All of us have had our students evaluated at festivals, clinics, contests, or competitions. Ever wonder what the adjudicators did not – or could not – tell you? Today I’m going to violate our oath of secrecy and share some unspoken thoughts of those who have served as judges.
Often, judges are presented with scores for bands or choirs that are woefully more difficult than the students can perform. They wish they could say,“What were you thinking?” or “Did your college perform this when you were a senior, and you thought it would be fun to perform again?”
So much of a music program’s success occurs with proper score selection. Please choose carefully and keep in mind the skill set of your students, instrumentation and/or voices in your ensembles. With the entire music world at our fingertips via the internet, don’t hesitate to contact other state and district teachers for recommendations of literature. I’d also suggest you reach out to the music retailer of your choice.
Don’t forget the old music adage, “It is better to play Bach beautifully, than to play (or sing) Brahms badly.” Choosing appropriate music for every ensemble and student is a skill that takes time to acquire. Every music professional I know has – at one time or another – regretted a literature choice they’ve made. Learn from those errors and choose more wisely in the future.
Another issue with literature occurs when directors choose a second or third piece that is in the exact same style and key as their other selections. Occasionally every piece performed is by the same composer or arranger.
Sometimes we want to ask, “Do you know what contrasting means?”
Judges often cannot comment on or lower points based on music choices. It is not the performer’s fault they are singing or playing pieces that are nearly identical. So, again, please choose carefully and make sure that there is indeed a contrast in the selections.
If you find yourself in a rut in choosing pieces, spend and evening or two on YouTube listening to performances or picking the brain of other colleagues. Reach out to retired directors in your area who would most likely love to offer some suggestions of literature that they taught for decades.
Improperly numbered measures can be a sticking point with adjudicators. Under no circumstances should this numbering occur on the bus while in route to the contest. But I suspect they sometimes are.
Adjudicators work hard to refrain from asking, “Did your three-year-old number this music?”
Honestly, clear and legible numbers on every measure help make the judging so much easier. An adjudicator is often juggling the music itself, a microphone, MP3 recorder, or tablet, and a written critique form while the music is being performed. It’s really tough to try to stop and figure out a horribly illegible number while trying to point out a rhythm error or compliment a section on a well-executed phrase.
Directors, do yourselves a favor, and check the numbering of your scores before any evaluation. Yes, it’s one of the many dreary tasks to add to your already incredible workload. In solo and small ensemble festivals, I have actually been handed a tall stack of books, and the director suggested I “figure it out!” True story! But, trust me, we love it when presented with clearly numbered music that is placed in performance order.
All of us have experienced our own students forgetting parts of their ensemble attire. Unfortunately, appearance does matter and attention to detail positively influences adjudicators.
As judges, we don’t feel that we can ask, “Why does someone in the front row have on lime green tennis shoes?”
We’ve all had last minute wardrobe malfunctions and directors have to manage the best they can. Ultimately, the disregard for ensemble uniformity reflects on the school, the program, and director. We live in a visual society and are frequently judged on attire. I often carried a bag of extra bow ties, black socks, a sewing kit, and other items to competitions. At school, I kept extra pairs of shoes, pants, shirts, choir dresses, and robes for emergencies. Second-hand stores, like Goodwill, represent an economical way to purchase many articles of clothing.
When traveling out of town, I took an extra suitcase of emergency attire. It paid off several times. Parent groups can greatly assist directors with this area. Even if your performance attire is “black and white” it can work beautifully when every single person wears the required colors from head to toe.
In solo or small ensemble performances, ensure that the student’s faces and eyes are not covered by their hair. It is difficult to judge an expression or embouchure when they are hidden from view. Hair pulled off the face will also make a good impression.
Directors might not consider what their own personal concert attire looks like while conducting and in front of their groups.
I know that some judges have thought, “Why didn’t you coordinate your outfit with your group? “Why do you look casual when your students are wearing formal outfits?”
Consider matching or coordinating with the color and formality of your ensemble. If the students are in black and white, then brown is not necessarily a complementary shade to wear. I’m not condoning a director wear the same tuxedo or dress that their ensemble wears. I am merely suggesting that you be mindful about it.
Consider being videotaped from the angle of the audience and see what you think of your jacket or pants/skirt. If, for example, something is too tight while conducting, then switch sizes.
Directors should also be careful with skirt lengths. Because you may be placed on an elevated, lighted stage and actively conducting, consider the audience view. My advice is to err on the side of modesty. If your group attire is a choir or band T-shirt, you might try a collared version of the same shirt topped with a casual sport coat or jacket. Again, many adjudicators will be pleased with the director’s effort to look professional.
Please remember to acknowledge your audience applause, and to see if the judges are ready for your ensemble to begin their second or third selections.
Judges often think, “Hey, you did a great job, show the audience you appreciate their enthusiasm!”
Remind your students to use their best manners entering and leaving performance venues. Judges notice rowdy students, as well as well-behaved and polite ensembles. The music is always what is judged, but the ensemble can positively or negatively influence an adjudicator mindset before even one note is performed. In small ensemble and solo festivals, be sure your young performers know how to properly introduce their selections and to always acknowledge their accompanist.
One Director Willing to Go on Record
In preparing this article, I asked several music professionals for their thoughts on judging. Only one brave soul,Joseph Pappas, was willing to speak “on the record.” Joseph is a veteran high school and college band director and composer.
Here are a few direct quotes he kindly shared:
“If you would have chosen different literature (more appropriate, grade level, fits instrumentation, etc.) I wonder if your outcome would have been different.”
“It’s the student’s responsibility to practice and learn the music, but it’s the director’s responsibility to make it musical.”
“Don’t just play the notes, make it musical!”
“Music is like a piece of fabric; it has various threads of color and must be woven with each thread being important on its own to become the whole.”
In conclusion, to ensure the best results at your next evaluative performance, make sure that:
- Your music selections showcase your students’ talents.
- You and your students are uniformly dressed.
- All music scores are clearly numbered, and that
- Proper music etiquette is observed.
This will ensure that your students and program are well served and your adjudicators will be impressed. Hopefully, their only unspoken thoughts will be, “That was wonderful,” and “Where are we going to eat dinner tonight?”
Laura Vaughan has over 30 years of teaching experience. She received a B. S. in Music from Missouri State University and an M. M. in Voice Performance and Pedagogy from Webster University, with additional studies at the University of Exeter, England.
Her choirs were selected to perform at several Missouri Music Educator Association conventions. Laura is active as a choral adjudicator, maintains a private voice studio in St. Louis, and has been a SmartMusic clinician since 2004. She has performed as a soprano soloist in the US, England and Italy.