Many teachers throughout the country are required to participate in their state’s festival while others willingly choose to have their ensembles participate.

While festival requirements vary from state to state, the idea of them mainly remains the same: we receive an unbiased evaluation of our ensemble’s two to three song performance and may  additionally be evaluated on our sight-reading skills.

Festival, the title used in many states, is quite similar to a standardized test. Many of us shun the idea of standardized tests yet we seem to accept and even embrace the concept of being evaluated by a standardized rubric as a measure of success. The truth about festivals is that excellence cannot be measured by a rubric; all that can be measured is tangible adequacy.

While some states have chosen a more appropriate title in the place of festival, such as group assessments or organizational contests, festival is a term within our profession that most directors understand. It is ironic that the meaning of the english word, festival, is so vastly different than what we experience when we go to festival.

Oxford dictionary defines a festival as: a day or period of celebration….

Wikipedia defines a festival as (condensed to what is appropriate here): an event ordinarily celebrated by a community and centering on some characteristic aspect of that community and its religion or traditions. Festivals often serve to fulfill specific communal purposes…

Merriam-Webster defines a festival as: a time of celebration marked by special observance; an often periodic celebration or program of events or entertainment having a specified focus

None of these three definitions connects a festival to an experience of evaluation; each definition is correlated with the concept of celebration, not evaluation. A celebration would be a recognition of the beauty of what every ensemble brings; it would recognize the uniqueness of each group and create a bonding experience. Instead, festivals are a cattle call where each ensemble receives little or no human interaction. The feedback from a celebration would be applause or cheers. During our choral festival, the only forms of feedback is written and/or sometimes recorded. The performers finish with nervous energy, awaiting a score sheet and a rating.

Who is the Adjudication Festival Really For?

Some of us are forced to participate, some are strongly encouraged, while others choose to participate because we believe the experience is beneficial.

What is the actual purpose of going to festival? Is it for the students or for the teacher?

A festival cannot effectively evaluate ensemble growth; it is focused on our finished product in relation to the categories listed on a standardized rubric. The trained adjudicators can only measure the tangible skills an ensemble has demonstrated on our selected two to three pieces of music on that given day. Those selected pieces are frequently chosen from a list of repertoire that, according to our professional organization, fits within a certain level of difficulty.

A festival cannot effectively evaluate teaching; it’s true that a very poor evaluation can likely demonstrate an ineffective teacher, but it cannot recognize excellence. Most teachers take their top ensembles who already possess strong skills. Unless forced, many teachers will not take their weaker ensembles. Teachers who do succeed by improving weaker ensembles will receive lesser evaluations than teachers who take an auditioned top group that began the year with well-developed skills.

The benefits of Going to festival

For many directors, the positive experience of evaluation is getting the students dressed up and watching them take a performance seriously. It’s about setting a goal where trained choral directors are listening and critiquing them. In many cases, our students “rise to the occasion” and we enjoy seeing our students giving a super-focused performance.

For others directors, it’s an opportunity to receive comments from others that validate exactly what we have been saying to our ensembles all year long. Sometimes our ensemble needs to hear our message from someone other than us. It can also be useful when we do receive feedback on things we might have missed.

The truth about Going to festival

The experience of going to festival can add positive value for some ensembles but it can also be a hindrance for other ensembles and directors. It is my belief that frequently the wrong ensembles choose to participate. These evaluation festivals should be intended for weaker and improving ensembles, not elite ensembles. Seasoned teachers with successful programs are setting low standards if they find value in the ratings of their top ensembles.

Going to Festival is really “Going to Be Evaluated by a Standardized Rubric“. It only measures basic skills. Adjudicators are trained to listen through the lens of the score sheet. As directors, we are required to choose music that meets the standards of the festival as we prepare our students as best as we can to not lose points in the categories on the scored sheet.

Within a rubric, there is a basic standard for each category that will prevent the loss of any points. In many cases of a rubric, the grader starts the ensemble with a full score, and deducts points for each blatant deficiency. Should we meet whatever is deemed by the adjudicator(s) as full credit in a particular category, we receive all possible points. Should we do this in most or all categories, we will receive the top score.

Earning an “elite” score is nothing more than reaching a standardized level of success. It does not differentiate between a group who meets the fundamental levels to avoid point deductions and an ensemble that we would pay money to go and see perform.

The limits of festival evaluation

A rubric sets a fundamental level of competence but disillusions many into thinking it recognizes excellence. Excellence is not earned by receiving a perfect score on a rubric any more than it is earning a high score on any other standardized test; it is merely a recognition that fundamentals skills have successfully been met.

Judges are trained to evaluate to a rubric, but as much as the rubric appears to be clear, it is still just a sliding-scale that each adjudicator views differently:

-There is really no such thing as an “accurate” or “consistent” evaluation. What are they evaluating us against? If we are a non-select high school ensemble and the judge just heard a “select” ensemble, is our rating affected?

-What if the judge is a college director whose ensemble just performed the same piece we are performing? Is it possible the judge will compare the quality of their college ensemble to our high school ensemble?

-What happens when our ensemble is unbalanced? No matter what we do, we don’t have enough men in our choir. What value does this evaluation have if the issues presented are ones out of our control?

5 Ways Music Rubrics Can Fail Our Students

Here is another thought that recognizes the flaw in many state rubrics:

Is a fine choir limited to performing only high-difficulty music at a festival? If they perform what’s deemed as lower-level music, they are not recognized. Only groups that receive a top score on the top level of difficulty are considered elite ensembles.

One would hope that even top choirs perform music at all difficulty levels anyone with trained ears could recognize a fine choir regardless of the chosen level of difficulty of the piece; a fine choir will sing with beautiful tone, shape, musicality, and depth of meaning.

Let’s take this one step further: what happens if an “elite” choir would perform less-challenging music on a lower level at the state festival? What would happen, for example, if a select 11th-12th grade ensemble performs the same pieces as the next ensemble, a non-select freshman ensemble with 45 women and 3 men?  How would the scoring be affected by this situation?

Standardized tests have a fundamental purpose; they are intended to set a basic standard for all students; the flip side is that they also force teachers to conform to the material on the test. No standardized test will ever recognize excellence on the part of the student or the teacher. Excellence is measured by how well an ensemble communicates, shares, and reaches its intended audience.

Is there a more effective experience that Going to Festival?

A better solution would be bringing in multiple guest conductors and having them work with our ensemble throughout the year. We would prepare and perform several songs of varying levels/styles for a guest conductor. Afterwards, our guest would spend a full rehearsal working with our ensemble.


Instead of being limited to a rubric, they would use their well-trained ears and vast experience to bring up the level of our ensemble. They would offer feedback and new approaches to improving what we do. They would be rehearsing our ensemble, just as they would rehearse their own ensemble; they would not be limited to or guided by a standardized rubric. They would be giving interactive and responsive feedback.

In many cases, a 60 minute (or longer) rehearsal with several guest conductors throughout the year will be more useful, less time-consuming, less expensive, and less stressful than the bus ride, the permission slips, the attire, the pressure, and a standardized rubric evaluation. This approach will demonstrate to our ensemble that there is no such thing as perfection, as there is always another level that we can aspire toward.

View my instantly downloadable Choral Sheet Music, written for self-selected choral ensembles.