Ten Steps To Hosting Your Own Piano Festival

Whether you call it a Piano Festival, Achievement Day, or something else, an evaluation event is a great way to motivate your students. There are lots of reasons why you might want to host one just for your studio. Maybe you live in a rural area without a local music teachers association. Or maybe the events in your area are not appropriate for your students, and you’d like an evaluation that suits your needs better. Maybe the date of your local MTA’s event conflicts with another thing that your students are involved in. Whatever your reasons, hosting your own Piano Festival is a great way to encourage your students to work up their pieces and skills to mastery, to give them an achievement to feel proud of, and to get valuable feedback about your own teaching. And, it’s easier to pull off than you might think!

Most of my students participate in our local MTA’s annual Piano Festival at a local college. This involves playing two memorized pieces, a scale test, and a sight reading test before a visiting judge and taking a written theory exam. Students receive comments and a rating in each category:  Superior, Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor. While I’ve never actually seen a judge award a rating of Fair or Poor, the kids don’t know that, and they work hard, hoping for a Superior. My students know that I consider Festival a mandatory event. But, this year, 4 of them had unavoidable conflicts. I did not let them off the hook. I just held THEIR Festival at my house, visiting judge and all! I’m fortunate to have several colleagues who are qualified to judge, and one of them was available. It all went well, and if I ever find myself living in a rural area again, I’ll do this for my entire studio. If you’d like to host your own Festival, here are ten steps to organize an evaluation event. Of course, tweak these ideas to meet the needs of your own studio.

1.  Set a date well in advance, and get an an early verbal commitment from your students.

Check the school calendars. You’ll want to avoid a long holiday weekend, or the All-State Chorus Festival, or whatever big event might be going on. Set your date far enough in advance to allow plenty of preparation. It’s not too early to start thinking now about doing this in the spring of 2016. Set your date over the summer, and start talking it up at the beginning of the school year. Ideally, your students will be perfecting their performance literature, scales, sight reading, and theory skills all year long in preparation for the year-end Festival.

2.  Engage a judge.

Use a well-qualified judge. One of the benefits of having your students participate in this type of evaluation is the feedback you receive about your own teaching, so choose someone who can give expert feedback. If you’re not as lucky as I am to have local friends to call on, start with the closest college. Even if the piano faculty there isn’t able to judge for you, they are likely to have recommendations for someone else. Our MTA often uses doctoral students. Your state MTA may also have a list of judges who are willing to drive an hour or two to events. It’s not too early to engage a judge in October for a spring event. There will be lots of events which need judges in the spring, and if you wait, you may have a harder time finding someone.

You’ll need to decide how much to offer to pay your judge for time and travel. I’d offer a fee based on the approximate number of hours you’ll need them for, and offer to pay at least as much as you’d expect for the same amount of teaching time. You’ll be asking your students to pay registration fees to cover the expense.

3.  Decide what events your festival will include.

My students did sight reading, scales/cadences, and took theory tests in addition to playing two memorized pieces. You might also consider ear-training, arpeggios, etc., but keep your program small enough to be manageable. For each skill challenge, you’ll need to create tests at various levels as needed for your students. (Keep reading for more on preparing these tests.)

4.  Set a registration fee for students. 

Find out what it costs to sign up for sports tournaments in your area. For instance, the fee for my daughter to participate in a local tennis tournament is usually at least $35. Fees for Piano Guild exams start at $26 and go up. Don’t charge less than what the experience is worth!

5.  Consider T-shirts.

Our students love buying Festival T shirts. We sell them as a fund-raiser, but if you did this for your studio, you might just charge for the cost. When your students wear them, you get free advertising for your studio.

6. Sign up your students.

Make an information form that includes age and performance level of student, how long the student has studied, and what level of sight reading, scales, or other challenge the student will be doing. Keep it handy as a reference as you are preparing for Festival, and then include this in the students’ folders that you’ll be giving to the judge. Set a deadline about 6 weeks before the event and have them turn in their money. I recommend making the registration fee non-refundable. This guarantees that you can pay the judge even if the student bails on you at the last minute, and it keeps students from waffling around about their commitment to the event. Ideally, you will have already talked it up and received a verbal commitment long before this time. Ideally, they will have been planning to play at festival for the entire year, and working on their theory, sight reading, and scale skills all along.

7. Make adjudication forms and student folders.

You need adjudication forms for the performance evaluation, and one for each of the skills challenges except theory. Decide on your criteria for each event (other than a theory exam) and on the adjudication forms, include a rubric which will give the judge guidelines for rating the student. You’ll need a photocopy of each form for each student. Make a file folder for each student, and put the forms for each of the events in which the student will participate inside of the folder along with the student’s registration form. Here are links to some adjudication forms online that might give you some ideas.
Solo Performance 1       Solo Performance 2 (scroll down for rubric)   Solo Performance 3 

Criteria for judging scales might include steady tempo, even tone, correct fingering, and note accuracy.  On that form, you’ll need a place for the judge to write which scale is being heard, and then a rubric for each scale played. For sight reading, good criteria might include rhythmic accuracy, note accuracy, observance of dynamics, and observance of articulation and phrasing.

8.  Create your skills challenges.

Sight Reading:  Choose a sight-reading selection for each of a variety of levels. Have these pieces bookmarked for the judge with sticky notes on the front of the book indicating which level it is. When the student enters the judging room, the judge will check their sight reading level, and pull the appropriate selection for that student.

Scales/cadences: For my 4 students, I provided the judge with a list of all the scales/cadences that each student was prepared to play and said “choose any 4.” Another option is to create a list of required scales corresponding to levels as with sight reading. The judges guidelines can include instructions for how many scales the judge should ask for at each level.

Theory tests:  decide what you want students to know at each level, and then you can make tests yourself with a notation program or hand write them on manuscript paper. I made the ones for our MTA Festival, so I just printed those off my computer. (Sorry, I’m not at liberty to share them.) There are excellent sample tests that you can print off at some of the state MTA websites such as Texas (has an early level 1 test which includes naming keys on the piano and fingers on a hand) and Georgia (earliest level test is a bit harder than the one from Texas). You could use these sample tests as your festival test if the student has never seen them before.

9.  Certificates / Awards

Prepare your awards. Our big Festival (and my small one) is a non-competitive event. Students compete only against a standard of excellence, not each other. I gave a certificate for each skill challenge, reflecting the rating the student received. At our MTA’s Festival, we award a gold seal on the certificate for a superior rating and a silver seal for excellent, so I did the same. Other good ideas include medals and ribbons. But, do give the students something to celebrate their achievements!

10.  Create a schedule and send it out to the students.

With your student registrations turned in, you’re ready to create a schedule. Allow each student enough time in the judging room (your studio) to play their scales, their sight-reading, and their pieces.  This will depend on the student’s level and length of their music. You also need to allow a few minutes for the judge to write comments. For an elementary student doing performance, scales, and sight reading, I’d allow no less than 10 min. (At my home festival, once the student had played for the judge, he/she took the theory test at my dining room table.) Instruct the students to arrive about 10 minutes before their scheduled time so there’s no lag time for the judge – students are always ready to go. Remind them to be sure to bring their music so that the judge can follow the score while they play from memory.

NOW, you’re ready!
My students arrive and check in, play for the judge in my piano room, take their theory test at my dining room table, and then leave. I collect the test and the adjudication forms from the judge, and later that day, I make out all of the appropriate certificates. The student gets their results at the next lesson and we celebrate their accomplishments.

If you don’t have a local festival to participate in, I hope you’ll take a stab at hosting your own. It’s such a great motivator, gives your students a sense of achievement, and helps you to be a better teacher as well!