Spring Fling

Participating in a spring festival not only provides educational and musical learning opportunities but also allows new friendships to form and strengthens existing bonds within the bands. Band directors and students look to the festival organizers to help them create a fun, stress-free and memorable atmosphere.

Photo of the Hawaii Invitational, courtesy of Sonrisa Photography

Spring has sprung, and for many bands, that means spring festival season. Besides the lure of traveling to a destination that’s very different from a band’s hometown, festivals are a great way to showcase a group’s musical abilities and see how it measures up against others from around the world.

Eye-Opening Experience

During a spring festival, marching units typically participate and/or compete in a parade and receive comments from the judges afterward. Some festivals use popular theme park venues while others take advantage of touristy city destinations.

For example, OrlandoFest participants perform at venues near Universal Studios, and Festival Disney groups march through various locations at the Walt Disney World Resort. On the other side of the spectrum, bands in the Hawaii Invitational march down the main drag in the heart of Waikiki.

Festivals provide student musicians with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform for thousands of people from around the world. “It’s good to get out of the classroom and compete with schools from other areas,” says Greg Normandin, director of the Catholic Central High School Marching Band in Detroit. “It’s really eye-opening for the kids.”

Catholic Central has competed in both the Hawaii Invitational and in London, England, several times. For many groups, the excitement of being somewhere new outweighs any stress or fears that might come with competing. George Waibel, instrumental music director at Foothill High School in Tustin, Calif., has taken his students to the Hawaii Invitational for more than 25 years.

“It’s always, always good to travel and get the kids out of their comfort zone, whether it’s to Hawaii or another festival,” he says, adding that for many students, the trip is their fi rst time on a plane or away from home for an extended period of time. “With Hawaii in particular, the kids get a cultural exchange that is not only national but also international. We see bands from Japan and Australia.”

The most successful festivals include a good balance of education and free time. Most directors look for festivals that provide scheduled activities to help fi ll the off hours when the group is not performing. Groups that attend the Hawaii Invitational have plenty of time to relax on the beach but also have outings to historic sites, such as Pearl Harbor.

“Traveling helps you to build a stronger band unit,” says Jay Johnson of Coastline Travel, representing the Hawaii Invitational. “When you travel, you become closer to your mates, and that’s important for kids. It helps to get them out of their ‘bubble’ and experience other cultures and parts of the world. And it helps to teach them some responsibility. They don’t have Mom and Dad with them. Traveling gives them some freedom and allows them to grow.”

Educational Fun

Most festivals give bands the option to be adjudicated by top-notch music professionals and/or take part in clinics or workshops. Tony Saccaro, director of operations and sales for OrlandoFest, says that they use adjudicators and clinicians who not only fine-tune a band but also enhance the students’ performance skills.

Directors say that they place more value on the judges’ feedback rather than their overall score. Barry Enzman, director of the Glenelg (M.D.) High School Marching Band, will be participating in the first OrlandoFest this spring and says that the judges’ comments are critical.

“People get hung up on numbers and ‘place,’” he says. “It’s more important to get that immediate feedback, and that gives the kids something to shoot for. The process is the goal.”

Keith Hart, director of KIPP Believe College Prep Middle School’s band in New Orleans, will be participating at Festival Disney for the second time. He says they’re going back, largely because of the adjudication process. “The judges at Festival Disney will work with your band and help you fi nd the disconnects,” he says. “We compete locally, and the judges will give each group written feedback, but the verbal feedback we get from the Disney judges is very important. The whole experience is empowering.”

Most people would agree that it’s also healthy to observe and learn from other groups. “It’s a good opportunity for a director and the students to see how they match up with other bands,” says Tim Hill, director of Disney Youth Programs. “It’s a great educational experience—to learn through doing—and it gives others the chance to see you.”

Marching bands also get the chance to show off their versatility with different musical styles in an atmosphere that is very different from a typical field show.

Hart says that participating in a band festival doesn’t just help his students improve musically—it teaches them life skills. “A festival gives students a true assessment of their ability: their accuracy, fluency, rate and expression,” Hart says. “I love preparing for a festival, and the etiquette we cover for things like how to prepare for a new piece of music. It helps to build group dynamics. It helps a student know how to respond when things go wrong. I think the character building is even more important than the music.”

After the competition, bands receive VIP treatment at the awards ceremonies. Saccaro says that since OrlandoFest is held at Universal Studios, and 2011 is the inaugural year, some “Hollywood” flair has been added. “We took it to the next level and are making it seem like a movie premiere with a red carpet and paparazzi,” he explains. “We really wanted to make it a celebration of sorts.”

Festival Disney’s ceremony carries the same “Disney magic.” “We have the Main Mouse himself at the awards ceremony, and the awards themselves are pretty unique,” Hill says. “It’s a very special event.”

Important Ingredients

While all directors look for something different in a band festival, there were some commonalities. All agreed that the best events are seamless and very well organized, both by the band and the festival hosts. “Try to recruit solid parents to take care of some of the ‘non-musical’ things, like checking into the hotel or loading the equipment,” Enzman says.

Normandin says that he looks for two important elements—the musical side and the practical side. The event should be educationally sound, and organizers should be able to meet the group’s needs.

Hill stresses the importance of finding a facility that can accommodate a large group. “Are there group activity opportunities for the students; can they give you room blocks at the hotel? Also, the performance facility should be good.”

The directors suggest finding an agency that deals specifically with academic travel or has worked with bands or school groups in the past. Waibel has had bad experiences with companies that were not familiar with how to move a band.

“The company must provide you with references,” Waibel says. “Call some of the bands and ask how their trip was.”

Overall, the directors agreed that an event with qualified, respected judges and a well-run, interactive clinic are top priority. “The performance has to be number one,” Waibel says. “Everything else is secondary. You first have to ask: What will this do for the kids musically? Then what can it do for them culturally, socially, historically and emotionally.”

About the Author

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and proud alumni of her high school band’s front silks squad. Her writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, including Match.com’s Happen Magazine, History, Lehigh Valley Marketplace, Pennsylvania and Young Money, among others. She is also a copywriter for corporate clients. She lives, writes and relives her band memories in northeast Pennsylvania.

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