Competition Tips from the Judges’ Table

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First Place Medal


Recently, I was privileged to be a judge at the Young Artists’ Harp Competition in Rabun Gap, Georgia. If you or your students are planning to enter a competition, these are some tips from the judges’ table that will help you make your best impression.

There’s an old Joni Mitchell song called “Both Sides, Now.” I couldn’t help recalling it when I watched all those talented young harpists play their hearts out for the judges. Although it has been many years, I too was a contestant once. And even though it has been a long while and I have judged other competitions, I can still feel what it was like to step on that stage knowing this was your one chance to get everything right.

So I offer to all the hopefuls four tips from my experience as a contest judge:

1. What a judge listens for. Your performance should reflect thorough preparation, meaning correct notes, solid technical skills necessary for the piece you are playing, and solid memorization. Usually, a wrong note or a quick recovery from a brief memory slip will not automatically negate an otherwise solid performance. Your interpretation of the repertoire should show understanding of the style and form of the piece. Your musical expression, such as dynamics, articulation, tone and tempo, should be appropriate to the piece. For instance, don’t use Romantic style rubato in a Baroque dance form.

2. What a judge looks for. Assuming that they can see you and this is not a blind audition, your dress and manner should reflect the importance of the occasion. Competition finals, for instance, require concert attire, bows and smiles, as if the judges were a “regular” audience. Affected gestures like dramatic swaying or movement not related to playing, will detract and may count against you.

3. What a judge hates. Believe it or not, judges are usually nice people, and they hate it when a contestant is clearly having a bad day. I have heard performers who are obviously well-prepared, but are hindered by excess adrenaline or perhaps just a bad night’s sleep. You can’t always prevent these things from happening. But by doing many “preview” performances of your competition repertoire, you can greatly improve your chances of having a great performance on competition day.

4. What a judge loves. Judges love to hear a player who loves what he is doing. Judges are really your best audiences. They are informed listeners and highly qualified musicians. They have heard the music you are playing perhaps hundreds of times in their careers. And they know when contestants love what they are playing. It is exciting to hear a performer who puts that personal sparkle into their performance. That is a performance that reveals the musical personality of the performer, and that is what can give you the edge in a close competition.

Now go practice, and break a leg!

Discussion question: What was your best competition experience? Or your worst?

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