First and Most Important - How Does Your Band Sound?
Style and Literature Selection
Style is always one of my favorite areas in which to work. This is where you get into teaching music, as opposed to just teaching the mechanics of playing. Now.. this is largely my opinion, but here's how I've come to see a great festival program:
1) March - Always play a march (my opinion).. it's our history.
Articulations - on the firm "tah" or "too" side (as long as it's not a legato melody)
Note Lengths - slightly separated throughout, notes typically don't connect
Balance thoughts - usually a great time to address melody vs accompaniment -- always make sure you can hear the melody!!!
Percussion - Gotta hear that bass drum (paired with the basses!)
2) Ballad, Lyrical Selection - This is a great chance to show your expressive side. (Side note: For younger groups not ready for a long lyrical piece, pick one that has a lyrical section like Michael Sweeney's Celtic Air and Dance pieces).
Articulations - on the softer "dah" or "doo" side
Note Lengths - connected, little to no space - often rounded down on releases, don't chop off notes
Phrasing - Do the dynamics on the page. Make sure students finish crescendos, etc. Then add some of your own. Teach students hairpin dynamics or how to find the peak of a phrase.
Stagger Breathing - Assuming you're not one per part, stagger breathe everything. Shoot for no "holes" in the sound. Finish phrases!
3) Overture or Specific Style Piece - This is where you have the most freedom. You've shown your ability to play a classic march, as well as your expressive side. Now show you can handle some standard band literature. This is often the best chance to pick a piece students will really like.. I would recommend staying away from the pieces that are too "campy." Find something with a good melody, good harmonies, and one your band can sound great on.
Musical Devices - The musical devices used will vary piece to piece. Just make sure it makes stylistic sense. Be specific. Be VERY specific. The judges should be able to tell exactly what you're playing without even looking at the score. **The most endearing comments I've had are when the judges commented on the fact they didn't even need a score based off of the clarity of performance.
Other Thoughts on Literature
Pick music you can sink your teeth into.. The idea is to play it to perfection. Now, don't pick really easy music, just pick something that's appropriate to work on for a while and really play well. Leave the really hard stuff for the parents on the Spring Concert :) ... I always read a LOT of music (which helps with sight-reading!!), while trying to determine a great fit for festival.
Read music all the time. All the time. Sight-reading everything from lines out of the book, to band pieces, to etudes, to pop tunes. I'm a huge fan of "cramming" music. It doesn't have to be perfect.
Develop a System
1) Counting - have a system for counting difficult passages
2) Tizzling or Singing - have a system for students to "perform" the piece with out playing on their instruments.. You can "count" them through the music and put it together
3) FIND ONE - I always tell students to find one.. if they know where one is, the band will stay together. If they don't understand a rhythm, have them find the next beat one. As a conductor, always give a clear beat one when sight-reading.
4) Rehearsal Marks - These are EVEN BIGGER downbeats. This is where you save your band if they fall apart. Teach students to look for the next rehearsal mark if they're completely lost.
PRACTICE Sight-reading. This takes time to develop the skill as a band. Don't wait. Sight-read all year long and you won't have to try and cram it in before festival.
Remember that festival is a wonderfully educational experience for students. Teach students how to act as professionals. Teach students how to respond to critique. Teach students the value of striving for perfection. Teach students what the professional world of music is like. Most importantly, teach students about great music, and performing it to the absolute best of their abilities.