In about 45 minutes there is going to be a "musedchat" on Twitter regarding the values of festivals and contests. I know myself well enough to realize that I can't fully express myself on this topic by using tweets. So although I'm going to try, I figured I'd better get some clarifying thoughts written here first. I hope you don't think this is against the spirit of the chat concept, it's just a complex subject that I've been thinking about for decades. Please forgive the typos and poor sentence structure, I'm typing fast!
As I've written before, I do not think that competition should be a part of curricular ensembles. This is nearly unavoidable, since even the invited opportunities such as the Midwest Clinic or the National Concert Band Festival are competitive during the application process. I can live with that, but I cannot support the idea of a fully ranked competition. I want my students to be able to focus on (and celebrate) the manifestation of the music, and that just isn't realistic when there are ranks and trophies at stake. I just don't see the musical upside.
I also find the "Divisional Rating System" to be problematic, though perhaps marginally "less bad" than ranked competition. Playing for three band directors in a gymnasium is simply not my idea of an excellent performance opportunity. I have also found that I get input/criticisms that are far more beneficial to me and my students by inviting respected professionals to our classroom for clinics. It is amazing what a colleague can share with you and the students when they are not worried about stamping a rating on it.
Festivals (at least in Illinois) come in two basic flavors. The first is the "Honor" ensemble whereby each school sends a small number of students in order to form one large ensemble (and when I say "large" boy do I mean "large"). Typically students audition for these spots. These festivals can be a positive experience for some students, but there can also be a fair amount of disappointment for the students who do not place "high enough" in the section or do not receive a placement at all. I could go on at length about the actual festival experiences (whether single day or multiple days) which often lack a clear sense of philosophical grounding and therefore become "hit or miss" from year to year. I'm sure we've all had students return from these events only to proclaim that there experiences at home were more enjoyable and musically beneficial. If we're going to support these types of events, we need to think carefully about that.
The second type of festival is the format I vastly prefer, whereby groups come together to perform in a non-competitive, "comments-only" format. The National Concert Band Festival is a prime example. I especially like how the students support each other by serving as audience members. The main advantages of this type of experience are (a) your entire ensemble participates, (b) you are able to focus almost exclusively upon the repertoire, and (c) you are usually performing for a knowing audience in an appropriate performance space.
One idea we are starting to see in Illinois is the idea of sharing concerts between schools. For example, a trusted colleague and I rented a nearby college concert hall and we presented a concert, each with one of our bands. Then for the last piece we combined the groups and performed together. This gave an "off campus" opportunity for our students to work towards, there were no rankings or ratings, and we played in a marvelous hall. And the students got to learn about the musical approach of a nearby school and show support for each other. I found this to be one of the more significantly relevant endeavors we have ever done, and I look forward to making it a tradition.
Well, there are my thoughts. Clearly more than I could fit into a tweet. Your comments are welcomed.