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9 minutes reading time (1736 words)

To judge and be judged

Teachers should always strive to provide positive and successful music experiences for their students. Within the walls of the teaching studio, it is much easier to create these experiences—the environment and people involved are familiar, and the teacher has more control of outcomes. However, this is not the case when students leave the studio and are evaluated at adjudicated events such as festivals, performance exams, and competitions.

I have been fortunate to serve as an adjudicator for these types of events over the years, as well as to prepare students for them. I believe both the teacher and the adjudicator (who is usually a teacher, as well) hold great responsibilities for ensuring a positive and successful student experience at the event. 

The teacher's responsibilities

When preparing students for adjudication, it is important for them to know—from the outset—that they are working toward a very special goal. They are preparing material to perform "away from the nest" of the teacher's studio and familiar performance settings. To perform outside of the studio is a big step toward independence with their music. It is exciting but also challenging  It requires that students be in total command of their material.

Practice which successfully prepares students for evaluation is usually more demanding than the practice done from lesson to lesson. Students and their parents need to be aware of this. Before entering students in a contest or festival, it is necessary to have discussions with them and their parents about these practice demands and the reasons for participating. Everyone involved needs to know what lies ahead.

I always talk with students about "why" they are participating in the event. Simply gaining more experience in playing musically for others is a worthwhile reason. Another reason to participate is to get feedback—to learn ways in which the performance can become even more effective. Although students are sometimes motivated to "win the prize," I never discuss this as an intended goal. 

Selecting the right type of event for the student is key to creating a successful experience. There are many different types of adjudicated events in which students can participate. Each provides feedback and tangible rewards in different ways. The most common are: 

• Festivals with written (or verbal) feedback and a ribbon or certificate of participation given at the end.

• Examination programs which usually provide a certificate of achievement, a specific critique sheet, and a final score.

• Semi-competitive events with written comments and a score which determines a level of achievement, i.e., a gold, silver or bronze medal; superior, excellent, good ratings, etc.

• Competitions in which specific "winners" are selected—sometimes with written feedback given, sometimes without.

Teachers need to consider carefully which type of event is best suited to the student. For a "first experience," I prefer to place students in festivals that provide feedback but are semi- or non-competitive—where the student is only evaluated according to the adjudicator's standards. Then, if I see a competitive side to the student, we move on to events in which the student is compared to others and has the possibility of receiving a goal prize.

Before entering a student in an adjudicated event, the teacher should do some research. Most festivals and competitions have printed or online materials explaining the event and its mission. It is often helpful to speak to other teachers who have had students participate in the past. This information can be essential when wanting to place the student in the right type of event. It also helps the teacher adequately prepare the student—musically and psychologically.

Here is a brief list of additional (but essential) things to investigate:

• entry fees and deadlines

• repertoire requirements

• memorization requirements

• dress code

• numbering of measures

• number of original copies of the score required

     • warm-up facilities at the event 

The student should never be sent to an event without being prepared for all aspects of the performance.

When the student returns from the event, I always begin by asking him how he felt about his performance. Then, if I have received the adjudicator's comments, we go over them together. There may be times when the comments are contradictory to how the student has been prepared. There is nothing wrong with this. It presents a good opportunity to discuss the different ways people hear and interpret music. In most cases, it is not about a right way and a wrong way, but about expanding the choices available for the performer. 

The adjudicator's responsibilities

The adjudicator plays a major role in making the student's participation positive and successful. The student does not need to "win" in order for this to happen.

The adjudicator's job begins as soon as the student enters the room. Imagine how it feels to walk into a strange room, meet a strange person whose job is to "judge" you, and then have this person not smile or greet you warmly. The adjudicator must always express eagerness and delight at getting to meet the performers and hearing their music! Likewise, after the performance, a sincere "thank you" and another smile will go a long way to reassuring the performer.

By far, the adjudicator's most important job is the written critique on the evaluation form. Within a limited time, the adjudicator must piece together a coherent and constructive evaluation. In order to facilitate this, many event coordinators will send a copy of the critique form to the adjudicators in advance. I always find this very helpful. Not only does it familiarize me with the form itself, it tells me a bit about the event's focus and priorities. 

Just as teachers must research events for their students, so must the adjudicator. Is the event one dedicated to providing a purely positive, nurturing experience to students of all abilities? Or is it one that expects the highest standards of all participants? Or is it one which seeks to reward only the highest caliber performances? All of these types of events are valid, but the adjudicator must be aware of which type the event is, in order for all to go well. Some events provide a rubric for evaluation. In this case the adjudicators know the expectations and will strive for consistency in evaluations. Festivals will sometimes provide score ranges and averages from previous years. These tell a lot about what is expected of the performers, and can be very helpful.

In a non-competitive festival designed to be a supportive performance opportunity, an average student will not benefit from scores and comments better suited to a national competition. I don't believe adjudicators need to lower their standards. These standards guide our listening. The adjudicator's greatest challenge is to make the assessment fit the setting and the performer. 

Providing effective feedback

At events in which a score is given, it is essential that the comments on the critique support the score awarded. It is extremely confusing to the student to receive a less-than-top score accompanied with only comments of vague praise—"Great job," "Thanks for playing," or "Nice work." It is the job of the adjudicator to present, in a constructive manner, the issues present in the performance that led to the score received.

In order for the adjudicator's comments to have meaning, they should be delivered in terms that the performer can most likely understand. With younger performers it is best to avoid technical terms relating to advanced pianism. Even if the repertoire is fairly advanced, when the performer is young, the terminology should match his age.

My adjudication mantra is, "What one thing will most improve this performance?" Rather than try to list every little detail that could use improvement in the piece, the adjudication comments will have greater effect if focused in one direction. For example, it might be something as simple as dynamic contrasts. In such a case, I would suggest that the piece will have greater effect with more dynamic contrasts, and then proceed to cite various instances that would deliver the greatest impact. The same performance might also need work on tempo control. In this case, I might suggest metronome practice for tempo control but with a focus on the dynamics.

Sometimes the most necessary improvement is something which needs practice suggestions. This is often the case when the performance needs improvement in balance. I try to keep in mind, depending upon the age and experience of the performer, that he might not know what "balance" is. In these cases, I will briefly explain why the hand playing the melody needs to be louder and the accompanying hand softer (and name it as "balance"), and give practice suggestions on how to achieve it. Other areas which frequently warrant practice suggestions from the adjudicator include tempo control, technical clarity, and memorization techniques.

Of course, details can be listed too. These are often necessary in order to justify a score when compared to another performance, or when the performance is part of an examination. Many times the adjudication form will provide checkboxes relating to various areas of performance. I will often use these areas for specific details needing attention.

Just as in a student's lesson, I try to begin my feedback with positive comments. When a student first receives praise for his "well-controlled tempo throughout" or for the apparent hard work put into preparing the piece, he will be more willing to accept the suggestions for greater dynamic contrasts. It is difficult to do this with some poorly prepared performances, but the comments can still be couched in a positive, supportive tone. Positive comments can also be used to make suggestions. For example, the adjudicator can praise one beautifully shaped phrase and suggest that other phrases in the piece be done with similar musicality. 

Another common challenge for an adjudicator is to stay on schedule. All of the suggestions above will help in this regard. Time restrictions often make it so that the adjudicator must begin writing while the performer is playing. This should be done discreetly.  


Whether functioning as teacher or adjudicator, it is a teacher who is responsible for the students' positive experiences when they step "outside" and perform in an adjudicated event. If the event is treated as a learning opportunity by the student, the parent, the student's teacher, and the adjudicating teacher, chances are that all will benefit and grow.

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