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16 Ideas for First-Time Music Festival Adjudicators

When I was a student, I looked with dread upon the fearsome weeks of the local music festival. I would prepare my pieces for months beforehand, work them up to a performable level, then walk in terror up to the piano and play my piece with varying degrees of success. I would then sit in continuing terror as the adjudicator would proceed to tear my playing apart, with only the tiniest glimmer of hope that there was something remotely musical about my feeble attempt at musical taste. Sometimes I would win, sometimes I wouldn’t, but there was always the feeling that the adjudicator was there to anoint a select group of chosen ones, and as for the rest, well, there’s always next year.

Many years later, I found myself on the other side of the table, being asked to serve as adjudicator for some of the same competitions in which I had once competed. As time went on, I also found some of my colleagues asking me for advice on how to both survive and thrive when adjudicating for the first time. Here are some of my thoughts on best practices big and small that can make your adjudicating experience a positive one for yourself, the young performers who play for you, and the musical communities into which you make a cameo appearance.

Getting Organized

1.On the first day, arrive at the venue well ahead of time. Use a service such as Google Maps to find where you’re going easily. Once you’re in the venue, you’ll need to properly configure the room (often a church sanctuary or multi-purpose space), finding the best location and angle for the piano as well as your desk.

2. Sign what you need to sign before you start. Certificates and adjudication forms all need your signature on them, and it’s best to go through the signing ritual before the start of the day, allowing for a smoother flow once you’re compiling marks.

3. Learn the marking system that the festival uses. Do marks start at 80? Or is 80 the equivalent of a medal-winning performance? Talk to the festival organizers about this well ahead of time – often festivals have a written expectation of where they wish mark ranges to be.

4. Befriend your assistant. Most festivals provide adjudicator’s assistants, who compile the scores and write names on diplomas (which you have already signed – see #2). Treat them well. If there’s anything you need from them, ask politely. Adjudicator’s assistants can make your life considerably easier.

5. Bring your preferred pens and pencils. Whether it be an extra fine Sharpie, Pilot, Waterman, or erasable Bic, your choice of pen can either help or hinder you when you’re writing out dozens of adjudications every day. If you’re writing in permanent in, be sure to bring either correcting fluid or tape. A pencil is also a good idea for jotting down notes.

6. Always keep a backup copy of all marks. Towards the end of the festival, you’ll need to tabulate totals in order to determine scholarship winners.

7. Organize your territory. The adjudicator’s desk is a sacrosanct area of the festival venue. Make sure that there is enough space between you and the audience, so that your every written word and mark is not scrutinized by the prying eyes of parents (and teachers too!). On your desk, figure out where you’ll put the examination sheet, your writing utensils, the score of the current student, scores of previous students, and scores of students who have yet to play. A stand-up clock is also a good idea, so you can see how you’re doing for time at any given moment.

8. Determine the festival’s stand on copyright. Nearly all festivals have an original and/or authorized copy policy in place. If a student hands you a photocopy, know what the penalty is, if any. At the same time, educate yourself on how to spot authorized copies from services such as CD Sheet Music or IMSLP.

The Written and Public Adjudication

9.  Write clearly. Legions of teachers, students, and parents, annually spend hours trying to decipher the illegible scrawls of musical authorities sounding forth on a variety of subjects. Writing so that others can actually read your comments can do a world of good and ensure that your suggestions might actually be followed.

10. Speak clearly and accessibly. When you give your public adjudication after the students have performed, remember that you are speaking not only to the students, but to their parents, friends, and teachers as well.

11. Strike a balance between positive and negative critique. To put it bluntly, adjudicators who are ruthless in their assessment of students are doing a tremendous disservice to students, teachers, and the music education field as a whole. All that adjudicators really need to do is reward the positive (no matter how negligible the accomplishment) and provide some ideas for further development. And they need to do this for every single student who performs.

12. Strike a balance between speaking to the class as a whole and each individual performer. This is one of the tough parts. Spend too much time picking apart every performance and you risk being perceived as a curmudgeon. It’s usually a good idea to preface specific comments with a quick general overview of the class. Some examples: offering some insights on pedaling before an intermediate Romantic class or talking about the process of learning a fugue in an advanced Bach class.

13. Know whom you’re talking to. As an adjudicator, you must take into account the age and level of the students to whom you are talking. If they’re beginners, offer as much encouragement as possible. For an advanced class, you can be a bit tougher. On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to sound off on mid-ground Schenkerian analysis for a Grade 3 Sonatina class, nor do students in a senior concerto class wish to be addressed like Kindergarten students.

14. Change the focus of your talks frequently throughout an adjudication week. No one likes to hear a broken record. At the same time, it can be difficult to be continually thinking of new stuff to talk about when you’re hearing the same problems over and over again. Therefore, it is important to put some thought into the balance between reiterating your core message and branching out into new avenues of discussion in the spoken adjudications.

15. After the adjudication and before you announce the winners, take a second to make sure that you’ve selected the right person for first place. This seems redundant, but is actually very important (make sure you’ve done #6 as well). Think of this part of the festival as reality television: since many parents are videotaping the proceedings, you’ll need to get your announcement of the winner right the first time, in order that you can leave town with your head held high.

16. Thank everybody. Thank the teachers for the hours of hard work they do every day. Thank the parents for the uncounted hours of driving students to lessons and encouraging their children to practice every day. Thank your assistant (see #4). Thank the Executive Director of the festival. Above all, thank the students for having the guts to come up on stage and perform in a high-stakes situation.

At the end of the day, festivals aren’t necessarily about anointing champions and lauding the most talented. They are about creating positive musical experiences for the greatest possible number of developing musicians. Over the course of years, the students who end up having distinguished musical careers may not be the ones who won first or even placed in the local festival. Therefore, your job as an adjudicator is to encourage as much as possible, realizing that parents and teachers are relying on you to create enough of a positive experience for students that they will return to their instruments and continue their musical studies for as long as possible. In these tough economic times, the music education world and the continuing good work of local music festivals expect nothing less from adjudicators.

What advice would you give to a first-time adjudicator?

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  1. elissa Milne

    Yay! Thank you so much for this great list of practical aspect tips! I’ll be an adjudicator for the first time 10 days from now, so your post could not have come in a more timely fashion for me! I’m already rethinking the way I’ll be organising my days (i.e., I think the babysitter might need to arrive 30 minutes earlier than I had her booked so that I have time to sign all those certificates!).

  2. Chris Foley

    Elissa, thanks for the comments and best of luck adjudicating!

  3. Sun

    You’ve given some very valuable comments. We had an adjudicator at our local festival be so detailed with each entrant that she ran an hour late! A good adjudicator will address some of the common concerns to the group as a whole and then pick a few small items to elaborate on.

    It is good to change focus throughout the week. This will give insight into more aspects to teachers who have multiple students entered. It will assist them in pursuing their good teaching skills and delving into learning more to overcome any weaknesses.

    Talking to the age/study level of the student is very important – as the child and parent will gain nothing from the exercise if they really don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Thank you for your post!

  4. Kent McWilliams

    Hi Chris – thanks for your comments – I read them with interest and thought that your readers might want to read about the Canadian Music Festival Adjudicators’ Association. Here is their website…

    They also publish guidelines for adjudicators…

    And they publish a list of other helpful hints on their ‘ethics’ page…

    I have been a member of CMFAA for a while – it’s a good organization to join if you’re interested in adjudicating. They helped me out a lot, especially when I first started adjudicating.

  5. Alice

    The greatest example of tact I have ever seen was by an adjudicator…it was the end of a long day; she had already dealt with 56 young students that day, and it was time for the “popular selection” class, which was generally not very well played. A young girl went up and banged out “La Bamba” as loudly as possible on the beautiful grand piano — every single note fortissimo. The adjudicator’s comment: “When you came up, I said to myself, How can someone so small make a sound so big?”

  6. Richard Gachoka Ndungu

    Hello…am glad to have read the tips for adjudication and would love to get more details on the same respectively… Thank you..

  7. John Kennedy

    Lots of great ideas…….for me as a first time adjudicator later this year. Thankyou from the land of Oz?

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  9. kioko

    Great example from you guys

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