photo courtesy of Ingrid Taheri

5 Ways Music Festivals Need to Change

Let me start by saying that this blog post is not about the type of music festival where you go and listen to 100 bands in a farmer’s field one weekend, pay $20 for a beer and wear a tie dyed t-shirt.

Instead, it’s about music festivals that take place in countless cities and towns across Canada where local community organizations (like Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, etc) selflessly give music students the opportunity to play in front of an adjudicator and get helpful hints on improving their prowess at their instrument. I have been very fortunate to be an adjudicator at many festivals over the years. It is a true pleasure to interact with so many students on a day where they celebrate and demonstrate all their musical achievements.

This being said though, the format in which most of these music festivals are presented hasn’t really changed in countless years. It’s time for a shakeup. Here’s 5 suggestions…

1. No more test pieces. I don’t know who started this tradition or why but hearing 10 “Freddie the Frog”‘s in a row is truly painful and boring (no disrespect to that fine composition). Organize classes in a way that allows teachers and students to select pieces and encourage the actual festival class to be an event to sample and enjoy a variety of repertoire.

2. Get rid of marks and placings. What are we trying to prove by giving a student a first place or an 83%? What does that say about the quality of the performance? In my eyes, it says diddly-squat. What we should be doing is recognizing students for the standard which they achieve in their performance. What about a Gold, Silver or Bronze for everyone? Gold is a polished performance, Silver is a good performance with some hiccups. And Bronze is a “you’re on the right track but keeping plugging away at it” type of message. It’s all about making the competition within oneself rather than against each other.

3. Organize classes by level, not age. Not all festivals do this anymore but there’s still some kicking around. You can have a class 11 years and under with kids in grade 3 piano and some in grade 6. It just does not make sense especially in attempting to have a conversation/mini-workshop at the completion of a class.

4. More creative classes. We must get away from our conservatory, cookie-cutter culture of organizing everything by grades. What about the students who like downloading video game music from the internet or only learn by improvisation? What about students who sing their own songs and accompany themselves at the same time? The only festival I’ve ever adjudicated that had classes that cater to such students is the Burlington Rotary Music Festival, otherwise a good chunk of the modern-day students don’t have anywhere to play.

5. Stop the waiting around and make it more entertaining AND educational. For anyone who attends a festival, there’s so much waiting around in between performances while adjudicators write comments. It drags down the whole excitement and flow of the event. So here’s what you do…the adjudicator listens to each performance in the main hall of the venue. After each performance, the adjudicator selects gold, silver and bronze standards but does not write any comments. This way students proceed one right after the other like a concert. When the class is over, there’s some brief general comments and an awards presentation. Then that adjudicator, students and their cheering section go off to another room in the building and a have a master class/workshop with the students. Parents are invited to record this so the student and teacher can refer back to it later. Meanwhile back in the main performance area, the next class has gotten underway with another adjudicator. Yes, 2 adjudicators working at the same time!! This will cut down on the length of festivals and the amount of rental costs. It’s a win, win, win, win for everyone!!

So powers-that-be, here it is! Revitalize your festival formats and make it more engaging and fun for students to participate. You will be doing a great service to the music teaching profession and giving kids something exciting to look forward to!!

Disclaimer: my views expressed here are purely my own and do not represent the views of a certain music teachers’ association I just happen to be president of at present.

11 Responses to “5 Ways Music Festivals Need to Change”

  1. mogenpianist May 2, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    YES! I agree 100%, Frank.
    (& could we also just never, ever, ever hear Monkeys in the Tree ever again?)

    • Frank Horvat May 3, 2015 at 6:57 am #


    • mymuco1 May 4, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

      Totally agree! That gorilla section just gets to me sometime. 🙂

  2. Nhat-Viet Phi May 3, 2015 at 12:52 am #

    Very interesting approaches. While #2 makes sense in earlier levels, I disagree with it for advanced classes because 1) by that point, competitors ought to have figured out the Thick Skin requirement and 2) the awarding of prizes is more easily justified at the administrative level.

    Also, away with restrictions on video recording. Calgary, Winnipeg and Corner Brook have for years allowed parents (or designated persons) to record their own kids competing, on condition that the operators are out of the way, the devices have all beeps muted, and the adjudications are not recorded.

    • Frank Horvat May 3, 2015 at 6:59 am #

      Thank you for comments! Interesting perspectives.

  3. 88pianokeys May 4, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Hi, Frank. I couldn’t agree with you more. I adjudicate frequently and enter students in festivals but still feel that we all walk away empty–even if you are claimed a winner. I love your innovative festival ideas. Bradley Sowash and I have co-founded 88 Creative Keys ( which is all about playing off the page. Your creative class idea is exactly what we are promoting. Good to hear there are others who feel the same and are doing something about it! -Leila Viss

    • Frank Horvat May 4, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks Leila! I’ll have to check out 88 Creative Keys, sounds interesting. If you’re going to promote more creativity…we’ll need products and services like yours to help teachers.

  4. Janet Peters Varley May 6, 2015 at 5:54 am #

    Totally agree. I have several students that play a wide variety of music from composers that are not on the conservatory list. I also have several students that compose their own songs. At our music gatherings the performers make comments on each others pieces – it is amazing how well they
    respond to the praise first – then suggest ways to improve second. Over the years I have had less students interested in the Music Festivals – but a great deal of interest in the year end music recital!

    • Frank Horvat May 6, 2015 at 10:35 am #

      Great points, Janet! Completely agree with everything you said.

  5. Darlene I May 9, 2015 at 8:58 am #

    Great Article….I TOTALLY agree!! I’ve been trying alternatives with my students. This year, Frances Balodis came and adjudicated my students here at my studio. It was such a fun morning….they all LOVED it. It was educational and best of all, it was fun. It was also a great way to help students who are preparing for exams:-)

    • Frank Horvat May 9, 2015 at 10:07 am #

      You’re bang on, Darlene! As music educators, our number one priority must be to create a fun and engaging learning environment, this must extend to the festival.

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