A CPA Primer

some thoughts for new teachers

by Tom Street

The purpose of this page is to introduce new teachers in Arkansas to various elements of participating in ArkCDA Choral Performance Assessments (CPA). It is not intended to be all inclusive and is presented from the viewpoint of the author.

Beginning in late February and early March, the overwhelming majority of secondary school choirs in Arkansas will participate in one of the region CPA’s sponsored by the ArkCDA. Before they became known as CPA’s they were called “Festivals.” The reason the term was changed has to do with trying to help administrators (and others – including choir directors) see them more as an assessment tool as opposed to a contest (think theme parks). This philosophy is only applicable at the region level, primarily because most every member school participates at that level and, because of sight reading. State Festival is still referred to as a festival and in fact is viewed by many as a true contest since there are Best in Class designations in every class and category.

Below are some thoughts related to specific topics.


ENSEMBLES (18 or fewer singers) are required to perform 2 selections. That’s true at CPA AND State Festival.

CHORUSES (19 or more singers) may choose to perform 2 selections at Region CPA but must  perform 3 selections at State Festival. In both groups the number of pieces required is a minimum. You can actually perform as many pieces as the time allows (although practically NO ONE does this unless they’re singing at ACDA or something like that and want a “test” run).

Except for Barbershop, Sweet Adeline and Jazz/Show Choirs, one of those selections must come from one of the following sources;

  • The Arkansas Approved List

  • The Texas Prescribed Music List

  • Approved by the junior or senior high section chair, whichever is appropriate.

To see the music list click H E R E.

To see the list requirements click H E R E and scroll to rule 4.4.3.

To see the process for seeking approval for a title click the above link and scroll to rule 4.4.4.

NOTE: Selections that were past all region or state pieces are NOT automatically approved for CPA use. If they do not appear in one of the above two lists they MUST be approved by the proper section chair.

The rest of your program can be whatever you like.

All groups must perform at least one a cappella piece with the following exceptions; 7th grade groups, Barbershop, Sweet Adeline and Jazz/Show Choirs. (NOTE: Jazz/Show Choir groups which utilize recorded tracks and/or microphones must supply their own equipment. Set up and take down will be counted in the allotted performance time.) Pieces with percussion accompaniment may be considered a cappella ONLY if the percussion instruments lack pitch. ANY accompaniment that has pitched instruments means the piece is not a cappella. When in doubt, ask someone. Also, there is NO language requirement.

Selecting Literature

The selection of CPA literature is perhaps the single most crucial step in the whole CPA process. Choose wisely and you at least have the possibility of a successful experience. Choose poorly and you are doomed from the beginning. In the words of a well loved former choir director/music supervisor “lit-a-ture, Lit-a-ture, LIT-A-TURE!!”

What are some sources for CPA music? Well, start out in your library. If you’re new at your school and don’t know the history of your CPA programs you can check them out on the website by hovering over the Literature, Past CPA Programs and selecting one of the years included. That is a GREAT source for searching for possible titles. You can browse through the programs of other schools in your classification. See a title that might be a possibility? Email the director and ask them how it worked out for them.

Speaking of other directors; those are also GREAT resources for possible literature. One caveat however; If you’re in a 1A or 2A school you’re not gonna get much help by contacting your colleagues at 6 or 7A schools with large, well developed programs. Seek out directors at schools similar to yours.

First and foremost, choosing wisely means selecting music appropriate for the voicing and abilities of your group. No matter how much you love Mendelssohn’s “Heilig” you really shouldn’t program it if you don’t have the voices to handle it; both in terms of numbers, maturity, and ability. Look at your singers and their abilities. Be realistic; choose music they can actually do and not what YOU want them to do. As the saying goes – bait the hook to suit the fish.

From a personal standpoint, I used a template that looked something like this; One title that was a real challenge for my singers (and often myself) and would require lots of hard work (our “showcase” piece), one title that was just good solid “meat and potatoes” but that I KNEW they could get ready, and a third that might be considered by some as “filler.”

I also tried to have a fall back piece in case my showcase selection didn’t work out. More than once over the years I had to scrap a title late in the process. Maybe we had a snowy winter and missed a lot of school (see March 2015!). Or maybe (more likely) I just picked a piece that just wasn’t right for my group. If you don’t have a fall back piece then unfortunately you’re just stuck (been there and done that too). I would always program at least one CPA caliber selection on my fall concert so that if it came time to panic I could pull it back out and try to knock the cobwebs off of it. That’s not necessarily a good option because it’s really hard to “re-polish” an apple.

So, the first thought in selecting music is to make sure it is appropriate for your singers. In my opinion poor literature selection is the single most common mistake young directors make at CPA.

Another consideration in choosing wisely is to consider how the selections gel with one another. As a judge, I always appreciated contrast. While there are no rules against programming an all Mozart or an all Renaissance program, or three slow sacred pieces, I believe that most judges prefer to hear contrasting selections including but not limited to; tempo, style periods, composers, sacred/secular, etc. It simply showcases your group better than a program that lacks variety.

A word of caution in selecting literature; jazz, show/pop music is appropriate ONLY for groups of that genre. Performing a pop tune with your Concert Choir or your Madrigal Singers will NOT bring a smile to the faces of the judges. Can you do it? Yep. But be forewarned……

If a judge does not feel a selection is appropriate for the group or is just not a CPA caliber selection he or she will usually comment; hopefully in a tactful and professional manner.

Once you have selected your program and are comfortable with it, it’s time to roll up the sleeves and begin teaching it. One thing to keep in mind is to pace your preparation so that students will be at or near their peak at CPA. If they peak too soon it’s very difficult to get them “up” for their CPA performance. Sometimes that is hard to gauge. If you feel they are peaking too soon it may be necessary to work on some other music and come BACK to your CPA music when the timing is right. Of course if they peak too late…….

Sight Reading

Every student at region CPA must sight read as a member of at least one group (there is no sight reading at State Festival). If you have a group where all of the students are also members of another choir that will be sight reading, that group doesn’t have to sight read. They can if you wish, and they MUST in order to be eligible for the sweepstakes award.

Sight reading at CPA often terrorizes teachers and students. To me, this is sad because I believe the ability to sight read is the key to music literacy; and THAT in my opinion is our ultimate reason for being.

The thing with sight reading is this; you can’t simply walk in the sight reading room and be successful if you haven’t laid the groundwork in your choir room. In an ideal world every director teaches and actually USES sight reading as a regular part of his or her instruction. It’s not a CPA requirement; it’s part of their teaching “toolkit” they use every day in their classroom.

If you’ve not been using a sight reading method in your classes since the first of school you would be very wise to start from day one in January. Whether you use numbers or solfege matters less than using one of those methods. Yes, the rules say you can use neutral syllables. And yes, I’ve seen some people be successful doing it that way. The reason they have been successful is because the music is often fairly short and easy and because you are allowed to use the piano on the first reading.

One thing I have observed as a sight reading judge is the number of people who walk into the sight reading room at CPA without knowing the rules and without a “game plan.” Time in the sight reading room is structured and VERY limited. You have to prioritize and organize. I have seen directors literally waste precious time waiting for students to guess what key the piece is in. Key words; prioritize and organize. Know how and what you’re going to do and when the time comes go to it! The object is to be as methodical as possible.

Another thing to prepare for; since it is scheduled right after the concert performance students are naturally wound up. The performance is over and the adrenaline is running. Be prepared to get them calmed down and ready to focus on sight reading asap (Please don’t yell at them. That only adds more tension to an already tense environment.).

  • To see a detailed description of the rules in the manual click HERE and scroll to rule 4.4.9.

  • To see the scoring sheet click HERE and select the CURRENT CPA Sight Reading Scoring Form

Basically the sight reading time is broken down like this;

The music is distributed. During this time the director gets to look at the music while the students must keep it to their sides. I always used this time to quickly look for what I call “land mines” – tricky intervals or rhythms or anything different that I need to call to my students’ attention. When it’s time to begin we then go straight to those land mines and isolate them. There’s nothing that says you have to start your preparation at measure 1, beat 1. Don’t waste time on the things you KNOW your kids can do.

Three minute prep period – Time is called and students are allowed to look at the music and begin learning. During this time there is more that you CAN do than you CAN’T do.

  • At no time may the director sing pitches or patterns

  • At no time may individual singers teach the music to the choir in a rote fashion

  • At no time may the director demonstrate rhythmic patterns in any manner (clapping, tapping, etc.).

Judges are keeping a keen eye on whether the students are actually reading the music or are simply learning in a rote fashion from either you or one of your section leaders. In the past I have heard directors tell their students to not look at the music but to follow their hand signals. They would then proceed to flash the numbers in rhythm and VOILA! The kids were SIGHT READING!! I have also seen directors clap the rhythms while their students spoke or sang their numbers/solfege. Because of the way the rule was worded at the time it was not a violation. Now, it is.

Also note, that during the three minute prep period you may have your pitches, scale or key pattern played ONLY ONCE when you ask for it. QUESTION – What if the key just does not fit your group’s voices – say it’s a 7th grade boys group and it’s just too low for your particular group – can you change they key? ANSWER – Yes but be forewarned – the accompanist may not be able to make the adjustment to the new key so it may mean singing a cappella throughout.

There are two primary ways in which people use the three minute period. The more common one I’ve seen in my experience, is for each section to break out and work independently, usually with a section leader serving as a pseudo-director, until the time expires. (WARNING! The section leader must not be observed to be teaching the music to the others in a rote fashion.) The director moves from section to section calling attention to those “land mines” in each part.

The other method is to simply stay together as a choir and read; stopping to address specific trouble spots where necessary.

Which method works best? I’ve seen groups be very successful using both. I always preferred staying together. I felt it helped the kids get a better sense of the key and the tonality when they could hear the chords. As a judge, I have seen groups struggle because a weak section just couldn’t hear their part through the cacophony of working separately. When it came time to sing they were lost because they had never heard their part, much less the sense of key. You can be successful either way if you PRACTICE it at home so the kids know exactly what to do when they walk into the room.

The first performance – Also called the first reading. At the end of the three minute study period time is called and you must read through the piece without stopping. During this reading you may tap or snap a beat and you are allowed to speak on a limited basis; calling out a measure number, etc. If/when you do speak take care to use your normal voice. There is a subconscious tendency to modulate your voice toward the key of the music. It’s probably best to speak as little as necessary.

The rules DO allow you to use the piano on the first reading. In my opinion this no longer makes it truly sight reading but the rules allow it so you can do that if you choose. I would encourage you to work toward not using it. If you do decide to use it you will need to tell the accompanist to play.

The one minute “repair” period. After the first reading you have one minute to look at any specific trouble spots and try to clean them up. That’s certainly not much time. Hopefully most of your singers handled it very well and you may only need to touch on a spot or two. It’s not unusual, if your group just simply breezed through the piece a cappella in the first reading, for the judge to simply state that that was sufficient. No further action is needed. If that happens to you, CONGRATULATIONS! It means your kids read very well!

The final performance. After the one minute period expires you will be required to read through the piece one final time. The piano may NOT be used during this reading. Please note that you are not required to sing the words at any time. In fact I would advise you AGAINST reading the words (something I never did with any of my groups, no matter how well they read). I have seen many groups fall from a Ist Division to a II or even lower because they tried to read the words in the final reading. Often as not this happens at the urging of the kids – “Mr. Smith can we sing the words?” And unfortunately, “Mr. Smith” often says OK. The goal as I see it is to demonstrate the ability to learn pitches and rhythms in an organized and educational manner. By singing the words the students’ focus shifts from notes and rhythms to a strange text they’re not familiar with.

Whichever method you use it is important that both you and your kids know EXACTLY what you are going to do when you walk in the room; your plan of attack or game plan. Beginning a week or two before the event it is a good idea to literally practice it. Appoint a time keeper. Pass out a new piece (old hymnals are a wonderful source and most churches have some they’re willing to donate), use a 3 minute study period, trying both the “break out” and the “all together” methods described above, to see which one works best for your group. Call time and read the piece, take one minute to try to repair any mistakes, call time and read it again one last time.

The anxiety in the sight reading room is due by and large to the fear of the unknown. The only way to take any of the unknowns out of the equation is to practice, practice, and practice it so that when they walk into the room you and your singers know EXACTLY what is going to happen and how you are going to learn the music. They may not know whether or not they can read the piece but at least they know the method they’re going to use to try.

Two final comments on sight reading;

  • Many people think the score is based on the final performance alone. The overall score is based on the process; not just the final performance. How you get there is just as important as getting there.

  • It is very important that you appear calm and relaxed to your kids – even if every butterfly in South America is on its annual migration through your stomach! If the kids sense nervousness and tension on your part then it will most certainly spread to them and the situation will deteriorate from there. Their attitude will DIRECTLY be inherited from you. If you appear relaxed and having fun then the odds are much greater that they will give it their best shot.

    Sometimes that is really hard to do when you’re under the gun and things are not going well. Again, that is a scenario you should prepare for at home. Practice reading something that you KNOW is going to be a strong challenge for your singers; maybe even cause them to crash and burn. Don’t just practice simple melodies that they can read with no problem and may give them a false sense of confidence. Get them (and yourself) used to having to perform when the music is a challenge. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve seen groups (and directors) literally freeze up when things weren’t going well; the old “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. They (the kids AND the director) just didn’t know what to do.

Random thoughts and observations;

  • Try to have your students listen to as many other choirs at CPA as time allows. Not only is this educational for your singers (and you!) but it helps ease the jitters by letting the kids see how they will get on and off the stage and how the overall process will work. Some teachers even use the experience to have their students “adjudicate” other choirs. (You can print the scoring sheet from the website by clicking HERE.)

  • The clock begins ticking in the warm up room and onstage when your first singer enters the room.You do not have a full 15 minutes after you get your kids on the risers and settled down. Your actual singing time will probably be more like 12 minutes or so.

  • Remind your students that the first impression the judges and/or audience get of your group is what they SEE and not what they hear. Because of that it is important that they take the stage in a business-like and professional manner. The judges actually WANT your group to sing well (After all…. it makes their job much easier!). How you “take the stage” will do much to see that their first impression is a positive one (HINT: That’s true in EVERY performance and not just at CPA).

  • Groups are allowed to BRIEFLY vocalize onstage in order to hear the acoustics of the hall. (WARNING! If the vocalizing causes you to run over your allotted time you will be assessed double fees.) I don’t believe a lot of folks actually take advantage of this rule but if you feel it is to your benefit go for it. Just be aware of the time.

  • After your first selection don’t wait for a signal from the judges to move to your next selection. Take a moment to relax your singers (and yourself), gather your thoughts, and move on to the next piece.

  • Make arrangements for someone to watch over all of your kids’ “stuff” while they’re performing. (Note to CPA managers: having a number of shopping carts available works GREAT for this.)

  • Finally, understand that the one thing you absolutely, positively CANNOT control at CPA is the score the judges award your group. Period. Full stop. You can sing great or you can sing lousy. Either way, you have no control over your score. It’s not a math test where if you get 8 out of 10 you make 80%. Because of that, it makes absolutely no sense to go to CPA with the goal of “getting a I.” Instead, your goal and the way it should be sold to your students, is to perform your program and sight reading to the BEST OF YOUR ABILITY. When it’s all said and done that is the ONLY aspect of CPA that you and your singers CAN control. When you get on the bus to come home if you’ve done that then you have been SUCCESSFUL. If not then you were NOT successful – in either case REGARDLESS of the score.

As mentioned at the top, this is by no means intended to be all encompassing and/or authoritative with regards to CPA. If you are new to the process then I encourage you to study the CPA/State Festival Manual. If you have any questions please feel free to point them to info@arkcda.org.

I would close this by saying GOOD LUCK! But when it’s all said and done, it’s not about luck. It’s about hard work and preparation.