The District 7 Music Festival, held last weekend at Havre High School, was an opportunity for hundreds of student musicians from 14 northern Montana high schools to showcase their skills in front of audiences and expert judges.
The audiences were there for a good show, while the judges came from across the state to rate the performances and give one-on-one critique and instruction to the young performers. Those students who were able to achieve a "superior" rating qualified for the state music competition, to be held in Missoula on May 6-7.
Students competed against themselves rather than against each other, Havre High School assistant principal Jerry Vandersloot said.
"It's a learning process," he said. "The adjudicators evaluated the kids and gave them hints on how to do better."
Vandersloot coordinated the festival with the vital help of the Friends of Music, a HHS parent group that volunteered to monitor doors, run the concession stand and keep scores.
Judge Alan Fauque, a woodwinds specialist who teaches at the elementary and intermediate levels in Belgrade, said he was impressed with the quality of the performances.
"I think the kids here that have prepared for this have already educated themselves on what it takes," he said. "It's a lot of work."
Performing takes some courage, he said, and though some students don't do as well as they would have liked, the experience is still worthwhile.
"Getting up in front of someone who is judging you, as well as having your peers in the room, can be a very nerve-wracking thing," Fauque said. "Not everybody is able to do that. They're already head-and-shoulders above others that haven't had that experience.
"A lot of kids are very prepared, and you have others who have the crash-and-burn syndrome where they get very nervous and everything they've prepared falls apart. It's performance anxiety, which is also good for kids to experience in this kind of safe environment," he added.
A judge's job is to highlight a few areas the student can improve on in a discussion immediately after the performance, Fauque said. The judges will often have students play or sing portions of the piece with the corrections they've suggested. Afterward, a student is able to read the more extensive notes the judge provides, Fauque said.
A superior rating means a performance achieved "perfection," Fauque said. More than 100 performances received the rating at the festival.
Judge Larry Rowton, who teaches band at North Middle School in Great Falls, said the festival's performers were easy to work with.
"If they were in sports, you would say they were very 'coachable,'" Rowton said. "They were very interested in trying to improve. And that's the whole idea, to try to get them to get better."
Rowton said the students may be hearing the same critiques from their own instructors, but the advice has a different impact when it's coming from someone else.
Music at the festival varies by grade level, with the seniors being expected to perform the more difficult selections, he said. A common theme he noted in the performances was the students' efforts to prepare, regardless of the difficulty.
"They didn't just come in here and wing it. Most of these pieces are well-prepared," Rowton said. "They may lack musicality or expression or something else, but that's something we can help them with."
Chinook sophomores Carsey Johnson, Abbi Hayes and senior Natasha Johnson said the judges' advice is helpful in improving their performances. The girls performed as the Will Be Three vocal trio, singing "I Will Be There to See" by Amy F. Bernon. The trio earned a superior rating.
Natasha Johnson said the group will incorporate the criticism into its performance at the state festival. She and Hayes, who said she appreciated the opportunity to hear the judge's opinion, competed at last year's state festival.
"There's always room for improvement," Carsey Johnson said. She was participating in her first music festival and admitted to being a little nervous, but said afterward that she was happy with the performance.
Havre freshman Casey Donoven was also performing in his first festival. He played saxophone and bassoon solos.
"I did better than I thought I would, but I still think I can improve," he said after the bassoon performance. He has played the sax for five years, but just picked up the bassoon six months ago. The instrument allowed him to get into symphonic band and presented a number of challenges because of the differences between it and the saxophone.
"I wanted to try something different," he said of the bassoon. "I thought it would be fun."
KG Public Schools music teacher Lori Anderson, who accompanied Donoven on the piano, said she was impressed with his performance.
"I think he played wonderfully for just learning the bassoon," she said. "He's an awesome student and he likes to challenge himself."
Havre band director Ron Coons said he was happy with the HHS jazz and symphonic bands, which both earned superior ratings. For the symphonic band, it was the 31st straight superior mark, the longest winning streak in Havre, Coons said.
The symphonic band also earned a superior rating for the sightreading competition, where the musicians are given a piece of music they've never seen before and asked to perform.
"To get a superior there, that means their music reading skills are very strong," Coons said. "That's one thing I've been particularly satisfied with."
Jazz band director Cathy Lee said the students could not have earned their top rating without the dedication and commitment they've shown.
"They are very hard-working and they're willing to try things out," Lee sad. "The fact that they did such a tremendous job in only their second performance of the year just shows what they're capable of.
"They overcame the nerves. They were full. They were strong. Those are all things you have to instill in the students and they were very good at it," she added.
Vandersloot, Coons and Lee all gave accolades to the Friends of Music. Without them, the festival could not happen.
"We've had tremendous support," Lee said. "Things have run so smoothly, and I give them the credit. They're remarkable."