What Judges Want

Wendy Webb Kumer | March 2018

courtesy Flute Society of Kentucky Festival

    For nearly four decades I have been preparing students for evaluations. Whether it is a chair test in band, an audition for a local honors band, a regional or national competition, a solo festival, for college admission, or a jury, the key question for  teachers and students is, “What do the judges want to hear?”
    Each time a group of students returns from competing, I take a serious look at the results from the judges’ perspective, with or without jury sheets. I also take a fresh look at my own thought process after I serve as a judge. Here are some insights that I have gleaned over the years. You may vehemently disagree with the jurors’ decisions (or with my take on them), but there is much to be learned from taking a dispassionate look at a judge’s focus. 
    The dictionary defines the verb judge as to form an opinion or conclusion about. When sending students off to be judged, it is essential to let them know that the judges’ opinions are exactly that, a personal opinion. It is the opinion that matters for that particular event, but it is not a more learned or important opinion than their own or their teacher’s. 
    Usually the primary things judges respond to with immediacy, thus making them the critical components, are steadfastness in tempo and rhythmic accuracy down to the smallest subdivided dot and tie. Every judge I know, including myself, will deny this up and down, but the facts are there. When students go to state band evaluations, often the player with the best tone, musicality, speed, and intonation is seated lower than one who is not as mature. This happens a lot. The more musical student may have taken too many liberties with the tempo and rhythm. The lesser student may have played slower but waited and counted patiently for the rests at the end of the measure and returned in tempo, not rushing the runs and not slowing on the whole notes. Focus your teaching and their personal practice on keeping the tempo even and the rhythm perfect from day one, no matter what the tempo. 
    The next item on a judge’s agenda is articulation. Not just placing the tonguing and slurring exactly where the required edition indicates, but also making the articulation style historically and stylistically accurate. Bounce those eighths in Baroque, play legato on quarters in slow movements, and double tongue with synchronicity. A student can gain several chairs with a steady tempo, great subdivision and perfect articulation. 
    The third element that judges observe is the perceived confidence of the performer. Whether live or recorded, students who sell their performance can make a positive impression early in their audition. This can be achieved in numerous ways, including a firm tone, tasteful vibrato, articulation styles, and expression including dynamics, color, and phrasing. I tell my students that radiating confidence is a gift of preparedness, but anyone can be taught how to sound confident, even when their inner emotional state includes fear and timidity. This judging area also includes breathing (technique and placement), intonation (watch those C#s, crescendos, and phrase endings), and vibrato usage. A beautiful performance can be brought low by playing perpetually flat or by using an unattractive vibrato speed. 
    The next level of judging is playing the correct notes. All of the previous characteristics are immediate, emotional and physical responses to hearing music in the heightened, judging state of mind. Judges sense the joy (or fear) in players and feel their inner pulse (or lack thereof), tap their inner feet to the tempo, and bounce or sway to the articulation and meter. All of this happens simultaneously, often while looking at the music. If the judges are flutists, beware. Play the correct notes at the proper time. If the judges are conductors and music educators, a wrong note or two can be dismissed – as long as it is a one-off accident and not a consistent error. Judges can make this distinction. Playing faked runs is not an option at the competition level. Smooshing notes together because of fear or a lack of practice will affect your score negatively. 
    Fast and messy or slower and perfect? Judges definitely prefer the latter. A notch or two (not ten) under tempo with all of the above characteristics in place is far preferable to a performances with garbled notes that is virtuosic and at a showy tempo. Even a confident, musical interpretation performed with a technical jumble will not sway a judge favorably. 
    To memorize or not? These days, musicians are achieving mastery of their instruments at younger and younger ages, and many young flutists choose to memorize. Compulsory memorization is still in flux for wind players. Vocalists, pianists, and string players always memorize. For flutists it is an option. It can and does affect the outcome if the memorization is faulty or hinders the player’s ability to perform confidently and accurately. It is impressive when done well, but memorization rarely is the deciding factor for indicating the frontrunner. Ultimately, the winners are the players who play the most perfectly, musically, evocatively, and in tune, and who also positively influence the judges intellectually and emotionally. 
    Preparing for and assisting students for auditions and competitions is an exciting prospect and can add focus and drive to practice sessions and lessons. Use these events as a tool and measurement for improvement, and encourage students to assimilate the judges’ opinions, both positive and negative, for growth and development. In the end, however, students should learn to be their own judges. Everyone knows when and where the errors were, in practicing and performance, and each success can be an inducement that leads students toward more technically accurate and musical performances.