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An update on The Big Sing

This year’s Big Sing (TBS) continued to hit new numerical heights, with 273 choirs from 160 schools taking part in the country’s ten regional festivals. Twenty-four choirs were then selected to attend the excellent National Finale in Auckland, held for the first time in the Aotea Centre’s 2100-seat ASB Theatre.

During the Finale an informal TBS Forum was held, where any local or Finale choir directors and managers able to attend could ask questions and share ideas over a range of topics related to the festival. (It is anticipated that these forums will become a regular, scheduled event at future Finales.) The Big Sing Committee has subsequently worked through several matters arising from the forum, from meetings between the NZCF Board and regional chairs on the following day, and from the event itself. The following paragraphs outline some of the conclusions we have reached, for 2018 and beyond.

Download a printable copy of this information.

1. Platinum award
There will be no Platinum Award from 2018 onwards. The award was established some years ago to provide a sponsor with an overall winner for the event, but that need no longer exists. Hence, there is general agreement among choir directors (including all past winners), the regions and TBS Committee that the award has become unnecessary. Gold, silver and bronze and finalist awards will still be conferred.

2. TBS fee cap
The NZCF Board has resolved to remove the existing TBS registration fee cap by 2020. At the current per-head fee ($9.50) and per-school cap ($550) levels, schools effectively pay for only the first 58 singers entered. While the continued growth in entries across the regions and within many schools is very exciting, this growth does mean that smaller schools increasingly subsidise the larger ones, and the Board feels it is now time for all singers to contribute equally to the considerable costs of running TBS, irrespective of the size of their school. It is worth noting that TBS costs very much more to run than is covered by registration fees, but removing the cap will go some way towards reducing the deficit.

We realise that some schools will need time to communicate this change to parents or rework their budgets, so we will remove the cap over three years by lifting it in the following stages:
•    2018 – $950 (100 students)
•    2019 – $1450 (153 students)
•    2020 – no cap

Please note that:
•    Students will now only be charged one fee, regardless of how many choirs they sing in.
•    There will be no rise in the per-head fee for at least the next three years (including 2020).

3. Finale repertoire rule
As announced in February this year, a new Finale repertoire rule will apply in 2018. Finale choirs may now choose no more than two songs from any single category in their five-song programme. This rule has been introduced to encourage a more even spread of repertoire selection across the three categories (as is the case at regional level) and to aid adjudicators in their assessment. It will be reviewed immediately after the 2018 Finale before a decision is made on whether to retain or discontinue it.

4. Repertoire database
NZCF is currently working on a database of suitable repertoire to aid school choral directors in making their TBS selections. Music will be classified in the usual way but also annotated according to TBS category and approximate level of difficulty. This is a huge undertaking (nearly 2000 pieces have so far been entered) and will take some time to reach the level of completion we are aiming for, but a partial version should be ready for use by early in the new year.

5. Further assistance
Choir directors taking part in TBS are entitled to free membership of the NZCF Association of Choral Directors (ACD) for the year of entry. A new major benefit to be introduced in 2018 will be full access to Musica International, a virtual choral library and one of the most comprehensive sources of choral music information in the world. TBS directors can hone their skills via the ACD’s range of professional workshops and conferences, while enjoying the online educational videos and many other benefits.

6. Permission to perform works in te reo Māori
Choirs presenting works in te reo should make sure that they have received in advance the appropriate permission from the relevant whanau or other kaitiaki (guardians) of the text and the music. Evidence of this permission should be presented along with any sheet music before the choir’s TBS recital.

7. Second-tier finale (‘Emerging Talent Festival’)
Further to an idea floated at the Forum, John Buchanan and Carole Randall from the Otago region have submitted a preliminary paper on what a second-tier TBS finale might look like and where and when it might be held. There is more work to be done in fleshing out the concept (working title: ‘The Big Sing Emerging Talent Festival’), but the Board, TBS Committee and regional representatives are all keen to pursue this exciting new development.

8. TBS adjudication process
Directors have asked for some insight into how The Big Sing adjudication process works. An explanation of both the process and the assessment criteria follows, and these will also be posted to the website along with other relevant information.

A team of adjudicators (typically three or four) judges the regional festivals, with each person being assigned to between one and four festivals, depending on the number of days involved and their availability. All adjudicators are experienced choral professionals not currently involved with any TBS choir. They meet in advance for a ‘training day’, where they receive a thorough explanation of the grading system and do a series of dummy runs, using past TBS recordings, to calibrate their rankings and numerical marks. They then travel to their respective regions.

At the regionals, adjudicators are asked to write a constructive assessment of each piece sung and to mark choirs in relation to the assessment criteria (see below), as well as deciding on the recipients of the various prizes and certificates each region chooses to award. At this stage they can give no indication as to which choirs are in the running for Finale selection, for reasons the next paragraph makes clear.

When all festivals are completed, the judges meet again to choose the 24 finalists and several reserves. Here they spend a full day listening to and re-marking each other’s choirs, and adjusting (scaling) one or more sets of grades if necessary. It is assumed that each judge is sufficiently skilled to rank their given choirs in order from top to bottom (although there is some peer reviewing of this as well), but it is of course vital that by the end of the adjustment process Choir X from Randomville receives close enough to the same mark from every adjudicator. Particular attention is paid to the order of choirs around the Finale ‘cusp’, to the extent that the team is eventually satisfied that the 24th-ranked choir is marginally better than the 25th.

It has been suggested that all three (or four) judges travel to every festival in the country but this would be prohibitively expensive, as well as a scheduling impossibility – no busy professional can take a month away from normal work and several of the festivals, because of venue considerations, happen at same time. However, at Finale it is possible to use three adjudicators because of the limited time and travel involved. Here the three all write and grade separately but meet after each session to produce combined reports and averaged marks at the end – this being the advantage of ‘blended’ judging.

We feel that this process – for a competition based solely on choral merit – is about as rigorous, fair and accurate as we can make it. However, there is ongoing discussion at national and regional level, and throughout the school choral community, as to whether other criteria, such as regional quotas or a rotation system, should be considered in order to achieve wider representation at Finale. This is a healthy debate as the search for an ideal balance continues.

9. Assessment criteria for adjudicators
In their assessment of TBS performances, judges are asked to take the following elements into consideration. No specific mark weighting is applied to individual elements because each piece of choral music is so very different in its demands.

Artistic merit
•    Communication
•    Interpretation
•    Presentation
•    Performance style

Technical skill
•    Consistency of intonation
•    Vocal quality and balance
•    Diction and language
•    Complexity of the score

We do not publish marks and grades at regional level because it is impossible – and therefore highly misleading – to compare them across regions and years, and because, for reasons explained in ‘TBS adjudication process’ above, they cannot be viewed as an accurate guide to Finale selection.

The grading scale used by adjudicators can viewed here .