Close this search box.

Blueprints for Adjudicators

James Neilson | February 2014

    This article originally appeared in the December 1973 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Each year during my long tenure as Director of Musical Organizations at Oklahoma City University, I spent nearly every weekend from the middle of February to the middle of May serving as an adjudicator at various festival-contests throughout the southern and southwestern United States. At the end of these contests I usually had a severe case of writer’s cramp and a bad attack of mental indigestion, the latter induced by the fact that I found it necessary to write the same few sentences over and over again. One year I decided to collect these sentences into a form and to use it along with the regular adjudicator’s sheet when making an evaluation. Since using my own form would enable me to listen to contest performances more attentively, I felt that I would be able to evaluate them more accurately and intelligently. Also, the time saved by simply checking items on my form (just the weaknesses of the ensemble) would allow more time for a written analysis of the interpretation (including the strengths) on the official form.
    Unfortunately, my idea never got off the ground, since contest chairmen preferred that I keep myself busy scribbling away on the approved form. It didn’t seem to matter that I had written the very same sentences at least a dozen times during the day, that the section of music for which I was then making a written evaluation had long since passed me by, and that it was not always easy to recall vividly any part of a performance I had heard only casually when I was busy writing.
    Although I no longer serve as an adjudicator, it is still my opinion that something should be done to make it possible for judges to evaluate what they hear when they hear it. A taped commentary solves only part of this problem. But a check sheet containing most of the basic factors that can adversely affect an ensemble performance may be a more useful aid to first-rate adjudication.

    The phrase contour was invalid due to:
•  Breathing in incorrect places, especially at bar lines. Players should take a breath a cadence points. When it is necessary to take a breath in the middle of a phrase, it should be done after melodic tones or chords at rest. You must tell players when and why they may or may not take a breath. Players of large bore instruments (tubas, euphoniums, bass trombones, bass and contrabass clarinets) are most often at fault in this area of performance.
•  Failure to hold long notes for the full metrical count, thereby breaking the phrase into meaningless fragments.
•  Ragged, abrupt releases. Under normal circumstances, phrase releases should end on a slight diminuendo without sacrificing precision at the point of the release. Brass players in particular are apt to negate smoothness and precision at phrase endings by giving the point of release a dynamic push upward. (This results from the bad habit of stopping the air flow with the tip of the tongue.)
•  The absence of slight crescendi and diminuendi up to and away from the points of climax in phrase contours. It is this kind of “rubato of dynamics” that gives life to the phrase and is an especially useful device when seeking to achieve authenticity of phrasing in more lyrical passages.

    The dynamic profile of an interpretation is always a matter of concern to thoughtful conductors. Indications, such as f, pp, mp, mf, ff and p, must not be thought of as decibel ratings but as different degrees which cannot be interpreted outside the context of a specific work.
•  The reduced dynamic scheme always in force caused the interpretation to lack spirit and vitality and made “monotony” the order of the day.
•  The performance was consistently too loud and rough. There is a top degree of loudness beyond which good bands will not go. Scale the top dynamics downward.
•  In lyrical passages a reduced dynamic scheme is most often the better choice. The crescendi and diminuendi were not kept within the upper and lower limits of this reduced profile.
•  In dramatic passages you should employ a more forceful dynamic scheme with greater extremes between “loud” and “soft.”
•  Subito impacts, such as sfz, fp, and others, were not always in keeping with the character of the music and the mood of the dynamic. While accents should be forceful in marches and dramatic music, the force of the impact must be reduced in lyrical passages.

Melodic Transparency
•  Principal melodies were often covered by accompanying voices.
•  Important melodic outlines were not displayed prominently in fugal and contrapuntal sections. Two factors are involved here. In fugal passages the entering voice is more important, so dynamics in already existing voice lines must be adjusted in a way to affirm this importance; and in sections using episodic material, it is imperative to adjust dynamics so that important subject material is heard clearly and to keep the important play between subject and counter-subject in an appropriate perspective.
•  Secondary melodies and melodic counterpoints were not heard within the proper dynamic context. Since secondary melodies appear most often in instruments not blessed with resonant brightness, they must be lifted to the top place in the prevailing dynamic during the brief time of their appearance.

    Good composers do not expect conductors to view metronomic indications as stopwatch directives, but, rather, to regard them as suggestions from one musician to another about what might work in a given situation. Thus, when a conductor’s personal choice of tempi is suited admirably to a work, as is often true, good adjudicators do not react unfavorably, even though the choice may not be that preferred by the adjudicator, or agree with that suggested by the composer. In general, tempi should be criticized only when the interpretation seemed to drag along almost interminably, the interpretation was so overly cautious that emotional content was drained from the music, the tempi were so irregular that the interpretation limped along in disorganized fashion, or the tempi were so fast that ensemble clarity was sacrificed.
•  The tempo was too slow at:
•  The tempo was too fast at:
•  The tempo was too irregular at:
•  The interpretation was arid and failed to come to life because of inflexible tempi. The interpretation of this work is enhanced by the judicious use of flexible tempi, even when composers have not indicated that this be done.

Attacks and Releases
    Attacks and releases must be consistent with the style and mood of the music. When an interpretation lacks conviction, it is often the result of an incorrect approach to this specific area of performance. If two or more items are checked, this interpretation is open to question, and remedial action should be undertaken immediately.
•  The normal attack was not used in the appropriate places. In this attack the note is addressed without delay and played without dynamic modification. There may or may not be separation between successive notes.
•  The legato attack was not used in the appropriate places. This is a smooth attack usually pronounced with a relaxed tongue (but never a relaxed embouchure). The correct use of the legato attack makes it possible to interpret lyrical passages smoothly and in a singing style.
•  The attack by impact was not used in the appropriate places. Here, the note is addressed without delay at a point somewhat above the prevailing dynamic. There is a slight diminuendo to the end of the note. Note-spacing is implied and should exist.
•  The attack by delayed impact was not used properly. The note should be addressed slightly after the ictus of the beat at a point somewhat below the prevailing dynamic. There is a slight crescendo to the end of the note. This is a useful style to employ when three or more successive chordal accents occur in highly dramatic music. Note-spacing is implied and should exist.
•  Staccato pronunciation in this interpretation was often at odds with the style and mood of the music. Remember that staccato means “detached” (not “short”). The detachment may be slight or longer – depending upon the style of the music and the context in which the passage appears.
•  Attacks and releases were not articulated precisely – the result of a vague beat pattern. Your conducting technique needs improvement in this area.
•  The rhythmic design of slurred patterns was not always made clear. Check the score to determine why slurred passages occur and what kind of rhythmic propulsion should then take place. As a general rule, except when smooth passage work is desired, the first note in a slurred pattern should be accented slightly or, if a hemiola exists, a little more forcefully.
•  Rhythmic propulsion was not taut and rhythmic vitality was lacking. Because rhythm functions in combination with harmony to bring tension and release to music, it is imperative to maintain rhythmic balance and tension at all times.

    Faulty intonation is generally the result of:
•  Players entering the phrase with relaxed embouchures (causing flatness), tightening the embouchure during the phrase (bringing overall pitch up to acceptable levels), and anticipating the taking of the next breath by relaxing the embouchure again. These devastatingly bad habits make it impossible to achieve an acceptable overall tuning.
•  Upper woodwind and brass players pinching embouchure during fortissimo tutti playing. This causes considerable sharpness in lead parts.
•  The bad habit in all sections (but especially inner voice parts) of relaxing the embouchure when playing softer passages. This causes considerable flatness.
•  Failure to support long tones with sufficient intensity of breath pressure throughout the duration of the tone (especially in larger bore instruments). Considerable flatness resulted as these longer notes came to an end.
•  The overall tuning center in this band being higher than the customary A440-442. This high pitch center cannot be maintained by many instruments used in the band. Why not bring the overall tuning down to more acceptable levels?
•  The existence of more than one pitch center in the tutti ensemble of the band, a fact that made it impossible to evaluate intonation meaningfully. May I suggest a way toward improvement in this area? Play unisonal sustained tones in middle ranges for five minutes each day, using descending scales only. Students will find it much easier to come to an understanding and appreciation of subtle pitch difference during the playing or singing of descending scales.

    The quality and purity of ensemble sonority is an important factor when an adjudicator makes an evaluation of an interpretation. All instruments, from tubas up to piccolos, should produce all notes as singing tones, no matter what their duration or at what pitch level they occur. This is as true when playing a Sousa march as when playing a Bach chorale. When individual players or sections in a band neglect to produce singing tones, ensemble intonation, balance, and sonority suffer grievously, and as a consequence, it is impossible to secure a convincing interpretation.
•  The ensemble sonority was harsh and strident because of overblowing and inferior embouchure placement.
•  The overall ensemble sonority lacked lustre, vitality, and character. This band should go on a daily diet (at least 10 minutes per day) of ensemble sustained tone practice, concentrating on producing a beautiful ensemble tone and maintaining an acceptable overall tonal balance.
•  Certain sections overpowered all others in tutti sonorities.
•  Certain solo passages were not played authoritatively, due, no doubt, to nervousness on the part of the soloist. Additional experience will take care of this matter.