UIL Basics

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For those who are new to the UIL system of judging and ranking, here’s a brief primer. The University Interscholastic League (UIL) is an organization whose purpose is to pit middle and high schools in Texas against each other in various arenas, ranging from sports to academics to fine arts. Each type of event has its own methods of judging. For fine arts (band, choir, theater, etc.) there is a panel of three judges. For the group music contests (as opposed to Solo & Ensemble) there is a concert component and a sight reading component (sometimes called “sight singing” for choirs). Each component has three judges.

The concert component consists of three rehearsed pieces, selected by the director of that particular group. One of the pieces must demonstrate the players’/singers’ control, and is usually a slow piece. One piece must demonstrate the group’s technical ability, and is usually fast. The third piece must demonstrate a style of music not yet demonstrated. For example, a choir may sing “The Old Carrion Crow” by Goetze (a piece with varying tempi and requiring very precise diction), “Widmung” by Schumann (a piece requiring precise and extended breath control), and “How Beautiful is Night” by Eddleman (an a capella piece, i.e. no instrumental backing). The judges make notes to provide feedback on the individual pieces and grade the performance as a whole. The grades range from 1 to 5 with 1 being the highest rating.

The sight reading component consists of being given music none of the students or their director have seen. The rules include: no singing/playing while looking through it, no talking (except for the director), and the director only has five minutes to review the piece and give instructions to the musicians. At time, the director is no longer allowed to talk, and the group sings or plays the music for the first and only time. For those without a music background, this is roughly akin to being handed a script, given five minutes of instruction from the director, and being expected to read it perfectly with voice inflections, rhythms, and appropriate foreign or regional accents. The three judges grade the results on a 1 to 5 scale as in the concert component.

Why is all this important? Aside from (hopefully) providing a boost to the director’s tenure (depending on results), new programs begin at sub-non-varsity. If the pieces are sufficiently difficult and every judge in both components awards them a 1 rating (called “sweepstakes”), that school’s program may choose to become classified in the next higher level (up to varsity). As the music program rises, the music becomes more difficult, but the musicians’ technical skills are also much better.

Keep in mind, this is a VERY brief overview of UIL. There are nuances and rules and opportunities I haven’t gone into. I’m sure I’ve probably got a couple details wrong as is, but the general idea is true.

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I was going to put up a blog with some of my thoughts and experiences today, but after recording UIL middle school choirs all day, then going to my own choir rehearsal, I’m too tired to think coherently. Same schedule tomorrow, except instead of rehearsal, I’m performing. Wheee! I’ll eventually get another post up. Friday, most likely, or Saturday. Thanks for not abandoning me.

Recording at UIL (Long post)

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Here I am again, recording UIL. This time it’s the orchestras: first the middle schools, then the high schools. Since this is my first solo recording gig, I got here about an hour and a half before the 8:30 start time to give a little more than the normal lead time of an hour.  To keep my interest from flagging, I decided to keep a record of events and thoughts during the day.

7:28  Sorting through the CDs and jewel case inserts, I discovered that Georgetown High School was missing. I looked again and found a CD and jewel case insert for Austin High School! Alerted the appropriate people and continued with set up.

7:40  Not only finished set up very early, but also had time to start writing this. I anticipate a long wait before the first group starts.

8:00 Holy ^&*(! They started half an hour early! There will be a lot of disappointed players whose parents came half an hour too late./ The announcer is a small woman. I nearly missed seeing her, hidden by a stage full of musicians as she was.

8:16 First group is done. Finalizing the CD as the group leaves the concert stage for the sight reading room. I notice the harpist left her instrument on stage….oh, here she is.

8:21 Finished setting up for the next group. Compared the program to the time sheet I was given. Guess who was told the wrong time. Oh well, at least there were parents in the audience. Back to putting jewel cases together.

8:25 Here comes the next group. It’s a full orchestra, this time. Oh God, they’re doing Schubert. Not one of my favorite composers. Aaaaand it looks like the stage hands forgot a few stands and chairs. Half the woodwinds and both French horn players are milling around giving the assistant director panicked looks.

8:30 Ah. They’re bringing in risers. Looks like a late start. They started 8:35. I hope the pieces are short, or the rest of the day is going to get behind.

8:45 OMG! Chisolm Trail Middle School is this morning! My schedule had them for tomorrow afternoon. I have until 9:30 to figure out how to deal with it. In the mean time, I have to set up for the next group.

8:55 When I went to put the CD on the judges’ table to be picked up with the critiques, the previous group’s hadn’t been picked up. So one desperate search under tight deadline later, I found the right person to talk to. When I got back to the auditorium, the next group was already seated. Made it back to my recording seat before the announcer came on. On the upside, the program is back on schedule.

9:07 Good Lord! This director gives almost no time to switch between recording tracks. The good news? They’re playing Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Mvt. 2, one of my favorites from the Bach era.

9:16 Orchestra is gone. Sounds like major construction going on in the other wing of the stage. Probably adjusting risers. I know they’ll need them. The last group of the day has more than 100 kids playing on stage.

9:24 Just talked with the announcer. As I passed the bangings, I saw they were indeed putting risers together. Lots and lots of risers.

9:30 Got to the record button just in time. Literally. I pushed it just as the announcer took her breath before speaking. Too close for comfort.

9:28 Wow! Excellent rendition of Sunayama. Best I’ve heard this year, so far. The violinists who played the duet part did a really good job with blending their sound.

9:42 I think I’ve found my rhythm in balancing recording, writing, preparing jewel cases, etc.

9:54 Argh! Another scheduling mixup. Have to re-order the CDs and jewel case inserts. So much for my rhythm.

10:03 Got the order situation straightened out during this group’s first song. Thankfully the problem would have been around lunch time. This is why I like to stay a few jewel cases ahead—helps me catch many problems before they become problems. Unless they changed the order of groups since the program was printed, I should be okay for the rest of the day.

10:10 I really loike this middle school orchestra. Each section is very precise in its part. The notes in each run don’t mush together. Sounds almost like one instrument. A skill rare in middle school orchestras. I’ve heard high school orchestras far worse. Intonation was excellent. If there was anything I could hear that could have been improved was to exaggerate the dynamic shifts a bit more.

10:30 Break time! After the break, we get into the high schools. Looks like Westwood has three full orchestras; and judging by the setup of the first (i.e. the “sub non-varsity”), all three are huge! Oh, good…I have a vibraphone right in front of me, blocking my line of sight to the announcer.

Looking ahead on the program, the high schools are doing some pretty ambitious programs. Very few are arrangements. A couple Rimsky-Korsakoffs, a Borodin, Copland, Holst, Ravel, a couple by Berlioz, and dear Lord, Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, Mvt IV. I really hope they’re up to it or this could get very painful very quickly.

11:08 Oops. The last group had so many people, the stage hands hadn’t yet reset the stage before the next group came on. I helped them out a bit.

11:22 This group needs more violins. Not enough to balance even the number of lower strings (cellos, basses, violas), much less balancing the brass.

11:25 I wonder what’s being catered for lunch.

11:50 Here comes the last group before lunch.

12:05 The harpist on the second piece is awesome! Nice balance on the strings, they’re not drowning out the harp, something very easy to do.

12:11 Wow, that was very entrancing. I even forgot I was hungry. One more piece to go…the Borodin.

12:21 That final piece was amazingly well done. I wasn’t sure they could handle Borodin, but they played it beautifully.

1:00 BBQ

1:01 I come back to set up for the afternoon groups and find the path to my recording rig blocked by vibraphones, xylophones, and of all things a grand piano. Yes, the next group has to squeeze in around a grand piano.

1:30 Both stage and backstage are so crowded for this next group, the harpist couldn’t get her instrument into place.

1:43 There’s something deliciously ironic about taking “Tis a Gift To Be Simple” and putting it through elaborate and torturous variations. I think Copland had a sense of humor after all.

1:52 And now they not only have to move the grand piano, they have to find somewhere to put it.

2:17 Oh, good. Not only do I have a percussionist in front of me, there’s a bell tower in front of him. Wonderful sight lines to the director.

2:25 One of the French horns just lost a part off their instrument.

2:27 Grr. Another director who doesn’t lift her arms during the opening solo. Managed to hit the record button in time when I realized what she was doing.

2:34 Does this piece ever end?

2:54 The place to store the bell tower is NOT in front of the person doing the recording.

2:57 Last stand of the 2nd violins: Big, huge guy—itty bitty gal. Seriously. He’s gotta be 6’4” and she’s barely 5’ (if that)

3:12 Another interminable piece. Surprise—it’s by Schubert.

3:54 Only two groups left.

4:20 Oh Dear Lord. This group wasn’t nearly this good last year. They nailed all three of their pieces…and they were some of the most difficult pieces I’ve played. “The Montagues and the Capulets” from Romeo and Juliet was incredible. The dissonances were perfect! I consider it one of the most difficult opening themes in symphonic music. And their Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, Mvt IV very nearly had me jumping up and down. It contains some of the more difficult french horn solos outside Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s going to be VERY difficult for the last group of the day to shine compared to this group. Wow. Just…Wow.

4:36 WTF? Is that a harpsichord they’re bringing out?

4:37 Nope. It’s a Roland Electric Organ.

4:39 Wow. Huge group. Very tight fit on stage. Some of the larger instruments are partially hidden in the wings. Looks like an almost perfect balance of instruments.

4:53 Floored. Just floored. Amazing performance of Holst’s “Jupiter”.

5:13 O.M.F.G. OMFG! I would put this last group up against the Austin Symphony Orchestra on Symphonie Fantastique, “The Witches’ Sabbath” Mv. V by Berlioz. Absolutely sublime.

Driving home, I wish I had someone to benefit from the aftereffects of this adrenaline rush…I’m in the mood to ravish someone. Volunteers? No? Oh well.

Brooding at UIL


It is time for the University Interscholastic League (UIL) competitions. For those outside Texas, UIL is an organization that provides opportunities for schools to compete. Competitions range from music to sports, theater to literary criticism. So here I am, getting up at 5:30 in the morning and learning the ins and outs of recording the music competitions.

Learning the front side (which buttons to push when) seems pretty easy. My problem, I expect, will come from the back side (which wires and cables go where). It all looks the same to me…even with tape marking things. On the whole, though, it doesn’t seem difficult, though figuring out where to place the microphones may take me a while to understand.

On the non-technical side, I’m here all day, listening to the same pieces over and over (since each school selects their three pieces from the same list of “approved” pieces). Boredom sets in quickly, and in some cases painfully since I have to listen to the music…even when it is being played badly enough to send me into convulsions.

I’d hoped this job would distract me, at least a little, from my other worries and concerns. Nope. For the middle school bands, the longest piece so far is less than 3 minutes. Each band is on stage for about 15 minutes, then they leave and the stage is set up for the next band. There is a TON of time when nothing at all is going on, yet there is not enough consecutive time for me to do anything else constructive…like finding ways to ameliorate the loneliness that’s developed recently. In other words, it’s the ideal setup for enforced brooding…just at a time in my life when brooding is possibly the worst thing I can do. It’s making me nauseous.

I shouldn’t complain, though. It is a job, if extremely seasonal. I can write blogs or other similar short things, but I dare not let myself get caught up in my fiction writing; I might accidentally miss a few bands. I just hope my emotional fortitude stays strong under fire.