Judging and Competitions

While summers in Minnesota are completely gorgeous, winters in Minnesota are good for either a trip to Florida or for doing indoor activities that you hadn’t gotten around to in the previous months because the weather was so nice. In my case, this winter I am busy working on my book, “It Sounded Better at Home!” which is an extension of my popular presentations on overcoming performance anxiety. So my thoughts lately have been geared toward various aspects of what makes us unable, unwilling or unhappy about performing, and how to change that.

Competitions and auditions are a great way to gain performing experience, career advancement, and to push yourself to a higher level of excellence. And I have yet to hear of a musician who’s never had a bad experience with one! I have numerous, humorous recollections of my angst-filled competition days as a high school and college student. (My very favorite one was when I was a junior in high school. I placed third. Out of three people. Never mind that the other two were older and more experienced players, or that I waited until the last minute to prepare and so had massive memorization crashes in the Chaminade “Concertino.” I was completely mortified.) I very much viewed the judges as being “out to get me,” ready to pounce on every little mistake I made. Naturally, my playing very often reflected this.

My opinion of judges changed dramatically when I became a competition judge myself. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, I realized a couple important points. One: Judges are actually pulling for you. We all want you to do your best, we all have been in your shoes and we understand that it is difficult to play under pressure. And it’s so fun to hear someone who rises to the occasion and gives a stellar performance! But, point number two: we are all human. Sometimes our comments might be terse or not as specific or informative as you would like. After listening to three hours of musicians, we might get fatigued and lose concentration, despite our best intentions. And most important, each of us has our own bias about what the “best” playing is.

This last item was made very evident to me a number of years ago, when I first started judging. I was a judge for a high school flute competition. There were two students in the finals for their age group, and our panel of three judges was to assign a first place and a second place. The first student, in my opinion, was better: although her tone lacked focus, she was much more musically expressive. The second student had a beautiful sound but not much in the way of musical expression. I figured it was a slam dunk: of course we should award the most musical performance.

But one of the judges was very adamant about awarding first place to the student with the beautiful tone: she thought the foundation for flute playing was a gorgeous sound, and if you didn’t have that, what do you have? After much debate (and still to my chagrin), we awarded first place to the beautiful flute tone student.

Fast forward a few years later. I am chatting with a college flute professor, and we are discussing various former students, under the “where are they now?” category. She recalled one student who was quite frustrating to teach: while she had a beautiful sound and had gotten much praise over the years for her sound, it was incredibly difficult to elicit much musical expression from her, and it was like that through all four of her college years as a music major.

That former college student happened to be the judge on that high school flute competition panel.

Not that that judge was incompetent, clueless, or evil, of course: she was rewarding an aspect of playing that she herself had gotten praise for and viewed through her own experience as being the most important to being a successful flutist. And while most competition judges may not be that overt, none of us can be purely unbiased in a medium that is subjective in so many facets. So, view judges’ comments accordingly.

The common-sense flip side, of course, is that if every judge is making the same types of comments to you, you might want to heed their collective advice!