande said. “It’s the reason bands make the financial and time sacrifices to attend. The venues that we provide are not ideal world-class concert halls, yet the festival continues to flourish. Why? The quality of the educators that we bring in and what those people provide to our Chicagoland and Illinois bands.”
The feedback and the chance to perform for bands from other schools make it all worthwhile, but a lot of effort still goes into a festival like this. In all, more than 300 adult and student volunteer positions were filled for the 10-hour event, Mr Casagrande said.
Concert bands in schools around the world
Concert bands, once a North American phenomenon, can now be found on almost every continent on Earth. In fact, the largest national band competition in the world, run by the All-Japan Band Association, features about 14,000 bands and includes some 700,000 students.
Concert bands are reaching new heights in North America, the UK, many areas of Australia and parts of Central and Eastern Europe as well. Numerous band associations, like the World Band Festival, European Brass Band Association, and in Hersey’s case, the Music For All Affiliate Regional Concert Band Festivals in the US, are organized both to help schools develop strong programs and to provide promotional support in competitive and non-competitive performance and educational settings.
In terms of the literature studied, concert bands have been shown to provide music learning experiences and performance opportunities that “embrace a broad variety of repertoire”:
- Traditional concert band music
- Newly composed music for wind ensemble
- Transcriptions of classical repertoire
- Movie soundtracks and pop music arrangements
In school settings, most band students report that band helps them develop healthy social skills and teamwork. They mainly attribute this to the experiences they share with directors and peers, such as the lasting memories of performing in front of large audiences or, here, adjudicators. But some of those skills also come from an enhanced sense of community and a life filled with music.
Band also motivates students to succeed in school. Many band students say the top reason they like school is the band. Other activities, like sports or Mathletes, do the same, of course, but with band, students gain a sense of accomplishment not only on an individual level but also on a group level. This tends to nurture a feeling of pride and helps them develop discipline and leadership skills along with the musical abilities they’ll treasure later in life.
To have a festival or not to have a festival
In addition to the feedback and performance opportunity, bands also get a rating, which in some ways turns the festival into a competition. Some directors don’t share an enthusiasm for band festivals, because of that competition: it tends to turn away students who set unrealistic goals about the outcome.
But most students view band festivals as a positive educational and social experience, recognizing the rich, diverse learning that takes place. Furthermore, for most kids, competitive festivals are a driving force on the road to excellence. They practice more because they’re motivated by ratings, outstanding performances by their peers, and constructive criticism from judges. This makes them much more likely to work on small details in the music.
To find out what students say they get out of participation in band festivals, we turn to research out of the University of British Columbia. A 2011 study asked more than 500 students what they valued most about the festivals. Although researchers asked students about 55 elements, the main benefits most students said they got out of concert band festivals were:
- Preparing for a festival helps students learn about musicality (dynamics, phrasing, blend, balance) — 80%
- In rehearsal, the band stays more on task if a festival is coming up — 77%
- Students say that they perform at their best in front of other students and adjudicators — 80%
- Attending performances exposes them to different musical genres — 55%
- After a festival, students are more excited about band rehearsals — 55%
When it comes to competition, students’ opinions are split right down the middle, but research generally supports the idea of competitive band festivals. About 57 percent of students say the learning process is enhanced when a teacher stresses competition, and 61 percent say competition motivates them to practice.
About 55 percent of students feel competitive festivals, where rankings or ratings are given by expert adjudicators, are “more enjoyable” than non-competitive festivals, but only 51 percent thought the ratings or rankings should be posted and available to other bands and the public.
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