Spectators begin to file into the Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall at the UGA Performing Arts Center to view the opening ceremony of the events celebrating the arts. The University of Georgia Performing Arts Department hosted “Kaleidoscope” the opening ceremony of the Spotlight on the Arts celebration on November 1, 2018 in Athens, Georgia featuring performers of music, singing, dance, creative writing and theatre. (Photo: Kate Skeean)

JanFest, an annual band festival organized by heads of the University of Georgia’s music department, is one of the oldest and largest band festivals in Georgia, hosting around 1,200 students. Not only that, but the overall quality of the clinicians and performances in addition to the fast-paced rehearsal schedule also allow this band festival to stand out.

Many high school band students take every chance they can to improve on their instruments and develop themselves musically. The band festival provides the perfect opportunity for high school students from Georgia and other states in the southeast to further master their instruments and gain more experience in a professional musical environment.

The annual four-day band festival began 69 years ago by Roger Dancz, an important figure in UGA’s band history.  Dancz directed the Redcoat Band from 1955–1991 and contributed to other areas of UGA’s music department as well.

“It’s a recruiting tool for us, too, because it gets high school students to see the campus,” said Rob Akridge, assistant director of bands at UGA, who has run JanFest for the past five years.

Music educators and band directors nominate their top students to participate in the festival. Although that’s the case, students with other outstanding qualities are also encouraged to participate.

“We are looking for the most talented, but also very important are students who have great attitudes, show leadership traits and abilities, or are just all around great kids who would benefit from an intense musical experience over the course of two or three days,” said Cynthia Johnston Turner, director of bands and professor of music at UGA, who oversees JanFest.

As part of their initiative to include more diversity, the organizers have hired clinicians and guest conductors from all parts of the world in recent years. This year, there will be one clinician from Brazil and one from Hawaii, as well as others. The organizers have also tried to add more female clinicians and female clinicians of color in the last five years.

“It's a chance for some students to see people that look like themselves and for others that don't look like themselves and have experiences different than they would have in their high school band in Georgia,” Akridge said.

In addition, the organizers have asked clinicians to prepare at least one piece in their 15–20-minute repertoire that’s composed by an underrepresented composer.

“At least one piece is by a composer you might not have heard of who hasn't been given the same opportunities as other composers,” Turner said. “It's interesting to hear repertoire by composers you might not have heard of and it's fabulous and performed at a very high level.”

The festival provides an opportunity not only for the young musicians to improve their own playing, but also improve their local programs’ music quality by bringing back the information they learn here to their hometowns.

“They can go back to their high school music programs and take what they learned, not just musically, but also in terms of rehearsal etiquette,” Turner said. “They learn how to be in a rehearsal in a pre-professional or professional environment, how they can help their band director, how they can help their colleagues to have a better experience and how they can spread that positive attitude throughout the ensemble.”

Students arrive on Thursday, audition for a seat in one of the four honor bands or four clinic bands, rehearse Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning, then perform a final concert on Sunday.

Six local high school bands will also perform at the concert as guest bands, according to Akridge. Since they had to audition to perform, they provide an opportunity for the other students to hear what excellent bands should sound like. The UGA Jazz Band and the UGA Percussion Ensemble will perform as well. They also teach the students what a great band should sound like.

“Its reputation, in my experience, is unparalleled in the country,” Turner said.

It’s also a great opportunity to perform for people who understand music and can listen to it critically.

“They know what they're listening to and listening for, so it's a little bit of a high-stakes environment which sort of ups the game for those kids in those ensembles,” Turner said.

In addition, it’s a chance for high school students to perform in one of the greatest music halls simply due to the venue's high acoustical quality.

“They don't necessarily get that experience in their high school so to have that performing experience in front of a full house is really really exciting,” Turner said.

At JanFest, students also have the opportunity to take a master class for their instrument with studio faculty at UGA. They can also interact with UGA students to learn more about what it’s like to major in music in college or even to just learn about the overall college experience. Students also learn how to stay involved with music even if they don’t choose that as their major.

The final performance is free and open to the public, but the concert hall gets packed quickly, so if you plan on attending its best to arrive early.

“Since 1,200 students are currently participating, it's pretty full for final concerts and it's for the final concerts on Sunday. For our guest band concerts and UGA groups that perform, we're pretty full in general because the high school bands will have parents and family and friends that will come hear those groups on those nights as well, so it's a pretty full event the whole time,” Akridge said.

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