SDA Music Festivals

Beginning in the late1930's, Adventist educators established annual music festivals that were exciting experiences for participants as well as audiences. Unlike earlier festivals in Adventist music, which had usually involved more mature musicians gathering to celebrate a special occasion or perform works such as the Messiah or the Elijah, these festivals were meant to encourage younger musicians and foster growth in music programs. Their success in doing so is now a matter of record and the reason why they continue today.

The chatter in the bus was euphoric as the journey home began following the concert. It had been a thrilling musical experience, ending with prolonged applause from the audience. Within a short while, however, a subdued quiet prevailed as students began drifting off to sleep or conversed quietly with one another.

From the beginning of their arrival three days earlier, they had rehearsed with over 100 other students for more than ten hours, developing ensemble and polishing the music. While the experience had been arduous and there had been down times created by the long rehearsals and other activities, in the end, the thrill of being part of a large group playing and singing great music in a festival under inspired conductors had been an exhilarating experience.

For over 60 years festivals have been an important part of Adventist music education, and students have enjoyed experiences like the one just described. From the first music festivals held at Maplewood Academy in Minnesota in 1939, in Indiana at Broadview Academy in 1942, and another hosted on the Atlantic Union College campus six years year later, to the numerous music festivals now held annually, they have been a rewarding endeavor for music students and their teachers. While the festival at AUC happened within a year after the conference-sponsored festival in Michigan, many more conferences and unions would begin festivals for regional schools before another Adventist college would venture to sponsor one.

In the beginning, some of the conference and union festivals were usually hosted each year on different academy campuses in the region. Traditionally, every participating school's director would have his/her turn in front of the festival group, with decidedly mixed results.

Because of varying levels in ability among the conductors, embedded loyalties to them by their students, and rivalries between schools, members of the festival group often worked more diligently for some conductors than for others. Additionally, the constant change in conductors worked against developing good ensemble playing. Consequently, festivals, though often exciting adventures, were not always inspiring and educational experiences.

This fact was troubling to some directors, who wanted the festivals to be a transcendent experience during which their students could work with other talented young people and enjoy a shared ultimate musical experience. In spite of these feelings, other directors resisted for many years the idea of having an outside conductor direct their festival groups.

In some regions of the country, this tension led to the colleges hosting their own festivals, offering academy band and choir festivals in alternate years to complement union and conference festivals which, for the most part, were scheduling their festivals that way. While the primary motivation for a college to host a festival was to help stimulate and enrich academy music programs, it was also an opportunity to influence prospective college students to choose their school and music program.

In the early years of college music festivals, the organizer and conductor was often the director of the featured ensemble. This dual role often left the conductor exhausted even before the event started. Further, the students often were not well prepared, placing the host school conductor in an awkward position and limiting what the group could achieve.

By the 1960's, many festivals began using guest conductors. At first these guests were mostly from the Adventist college or university for the region, because of arbitrary recruitment "territorial lines." As these restrictions eased and then disappeared, Adventist conductors nationwide became possible guests.

Further, organizers of festivals on the West Coast and in the Southern Union began to invite non-Adventist guest conductors for their festivals. Initial concerns about having outside conductors work with "our young people," based on worries about their influence and, in some instances, how they would view the quality of our music programs, proved to be unfounded. The latter concern actually became an incentive for both teachers and students to prepare more diligently for the event.

By the end of the 1960's and through the 1970's, numerous smaller festivals were occurring. More recently, many have been reduced in scope, due to declining numbers of students in academy music programs and increasing financial pressures. When the larger union festivals faltered or stopped in the 1980's and 1990's, colleges and universities became proactive in hosting them and working with conferences to assure that they continue or resume.

Today, most festivals alternate between differing ensembles and areas each year. A few include adjudication of ensembles and solos, and several offer workshops for the students.

Through the years, festivals have proven to be an important factor in sustaining interest in music in Adventist schools. Now, more than ever, inspiring festivals have become a key factor in the survival of music programs and ensembles at every level.