Preparing Your Jazz Band for Festival or Contest

jazz band

‘Tis the season for festival prep! For many band directors, jazz band happens outside of “regular” rehearsals, and that means preparing for a big performance (like a contest) can be daunting. When faced with limited time, every minute of rehearsal counts!

I like to break contest or festival prep into three phases: repertoire selection, addressing style, and final polishes. Below I’ll share some tips in each of those three areas to help you prepare your big band for festival or contest.

Repertoire Selection

There are many resources available on selecting repertoire. While it’s possible the festival or contest will place some limits on you, here are some basic rules to follow.

Don’t play something you know the adjudicators will hear over and over

Look, I agree: classics are classic for a reason. But do you really want to be the eighth performance of “Li’l Darlin’” a contest judge hears that afternoon? You’ll be instantly compared to the other performances. There are ways to access great arrangers without needing to recycle the same tunes as everyone else. Explore the entire Nestico catalog to find the real gem. Look for a lesser-known arranger or composer who might have just the piece you’re looking for.

Play jazz, not pop

“25 or 6 to 4” and “Fantasy” are great tunes with killer horn lines. Don’t play them at a big band festival. If you want a funky big band tune, get something originally written for a big band, preferably by someone with experience in the idiom. Most major jazz composers have plenty of tunes with a straight-eighths feel. More importantly, playing pop tunes doesn’t demonstrate your group’s mastery of big band concepts.

Stay balanced

This one is pretty straightforward. Open and close with up-tempo tunes and create contrast by putting latin, funk, and ballad styles in the middle. Again, be sure to honor any of the festival rules about repertoire when you choose pieces. A ballad can also be a great way to feature one of your strongest players on a standard, playing to your ensemble’s strengths, and exposing students to masterworks at the same time.

Practicing Style

If you’re heading to a festival or contest you likely aren’t worrying about notes and rhythms anymore. However, you’ll still need to devote significant rehearsal time to mastering the appropriate style. In particular, spend time on articulations and cut-offs. These are key moments that show the audience (and adjudicators) that your band has truly mastered the material.

Another place to focus is on the rhythm section and I recommend finding the time for them to have sectionals, too. Again, your players are probably past the basics, so spend time on more advanced concepts that may not have been covered in rehearsal. Mark background figures in the piano and guitar parts so that students can either match them or comp around them during solos. Work out a key fill (or three), write it down, and have the drummer play it the same way every time. The big entrance afterward will be much easier to nail when the horns know what’s happening in the previous bar.

Being stylistically accurate goes beyond the notation on the page. Listen to accurate, iconic recordings not just of the pieces you’re playing, but of related pieces. If you’re performing “Splanky,” listen to other, similar Basie tunes so students can hear the cultural and artistic context, not just how to articulate the shout chorus. Including the culture of jazz is a critical part of the student learning process and of contest prep.

Finally, be as efficient as possible during rehearsals, and “triage” as necessary. Hammering on a particular background figure behind a solo probably isn’t the best use of your time. Instead, work on balance in the sax soli so that ensemble intonation is easier. Try to fix multiple things with each pass — maybe the trombones needed to watch their cut-offs and the trumpets needed to make something short.

Final Polishes

There are many little things you can do to make sure the performance goes well. First, be consistent. If you’ve been conducting the shout chorus a particular way, don’t change it on stage. The more consistent you are, the more comfortable students will feel. The contest isn’t the time to decide you want to leave the stage in the middle of a tune!

Be sure to (with publisher permission) make clean copies of your scores for the judging panel. Most publishers are happy to grant permission for these copies, and judges will appreciate having them properly labeled, with page numbers and measure numbers, and bound (a staple is fine).

Set clear day-of expectations for students regarding dress and scheduling. You don’t want to be the ensemble that the event staff remembers for all the wrong reasons. Then set clear day-of expectations for yourself. Write a script for introducing tunes so that you aren’t wasting time between selections and can project calm confidence for your students. Decide how and when you’ll introduce soloists ahead of time.

Preparing for a jazz festival or contest is, in many ways, just like any other big performance. Choosing great repertoire, taking care of the preparation, and planning ahead to cover the details aren’t new tasks for most directors, but accomplishing them with a big band can still feel different or awkward. I hope these tips help you at your next festival!

Additional Resources

Five Philosophers Consider Jazz Repertoire Selection
5 Ways to Impress Judges at Jazz Festivals

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