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The Most Common Comments

Brian Anderson | March 2017

    With contest season on the horizon, many middle- and high-school directors are preparing for the rigors of adjudicated performances. One of the challenges is pairing the assessment of the ensemble’s strengths and weaknesses with the skills needed to improve performance. Below are many comments I have used as an adjudicator, along with strategies for improvement in those areas.

Tone Quality
    Tone quality is the first caption on every adjudication ballot I have ever seen, and rightly so. A warm, beautiful tone quality is the cornerstone of any outstanding performance, but it sometimes does not receive the rehearsal attention it deserves. As an adjudicator, most of my comments in this caption relate to a sound that is not supported by enough air. I frequently recommend that rehearsals include fundamentals to teach or reinforce proper breathing.
    The main problem is that students usually have greater difficulty with the exhalation concept than with inhalation. This results in uncontrolled air streams, which make it nearly impossible to achieve a beautiful tone. There are an abundance of materials and exercises to assist in providing students proper breath control training. Choose at least one method that works and use it faithfully.
    The second area of tone quality that needs attention is embouchure development. Weak or incorrect embouchures have little chance of maintaining beautiful tone quality. Many resources are available to assist in this area, but I have found that the best way to fix a problem is by contacting applied instructors, either in the district or at the nearest college, for suggestions on fixing sound.
    The final area of concern in this caption is a characteristic sound for each instrument. Adjudicators are listening for good tone qualities with energy and an appropriate level of maturity for the age of the ensemble. The sound of players, sections, and the entire ensemble will be evaluated, therefore each student must acquire an aural image of the desired tone quality. Excellent players of each instrument can be found on YouTube, and plenty of recordings of professional solo performers and ensembles are available to help students develop a concept of a good sound.

    Intonation is second on most adjudication ballots because of its close relationship to tone quality; it is impossible to have consistently accurate intonation without good tone quality. In addition, ensembles with outstanding intonation also possess proper balance and an awareness of the pitch center as it relates to scales, intervals, chords, and unisons. Intonation is also one of the performance areas in which adjudicators and audiences can easily detect errors, so it is imperative that rehearsal time be spent strengthening intonation.
    The majority of adjudicator comments in this caption are about upper woodwind intonation, as these discrepancies are the easiest to hear, but every section should strive for perfection. Rehearsal strategies include work on scales, intervals, chords, and unisons combined with constant attention to balance, listening, and adjustment. Teach students to adjust pitch not only by adjusting horn length, but by embouchure as well, as there may not be time to push in or pull out in the middle of a piece. One strategy is to pair students and have them use a tuner to make individual pitch tendency sheets of the full chromatic scale. This exercise is great for identifying which notes need to be tempered or adjusted.

Percision, Technique, Facility
    In the precision caption, the ensemble’s performance accuracy to the printed page is evaluated. The most frequent comments deal with incorrect pitches and rhythms, articulations, bowings, steady pulse, and ensemble cohesiveness. Rehearsal strategies to improve these areas include using rhythm patterns, practicing at a slower tempo, and the use of a metronome played over a speaker.
    Technique and facility measure the individual and collective command of the repertoire and the ensemble’s ease in performing it. Skills in these captions include posture and hand positions, fingerings, shifts, articulations, dexterity, phrasing, and attacks and releases. Comments based on articulations, attacks and releases, and phrasing are most prevalent, but the majority of the time, I comment on releases. If careful attention is not paid to the releases, they will sound ragged, which negatively affects the other musical aspects in this caption. Clearly defined performance practices for each type of articulation are necessary. If precision and facility are suffering, look to the release of the note to solve the problem.
    Special attention should be given to percussion technique, as adjudicators can both see and hear any problems. I normally spend a great deal of time explaining the proper playing technique for cymbals, triangle, small trap percussion, and bass drum (pull the sound out of the drum). For mallet and timpani players the comments are geared toward using the correct mallet for the style of music and placement of the mallet for best sound. Snare drums that have a superfluous ring are a distraction and should be dampened. Know the proper percussion techniques and demand your students use them.

Balance and Blend
    Balance is prioritizing the musical lines to create transparency. In this caption, the most encountered problem is accompanying lines that overpower melodic lines. To solve this problem, ensembles must have clearly defined roles for foreground, mid- ground, and background lines. This hierarchy of line provides clarity and direction rather than merely a mass of sound. Both pyramid balance and the hierarchy of line must be maintained through any dynamic changes for maximum musical results.
    Blend refers to the adjustment of volume and combining of timbres to provide the most sonorous sound possible. If this performance aspect is not addressed in rehearsal, individual players and/or sections may stand out or overpower the balance resulting in an ensemble sound that does not mesh. Many directors advocate a trio-of-players approach, in which a student plays no louder or softer than the students on each side and with the same style. Chorales are also an effective rehearsal tool to improve balance and blend.

Expression, Interpretation
    Here the adjudicator is listening for a high level of musicianship from the performers. Contrasts in style, tempo, dynamics, and articulation all contribute to the level of musicianship, but what sets an ensemble or performer apart is the shaping of the phrase. The feel for and inflection of the line demonstrates an understanding of the musical intent and reinforces the old adage that the music happens between the notes. If students feel uneasy when introduced to this concept, have them follow the contour of the melodic line for a rise and fall of the phrase. This will at least add a sense of momentum and expression to the music and is an easy concept for younger students to grasp.
    The most common dynamics downfalls are crescendos and decrescendos, which tend to be either poorly paced or unsatisfyingly narrow. This leads to the sense that the ensemble is not capable of performing a wide range of dynamic levels. One way to resolve this is by assigning numbers to different dynamic levels (1=pp, 6=ff). Students play long tones while gradually increasing or decreasing the volume by responding to hand signals from the director. Always strive for crescendos and decrescendos that have a sense of direction and a point of arrival that is not premature.

Other Factors
    Listed under a variety of headings on the adjudication ballot are performance factors that may not be musical in nature but can have a profound effect on the performance. The most common factors include literature choice, discipline, stage presence, appearance, pacing, instrumentation ,and performance energy.
    In my experience, the factors in this caption that have needed the most attention are discipline, stage presence, and appearance. Any adjudication is a public performance and should be treated with the appropriate respect and decorum. Even if the musical performance has not begun, an ensemble’s attention to detail in these areas will make an impression long before an ensemble plays its first note. Ensembles that take pride in their appearance and act professionally will always gain a judge’s favor, as this commitment to excellence generally carries over into their musical performance. It is worth the time to practice stage presence and set high standards for discipline and appearance. A director who neglects to emphasize these factors will generally be disappointed.

    As both a director and an adjudicator, I have given and received these comments often over the course of my career. Awareness of the most common adjudication comments can assist directors in rehearsal planning and allows for the development of skills required for student growth, leading to the best possible educational experience.