One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently since I began teaching is “What is NYSSMA?” I talk about NYSSMA a lot in my classes and with my private students, and so I took the time to try to address this question more fully in today’s post. The answers to the frequently asked questions are derived from my own experience, what I’ve learned from my colleagues, and what I’ve observed at festival locations. My answers may not reflect the official position of the New York State School Music Association.
NYSSMA is the acronym for the New York State School Music Association, the state-level affiliate of the National Association for Music Education. There are approximately 5,000 music educators who are members of this organization which serves over 100,000 students statewide. Students and educators are divided up by County and Zone for evaluation and festival participation. The Brewster Central School District music teachers belong to the Putnam County Music Educators Association, and Putnam County belongs to NYSSMA Zone 10 (Columbia, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties).
What is the NYSSMA Solo Festival?
The NYSSMA Solo Festival is an event that is held every year around the state at local adjudication sites. Students perform a prepared solo and scales for the purpose of evaluation. The Solo Festival was created so students could be uniformly evaluated across New York State. Participation in Solo Festival is voluntary, and there is a small fee required (less than $30). When teachers talk about NYSSMA, they’re usually referring to this Solo Festival that is held in the Spring.
What Can My Child Expect at Solo Festival?
Depending on the level of solo selected, students can expect a solo festival evaluation that is between 10 and 20 minutes long. At their assigned time, the student will enter the evaluation room (usually a classroom in an area school) and meet the judge. The judge will select up to 3 scales to hear from the pre-selected list to begin the evaluation. After playing scales, the student will play the NYSSMA solo they have prepared. The judge will most likely be writing during most of the evaluation period, and you will be able to read their comments at the end of the festival. Lastly, the student will be given a short sight reading example to briefly study. Sight reading selections are varied and reflect the level of the student’s solo. Students are usually given 30-60 seconds to study their sight reading selection, but they are not permitted to pluck, bow, or otherwise make sounds by playing during this study period. Parents are invited to observe their child’s performance of scales and solo during this festival, but only the student and adjudicator are allowed in the room during the sight-reading portion of the evaluation.
What is the Immediate Benefit of Solo Festival?
The immediate benefit of the NYSSMA Solo Festival is the performance itself. Performance is a very important part of playing an instrument, and solo performance is the best way for a student to recognize their capabilities and highlight their successes. Solo festival is also a great way to get a difference of opinion: the judges can often provide different insight into a student’s playing than the private or public school music teacher.
How Many Levels are There?
There are six levels of musical difficulty determined by the New York State School Music Association. The first four levels include music that is appropriate for public school students in successful music programs. Pieces are assigned to each level based on characteristics of key, rhythm, range, and advancing techniques. Students who study privately and perform at Level 6 may choose to take an “All-State” audition in which they are more strictly evaluated and may use their score to participate in the All-State orchestra. This audition, AS6, requires an accompanist; however, students may use an accompanist at any level.
How are Levels Determined?
NYSSMA Solo repertoire is constantly under review, and the list experiences slight changes from year to year. A chairperson with extensive knowledge of repertoire and a strong background in music education edits the selections for each instrument. Because string playing has an almost 400 year history, repertoire selection can be very tricky and not often straightforward. Within each level, students can expect to find easy, medium, and hard selections. When compiling the NYSSMA Manual, the chairperson understands that students will be selecting solos with the guidance of their private teacher or, when no private teacher is available, the public school orchestra teacher. NYSSMA expects high-performing students in public high schools to be preparing solos at Level 4 or above; middle schools in New York State should be playing levels 2-3; elementary students perform at NYSSMA levels 1-2. Level five is intended for community orchestras and extracurricular musical involvement, and level six is intended to be for college music programs or conservatory-bound students.
At What Level Should My Child Be Playing?
NYSSMA member materials also outline a time frame for a public school student’s advancement through the levels of NYSSMA solo repertoire. Depending on the starting age (which ranges from Kindergarten to 4th grade throughout the state), students should be playing at NYSSMA Level 1 by the end of their first year. Students may remain on Level 1 for another year past their first as long as their repertoire is being highly supplemented with scales, ear training, and etudes. The following is a basic guide for the progression through levels for public school musicians:
Level 1 – 1 yr
Level 2 – 2-3 yrs
Level 3 – 2-3 yrs
Level 4 – 2+ yrs
Students who study privately or have other circumstances which help to promote their musical achievement may advance at a much more rapid rate. An average student in traditional private study will most likely be performing at Level 4 by the end of middle school and should expect to reach Level 5 as a high school undergraduate. The most important part of repertoire selection is NOT what level it has been assigned. A student should select their solo repertoire based on what will most accurately highlight their achievement. Performance of a solo piece that is too difficult will often reflect negatively on the student who could’ve performed an easier solo with greater accuracy/ability.
What is the Long-Term Benefit of Solo Festival?
Aside from the self-improvement that solo festival participation encourages, there are other long-term benefits of the NYSSMA Solo Festival. At the county level, NYSSMA Solo Festival scores are used to apply for participation in an All-County Orchestra festival wherein the most talented students in the county are assembled for a weekend of rehearsals and concerts. Putnam County holds an All-County Festival for Jr. High string students in February of each year with students performing on Levels 1 and above. At the Zone level, NYSSMA Solo Festival scores serve as an audition for the Area All-State Orchestra. In Zone 10, students who receive scores of 95% or more on Levels 5 or 6 may be invited participate in the Area All-State Orchestra. All-State Orchestra participation is highly competitive and not even guaranteed to students who receive a score of 100% on their AS6 audition. In rare cases, students may also be invited to play in the All-Eastern Orchestra or the All-National Orchestra.
When do we register and how much does it cost?
NYSSMA Solo Festival registration opens in January, but check with your child’s teacher for specific dates for your school. This registration window is only open for a few weeks and the deadlines are strict. In terms of cost, solo fees range from about $15-20 for festival participation only. Additional expenses vary and can include an additional original part (score, piano part, etc) to be used by the judge, a pianist to accompany All-State auditions (required for AS6 level, strongly recommended for levels 4 and up), and rehearsals with your pianist.
My child said that they can play a duet or trio for NYSSMA instead of a solo. Is this true?
Yes, small ensembles can also be adjudicated at the Solo Festival, and lists of approved ensembles and pieces exist for this type of performance as well. Some students choose to attend as part of a duo, trio, quartet, or other chamber ensemble in addition to their solo because they enjoy performing with peers or because they wish to be challenged in a different way. Other students choose to attend as a member of a small ensemble instead of a solo if they’ve never been adjudicated before or feel overwhelming anxiety about performing alone. It is important to understand that scores achieved in a small ensemble adjudication cannot be used in application for honors festivals such as All County, Area All-State, or All-State.
My child said that their entire orchestra will be performing at NYSSMA. How does this work?
Your child may be referring to another type of adjudication sponsored by the New York State School Music Association called the NYSSMA Majors Organizations Festival. In these cases, an entire orchestra performs works from a list of approved string- or full orchestra pieces for a panel of judges. Students perform only as a group in this Major Organizations adjudication — no solos or scales (for strings).