Bugging the Adjudicator

A young middle school jazz band instructor recently came to a festival armed with handwritten notes on school notepaper and thrust them at me on the way to the warm up room. His plea as he ran – “Please make the judges read this!”  Wading through the notes, I learned that Johnny so and so had dropped out last week because his family had moved, and Suzie so and so had to take on the baritone sax in his stead, and how the program was very new and the boundaries in their district had changed, and on the first piece, please overlook the 2nd solo because the student’s regular instrument was in the repair shop, and on and on. You get the picture.

From my previous conversations with him, I knew that this director had been working very hard to build his program. He clearly cared about his students’ performance, but his nervousness was evident to me and, more importantly, to his students.  In his state of anxiety he had forgotten the judges’ music scores and had barely made the bus thereby shortening the warm-up, but he wanted to explain his way to a better performance.

In this case, the adjudicators wanted to hear the group and to judge them based on their performance – not on the handwritten excuses provided by the director. The notes were handed back to me without being read.

Experienced adjudicators are music professionals who typically want to help, not tear apart, the director and their students.  Sometimes they are seen as “bad guys” and worry many directors.  Although their efforts are often under appreciated, the constructive adjudicator provides a needed element if you want to improve the music your students are making: impartial feedback.

But, if you still really want to BUG the adjudicator at festival, several prominent adjudicators provide these surefire tips.

  • Select music that is technically and musically above the students’ abilities.

Probably the most commonly cited error seen at festivals, it is usually tied directly to the director’s lack of experience.  Remove those blinders and accurately assess your group’s strengths and weaknesses. Then select the music accordingly. If unsure, ask an experienced colleague to evaluate your group’s level. An adjudicator must score based on the performance he or she hears. If that performance is one in which the performers struggle through the entire piece, the score will reflect the result. Remember – the adjudicator is not judging Mozart, or Beethoven, or Sousa – the adjudicator is judging your group’s interpretation and ability to perform the piece.

  • Bore the adjudicator by performing all music at one dynamic level.

No question – it is challenging to teach young musicians to perform with dynamic or stylistic differences.  A young musician hangs on by the fingernails just trying to get the notes out, let alone keeping down the decibels. Whereas this problem consistently bugs the adjudicator, it’s also worthy to note that using dynamic contrast in your program will tend to impress the adjudicator.  Bring some tunes and artists in to the band or choir room to influence your students musically and to demonstrate what you are trying to get them to understand.  If you are unfamiliar with the music that most young teens are listening to, ask them to bring in a sample.  Upon hearing it, you may better understand why dynamics is a misunderstood concept to most beginning music students!

  • Use photocopied music scores or provide no scores at all.

Here they come – dressed in beautiful costly concert dress or uniforms, playing expensive instruments, arriving in deluxe charter buses, but pleading that photocopied music scores for the judges are the best they could do.   Judges aren’t buying it and neither should you. If scores are not available because they are “out of print,” present a letter of authorization from the publisher along with the photocopies.

  • Tune your group on stage.

Every festival organizer should provide ample time and space for groups to warm up.  By insisting on a prolonged tune up onstage, the director may as well announce the group’s weaknesses to the adjudicators prior to the actual performance itself.  The director who not only indulges in a lingering onstage tune-up, but also uses the opportunity to nitpick weak spots in sections or, worse yet, among individual student musicians tries the patience of judges and fellow participants.

  • Perform your concert in the warm-up room.

This overtaxes the brass players who then tire in performance and the pitch suffers.  The warm-up period is just that – warming up for the performance at hand. You’ve already had your rehearsals – use this time to allow everyone to tune, give the students a few last minute reminders, encouragement, and you’re good to go!  Please don’t deny your students the excitement of the performance itself.

  • Don’t time your music.

Adjudicators need a few minutes to give a good critique at the end of a performance. By ignoring the guidelines set down by the festival and overextending your performance, you are causing delays for other performers.  Adjudicators are under pressure to stay on time. Playing one more selection over the suggested time limit that you just know everyone wants to hear seldom changes the adjudicators’ opinion of the strengths and weaknesses, but is seen as a breach of festival etiquette and a lack of courtesy to others.

  • Conduct your choir from the piano.

Directors that act as accompanist leave their traditional choir without a conductor.  You cannot help your choir and maintain control listening carefully to problems if you are behind a keyboard. What if your group cannot afford an accompanist?  Better to pre-record your accompaniment and use a playback tape during festival than to use the nodding head choral conducting style.   Another excellent alternative would be to assign the job of accompanist to a capable student or possibly select material to be performed a cappella.

  • Sing along

Ask yourself – am I singing with my performers because they can’t remember the words?  Because I really like the tune?  Because I like to hear myself sing?  Be their conductor, not another member of the group.  You can’t hear what your sections need you to hear if you are humming or singing along.

Directors tend to look at a festival as a sort of personal report card. Be assured – festival adjudicators are not the “bad guys;” they’re just people like you who have worked their way through the ups and downs of music education and maybe learned something along the way. They choose to adjudicate because they believe that their input can help groups to improve. No one sets out to actually “bug” the adjudicator at a festival.  But ticking off a mental checklist of these no-nos ahead of time puts your group in the best possible light and allows the sheer talent and skill of your performers to shine through.