This blog post about how to organise your own piano festival was written by guest Samantha Rothschell. Samantha lives and teaches just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, USA. She holds a Bachelor of Music from Middle Tennessee State University. Samantha has taught for over 10 years in a variety of settings, including public and private schools, private lessons, a homeschool co-op and class piano at the university level. You can find more information on her website.
Piano festivals have been a key determining factor in boosting my students’ confidence in ways recitals alone don’t, without the stress of competition. But what do you do if you don’t have a piano festival in your area?
For the past 5 years, I’ve encouraged my students to participate in a local piano festival called “Piano Fest”. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what all goes into planning such an important event.
To find out more, I sat down with the founder of the event, Sheri Harris, to talk about the ins and outs of it. Here’s what I learnt.
After reading, you might just want to organise a piano festival yourself!
The following is our discussion (lightly edited for flow.)
Piano festivals are fairly new to our area. What made you decide to create Piano Fest?
I realised the only thing our local music teachers’ organisation had to offer were auditions for the state competition. There was nothing available for the average piano student.
I wanted there to be an event that would cater to everyone. Something the advanced kids could take advantage of, as well as beginners and those who aren’t trying to win the next Van Cliburn.
What kind of pushback did you get at Piano Fest’s inception?
I wanted to give a medal to every student who earned a “superior” ranking, but some people disagreed with that approach.
I believe students aren’t, by-and-large, always intrinsically motivated and need to have something extrinsically exciting to work towards. I want them to walk away super excited and proud of their accomplishments!
Rewards can help with that – and often, intrinsic motivation follows.
From a wide-angle perspective, there are a lot of things to consider when planning a music festival.
Is it difficult to organise a music festival?
Often, the hardest part is deciding whether or not I’m going to do it again! But, in general, planning is pretty straightforward.
If you don’t know what to do or how to get it going, try working with a group (such as a local music teaching association.) I encourage anyone wanting to establish an event like this to look at the setup and rules from another piano festival.
Then just use what sounds good and seems like it’ll work for you.
Of course, going at it alone is an option if you want. If our organisation wasn’t going to support what I wanted to do (which, at one point it looked like that was a possibility), I was going to do this on my own anyway.
What are the first steps when planning a festival?
Start by deciding what your festival will look like. Then you’ll need to set a date, find a venue and create sign-up forms. (Google Forms are super easy to use.)
You can hold a festival in almost any venue – even a studio with a great piano. You just need a room, a judge, and a student.
Try checking with local colleges, churches or a community theatre.
You could even have it online! Platforms such as Zoom or Rock Out Loud Live can work for live performances, or you can have an online festival with pre-recorded video performances. The annual MusicStars Online Music Festival is a great example of how to pull this off.
How do you get hesitant beginners to participate?
This year, I started a new division because I feel like students can feel such a huge amount of pressure…not so much from the students themselves, but interestingly, from teachers.
I decided on two divisions: Piano Fest Premier and Piano Fest Pro.
Piano Fest Premier is our new division. It’s for first-timers and students whose teacher feels like they have potential, but they’re not quite ready for the pro-level event.
This would be a good option for students who struggle with memorising music.
In our festival, Piano Fest Premier participants don’t have to have their music memorised. They don’t get scored; they just get feedback. For example, maybe they have all their pitches but their rhythm needs more work. There’s nothing students can lose from participating at this level.
Piano Fest Pro is our more challenging division, where students need to memorise one piece. This is the way we’ve been doing things since we started in 2016.
What questions should you think through during the planning process?
I suggest thinking about the organisation in terms of repertoire, grading and finances.
- How many pieces will students perform? One? More?
- What is the time limit going to be?
- Will they memorise their music?
- Will you have a theme?
We started out having themes, but I’ve abandoned that since 2020. They served a purpose and were fun, but it’s easier without. And besides, our students only prepare one piece.
- What grading system will be used?
You could use a text grading system like those used at competitions (such as superior, excellent etc.,) or perhaps a numeric rating system. Hint: Young students won’t know the difference unless their teacher tells them! You could even use gold, silver and bronze.
- Will you have a reward system?
This alone can be an incentive for teachers to participate, and a great way to market studios. Sort of, “Hey, look at what we’re doing in my studio and how awesome my students are!”
- How much will you charge as an entry fee?
Think about your judge and what you’re going to pay them along with the cost of rewards. Also, if you’re going through an organisation, they might have funds set aside for events like a piano festival. It may not be much, but it can help.
Once you’ve landed on an overall design for your music festival, it’s time to organise the nitty gritty details.
How do you find prospective judges?
Finding a judge is a very tricky thing, and it depends on your community. Since we have a lot of advanced students in our area, I usually end up getting college professors.
I would definitely try to find somebody with credentials. In many cases, someone with an advanced degree or certification in piano who teaches in an independent studio would be quite sufficient. Try to make your decision based on the levels of the students signing up for your event.
Tell your judges that the piano festival is catered for the average piano student. This is supposed to be an encouraging event – it’s not a competition between the students.
How much should a judge be paid?
Pay your judge well! You’re paying them for their expertise, their time, travel expenses and so on. You want them to feel valued, just as you want your time valued.
I’m wholeheartedly into the idea that we do not chintz our judges. Feed them lunch, too!
What should the day’s schedule look like?
When I organise the actual day of our piano festival, I typically schedule students as their sign-up forms come in. I try to not group students, because it’s better for the judge if they have some variety in their schedule. If a judge sees one advanced student after another, after another, I think they’d go crazy!
I also try to not block teachers together. You want to avoid bias as much as possible.
As for timing, allow 4 minutes longer than the time of the piece so your judge can have time to write and transition.
Do teachers and students choose what time of day they want to participate?
We’re a small enough community here, so I feel like I can accommodate requests for the most part. I offer a choice of “morning or afternoon” on the sign-up forms.
But if you have 400 students signing up, it would definitely be better not to give the option.
Could you tell me more about the rewards you offer students?
All students participating in our Piano Fest Pro receive a certificate. If they score a “superior” rating, they also receive a medal.
Students participating in our Piano Fest Premier get a certificate and a ribbon.
I buy nice paper and print the certificates myself at the university, but you could also have certificates printed at a print shop and then just fill in the info by hand as students complete their performances.
Have you had any negative feedback on the event?
Nope! Never. This has done nothing but boost students’ confidence and build community in our area.
To learn more about piano exams and festivals, you really should check out Nicola’s awesome centralised Planning Lessons hub page.
Take a Deep Breath…
Piano festivals are not as scary as they may seem.
Don’t be intimidated! Parents get to be proud of their kids, teachers get to feel validated and students get to have their confidence boosted.
There’s also no exact blueprint for running one. If you’re planning to organise your own piano festival, take what you can from a lot of different sources and make it your own.
Piano Fest is held annually at the McLean School of Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee USA. You can find out more about the event on their website.
Have you entered students in a piano festival before?
Share your experiences in the comments below. 🙂
If you’re helping your students prepare for a piano festival or exam, you’ll love this Painless Exam Preparation Planner. Enter your info below, and I’ll send a copy right to your inbox!
Subscribe to updates and get the Painless Exam Preparation Planner
Enter your details to subscribe to the newsletter for piano teachers with information, tips and offers.
I hate spam as much as you do! I’ll only send you information that’s directly relevant to music teachers and you can unsubscribe at any time.