What is Solo & Ensemble? And What Do the Judges Do, Anyway?

Solo & Ensemble (or "Solo-Ensemble") is a yearly opportunity for kids in music programs to perform a solo, duet, and/or a small ensemble piece and get some feedback from a judge. This feedback includes a rating and if it's really high, they can go on to perform at state and receive another critique.

For some students, Solo & Ensemble is the only time they get to perform outside of band, orchestra, or choir. (I'll focus on choir and solos & vocal ensembles in this piece.) It may be the only time that they ever sing a solo or the only time they ever sing outside of choir.

And students sing for so many reasons. Some students sing because they are taking voice lessons and perhaps will go on to study music. Other students sing because their choir directors asked them to sing in an ensemble. Others sing just to sing something with their friends and/or siblings--it's an experience that can last a lifetime and a wonderful way for a friendship to grow. Especially for seniors, this can be a wonderful way to highlight their senior year in choir, singing with their classmates and friends.

Several schools join together and one school hosts a Solo & Ensemble Festival; usually schools rotate the hosting responsibilities between this group of schools. The hosting school sets a deadline for sign-ups so choir directors work with the students to select their solos, duets, quartets, and even quintets. Perhaps the chamber choir will also take part. Practicing and rehearsals take place en masse.

Each solo or ensemble students sign up for is called an 'event' and students are limited to 3 or 4 events per Festival, depending on the state guidelines. Perhaps a student will sing in a solo, a duet, and a trio--that's three events. Their festival events are now capped.

Whoever schedules Solo & Ensemble Events must be a genius. ;)

The day of the event students get ready, warm up, and show up at the specified room in time to sing their piece. For accompanied pieces, they will also have an accompanist with whom they have already practiced their piece. This is what (usually) happens in their short, 10-minute time slot:

They hand over a clean, legal copy of their score and their pre-labeled scoring sheet to the judge.

Students introduce themselves and their piece, perhaps also the high school they attend.

They sing their piece.

The judge takes notes on their performance and only their performance during this, on a standard critique sheet published by the State high school music association.

In the remaining time, the judge can speak with the student(s) and work with her/him/them on a couple of aspects that work well and other aspects that they can improve upon.

At the end, the student takes their materials and depart. The judge completes the comments and scoring.

The next student shows up (if they haven't been listening to the other participants) and the process begins again.

PHEW! That's a lot in 10 minutes. And depending on the Festival, it could be 3 hours or 5.

The judge's job, as I wrote about last week, is to meet each and every student where they are, whether they are a seasoned Solo & Ensemble participant or a total newbie to singing, and to bring them to the next step. A judge has time, perhaps, to affirm 1 or 2 things they've done well, and work with the student on 1 or 2 things they can improve, and the time is up. It's a small, crucial period of time.

Solo & Ensemble is intended to be an educational experience for students and an opportunity for musical advocacy and music teaching for judges (and accompanists and choir directors and band directors and orchestra directors).

It is a not an opportunity for judges to insult students, bring them down, criticize them demeaningly, nor to deem them worthy or not. If you ever have such a judge, report them to your teacher, the Festival director, and your state's music association. Because when judges do that, they destroy a student's interest in a musically creative life. Think I'm being overly dramatic? Think again. This is what we voice teachers and choir conductors hear years later, all of which I have personally heard:

I sang in Solo & Ensemble once. The judge yelled at me, I did so poorly and I haven't sung since.

The judge gave me a bad score last year. There's no point in going again this year.

I was told I couldn't sing so I haven't sung for 20 years. But my baby likes it when I sing--should I sing?

Choir directors also talk about students who won't go to Festival again because the judges were overly critical and not supportive.

What we should hear about judges, when students have had a good experience or they messed up and were still treated with respect:

I forgot all the words to the second verse, but the judge worked with me to help me remember the words next time. So my score wasn't very good, but I learned a lot.

That tip the judge gave me made a huge difference. I can relax more when I'm singing and it's a lot more fun!

I STILL remember the awesome pirate duet I sang with my friend Kelly in Middle School for a solo & ensemble-type event. "The wind, the wind...the wind, their rebels deep..." I will never, ever forget the judge that tore me apart my senior year of high school (and I will never, ever treat students like she did--I sincerely hope that she has changed). This is an opportunity for professional singers and voice teachers to help guide 'the next generation' of singers into college choirs, community choirs, performing ensembles, barbershop quartets--building on the foundation their current choir directors and voice teachers have created, we get to assist them into an even more beautiful life.


What do you remember about Solo & Ensemble? Do you remember what the judge said to you? What piece was it you sang?



The band director at my son's high school gives a grade for Solo & Ensemble.  This year he gave my son a "D."  The last time we had  Solo & Ensemble, by son received "1" ratings in both his ensembles.  This year the actual adjudication was cancelled by bad weather.  As you can imagine, our band size is rapidly declining as their band grade is lower than their grades in AP classes.   Disappointing that the director is killing the love of music in these students.  My son is not the only one to receive such treatment.  

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Nicole Warner

Amy, that sounds like there is a conversation to be had, both with other parents, the band director, and other music department teachers, and potentially others at the school. If your son isn't the only one to receive such treatment, it's important to explore what's going on and see about making changes. I'll drop you a note.

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