Marching band contest season is upon us. Bands from all over the country will travel to festivals or contest and compete against other schools. Judges will provide feedback and (hopefully) thoughts on how the ensemble can improve. Trophies or plaques are handed out and parents will cheer. Some students will be disappointed in the “opinions” of the judges and the score provided, while others will celebrate. This will happen every weekend between now and Thanksgiving.

Now, do not get me wrong. As a student, I bought into the power of the trophy. Hearing the name of my school called as “champion” or in “first place” made me smile. I was competitive – I wanted us to be the best. There was a time that my band director threw trophies in the trash due to the results of a contest. Looking back at all of it now, I placed value in pieces of plastic and not in the people around me.

Many directors take to social media to express opinions of festival results. Phrases like, “I am so proud of my students. They worked hard and placed (fill in the blank)….” or “rough run today,” are posted often. It is not just marching season, however. Similar posts come after the completion of concert band evaluations. And while there is nothing truly wrong with bands “making straights I’s” at a festival, we are missing the point.

Participating in musical ensemble is far more than just the score provided by a panel of judges. Emphasis on the musical score is necessary. Are your students performing music of merit, something that will challenge them both in personal proficiency and musical ability? Or are they provided opportunities for musical learning beyond just their concert or marching band music?

Two things to improve the “score” from festivals:


As a band director, understand your student’s musical ability and celebrate that success. If you know that your students often struggle with intonation, but during a performance that issue improved, let them know! Tell them you heard their success and ask how that moment felt to them. It is surprising how celebrating something small encourages more musical success.

Numbers are great because they are tangible. We can point to the assessed score as the grade. But, what earned the grade? The students’ performance. The problem with the score is that it does not reflect the true achievement of the ensemble. Directors, you know the day-in and day-out of the ensemble’s performance. You understand their struggles and the successes. If we make it about the score (points) and not the score (the music), we diminish their effort.

Directors, please, emphasize the music you task your students with making over the score from the judges. I witnessed bands come off the field feeling great about their performance only to be crushed after their placement was announced. They knew their performance was one of their best. The judges do not know that. They only see the one or two performances that day.


Judges need to be careful of their feedback. Yes, we are to assess what we hear and see, but we need to make sure our comments refer to the “next steps” for the ensemble’s success. Too many tapes lack true educational substance.

If you say “that impact just didn’t do anything,” state why and how to improve. For example, say “The impact you just performed can be more effective. For me, there was too much difference in volume between the measure before and the moment of impact. Make sure to exaggerate the crescendo more into impact and do not breathe before the impact.”

At the end of the day, there is some worth to music festivals. The students get to performance and receive feedback from other music educators. The effects on the program are detrimental when people emphasize the score (number) over the score (music). It is better to have a room full of students than have a room full of trophies.

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