The Competition Gauntlet: A Judge's-Eye View and 12 Tips for Competitors

By definition, the act of “judging” means to conclude, decide, or form an opinion. It’s not an absolute science, but I believe that every musician who is given the task of judging should consider it a sacred duty and never forget that competitors have practiced tirelessly, planned and dreamed, bought plane tickets, booked hotel rooms, and sacrificed in a variety of ways. Each time a competitor walks onstage it is a big deal, and the moment should be met by judges with full attention, compassion, and a true desire to evaluate objectively. However, on top of that objectivity, there must also be a sincere intention to receive the essence of what is being shared. That essence can affect different people in different ways, so it is the nature of artistic competitions that the same conclusion may not always be reached by every member on a panel of judges.

I have been privileged to be a judge at quite a number of major events, including the USA International Harp Competition, the American Harp Society National Competition, and the OSM Manulife Competition in Montreal, among others. I try to make time in my schedule to do this when possible because I believe it is important to engage judges who have active performing and teaching careers, understand the medium, and value the importance of this service to the professional community.

Most recently, I was one of three judges at the Lyon & Healy Awards Competition in Chicago, where 54 harpists from 13 countries competed for three equal grand prizes. Different pedagogical schools of playing were represented among the judges, which is as it should be. Also as it should be, we became acquainted during the course of the week and developed a great working relationship with one another. We were three distinct individuals with different approaches and professional activities, but each committed to doing our best and reaching good outcomes. We did not converse about the contestants during the three days of competition; we took extensive notes on score sheets with numbers only (not names) and we assigned every contestant a score based on a defined grid provided by the competition. Before deliberations began at the conclusion of performances, scores were tallied by competition officials and we were each handed our top ten score sheets. I found it uncanny that with only one or two exceptions at the lower end of scores, the three of us held the same ten contestants’ score sheets and the highest-scoring players clustered at the top were also the same. To me, this signified that even with the many terrific performances we heard, the intangible, artistic qualities that emerged beyond the notes on the page were apparent to each of us.

That said, all judging experiences are not alike and some are more difficult - and less transparent - than others. I have often suggested that in harp competitions of any magnitude, scores should be open within the judging panel and reviewed by a third-party oversight entity so that any incongruent or radically different scores can be addressed and explained. All personal interests, including teacher-student relationships, should be disclosed - not as a means to eliminate a judge’s capacity to participate, but merely to be noted in case of inconsistencies. There can be many reasons for a judge’s score to be off the grid. Contestant numbers could have gotten off and judging may be one contestant number ahead or behind; a judge may have given his or her own students a higher score; a judge who is not allowed to score their own students may have scored the greatest competition to their own students a bit down; or there just may be a vastly different opinion of what constitutes good playing, perhaps with a much higher tolerance for inaccuracy - or conversely, a feeling that accuracy is all that matters. In the case of personal connections, I believe it is quite possible to judge one’s own students objectively. In my case, I would say that I judge my own students every bit as critically as I judge players who are unfamiliar to me. Integrity is everything, and it’s very difficult to regain it once squandered. I have been on judging panels where I have said to myself during deliberations, “Gee, were we all in the same room for that performance?” Sometimes the array of opinions stems from differences in pedagogical philosophies; at other times it may be a lack of understanding if a judge is not a harpist, or an occasional judge may be driven by personal interests and a lack of objectivity. These human factors - for better or worse - are all part of the equation.

That said, I believe that most competitions operate with good intentions, but just as in a democracy, there must be checks and balances, a level of transparency, and an adherence to a standard of procedures and protocols. These democratic measures are quite possible in a music competition, and the best way to compete in good conscience is to prepare well, do your research, and demand high standards of integrity. This same set of expectations should be applied to those in the position of organizing and presenting competitive events, and accountability should be expected.

After every competition that I have judged, there is usually a reception or an opportunity for contestants to mingle with the judges. On these occasions, I am consistently asked one question: What are you looking for in a winner? While there is not always a simple answer, I have some general thoughts about competing that are almost always true:

1) Do not compete “just for the experience” if you are not prepared. This can be demoralizing and could even make a negative impression that might follow you to your next competition. Everyone has bad days, but being unprepared is uniquely obvious and can damage your reputation.

2) Develop a manageable “risk-reward” balance that permits you to stay in control of your performance, but allows for risk-taking and exciting technical or musical elements when you can afford them AND can execute them consistently.

3) Search deep within yourself to uncover that which you think is the most unique quality about your artistic and performing style. Enhance it and hone it until it is defined and palpable to an audience.

4) Pay attention to the way you enter and leave the stage, including the way you walk and hold your head. Always acknowledge the judges before and after you play, even if no applause is allowed.

5) Think about the way you present yourself visually for a competition. I recommend elegant, comfortable, and memorable clothing. Colors are always a good way to set yourself apart, but remember that you do not want to detract from your playing with clothing that is too flamboyant, a hairstyle that is in your face, or a pair of fashionable but cumbersome shoes. You want to make sure that the music and your interpretations are the stars of your presentation.

6) Make your final muffle the last “note” of your piece. Muffle with confidence and in the same character as the music you’ve just played. Do not just place your left hand on the bass wires, put your pedals in flat, get up, and leave.

7) Create your own headspace at competitions, but be kind and respectful to your fellow contestants. These are your present and future colleagues.

8) After you have competed, listen to as many other contestants as possible. This can be incredibly illuminating.

9) Be aware that judges are looking for a complete package that includes a high level of accuracy, fluent memory, artistic maturity, and lots of musical character, contrast, and color. It is possible that you may deliver a note-perfect performance and hear someone else who does not but receives a higher score. Understand that note-perfect may not always win. It is always a combination of elements.

10) Make every competition experience a building block for the next one. Try very hard not to feel “robbed” or resentful. Every successful harpist has lost in competition at some point, but learning, improving and being honest with yourself about what you need to address in your playing will get you a very long way. Celebrate the experience – win or lose – and be optimistic about getting to the task of taking what you learned and applying it to your next challenge.

11) Ultimately, judging music is subjective because art is all about the intangible; it is defined by the way a musician reaches out and touches an audience, or transcends nerves and makes a powerful statement. Remember that the more you put your authentic self into what you are playing, the better you will reach your listeners.

12) Be aware that a panel of judges is just another audience – but with more specific knowledge than most. Perform, don’t compete. Play for an audience, not a panel. Thrill them, engage them, and most of all – share with them what means the most to you. If you do that consistently, your scores will begin to reflect your artistic values and rise to the level of your commitment.

The most important thing to remember as you make your way through the competition gauntlet is that no competition defines you. A big win may help a career, but it will not make one. What makes a career is true musicianship, not just the ability to impress a given jury on a given day. The elements that will define you as an artist and ultimately lead to your success will be your authentic talent, your ability to connect the dots and improve continuously, the wisdom to be honest with yourself and not give in to setbacks, an organized mind, personal discipline, and the most important element of all: integrity. These are the qualities that will define you and determine where your career leads you. Be true to yourself, believe in yourself and don’t forget to enjoy the ride.


Recent Posts