Posts for:  June 2012

To Be a Judge

I have mixed feelings about competitions. When asked to judge them, I usually decline. After all, a musical performance shouldn’t be an athletic event, with points to be won or lost, winner take all. Yo-Yo Ma, in Harvard Magazine, has declared, “Are you kidding? I lost every competition, except once when I was five. Today, I won’t even be a judge. I’m against them.”

That said, when the Tri-County Concert Association asked me to help judge their latest competition, I agreed, because I feel that Tri-County, through their long-standing concert series, does try to help serious young artists in a meaningful way. I asked to judge the “junior” or middle-school division as the timing of that category fit into my schedule, even though I assumed the repertoire would be less interesting than that played by the senior division the week before.

I arrived on a Saturday morning in April at the charming venue of Eastern University. The competition was held in the office of the chairman of the music department, in a stone mansion with windows that overlook ancient trees and manicured lawns. One by one the thirty or so contestants, all in grades 6 through 8, entered right on time (the competition is extremely well-organized,) sat at the old piano in the corner and performed their selected seven-minute piece from memory.

There indeed was an early Haydn sonata, and a few pieces which one would think of as “intermediate” repertoire, but most of what I heard could have easily belonged on a serious recital program in a professional concert hall: several Chopin Scherzi, Liszt Etudes, a middle Beethoven Sonata. At the end of a long day of judging, my co-judge Ken Borrmann and I agreed that four of the young pianists deserved honors, and that the top two were nearly tied. The two winners we chose performed Prokofiev’s Third Sonata and Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, respectively.

Both winners demonstrated extremely clean playing of brilliant, highly demanding technical passages, tonal control through chord balance and dynamics, excellent sense of tempo and pacing, and overall conviction of performance – in short, these young musicians played with authority.

That is not to say that the two honorable mentions and a number of the other contestants did not also play beautifully and with conviction. Some of them may have even demonstrated a greater musical understanding or depth of expression than the chosen winners. It’s just that at that particular time, with a single piece on the line, the winners sounded most polished, and made the strongest statement.

I hope that just because they did not win first or second prize, none of the other pianists felt they were lesser musicians or were discouraged in any way. I hope that our positive critiques on their judging sheets were enough to dispel any feeling of disappointment at not winning.

Competitions are limited in their ability to rank talent, and are certainly limited in predicting the longevity of musical careers. As long as they are put in perspective by students (and by their parents!) they can be useful tools for polishing and performing a piece in a high-pressure situation. They should be viewed as a learning opportunity, not a final judgment.

During one of our breaks, I was chatting with my co-judge, and learned that Ken, besides being a professor of music, is also an expert rose grower. He told me to what great lengths he must go to produce champion specimens, and how carefully he must transport a prized blossom to a rosarian event. He has won top honors in regional rose shows, and at the national level as well, and has even gotten his young sons involved in helping him grow and present these horticultural winners.

As he told me with a quiet smile, “I’m competitive.”