Solo and Ensemble Contest Prep: Scoresheet Categories

By John Gardner

Solo and Ensemble no frameMusic students from my school participate in ISSMA (Indiana State School Music Association) sanctioned solo and ensemble district and state level competitions. ISSMA copyrights their judging forms.

Many categories for solo contests are fairly universal, and as a template for the categories I will use here, I have selected categories posted on a high school site outside Indiana. For each category; the title and considerations are copied, the comments are mine.


Accuracy to printed pitches.

In Solo performance, are you in tune with the piano (or the recorded accompaniment)? You should tune carefully before you begin, both to check intonation and to ensure the instrument is ready to go, especially if you have been waiting for a while. No instrument is completely “in tune”, i.e. tuning one note is not enough. You need to know what notes or octaves have what tendencies on your instrument and adjust accordingly. Flutes can roll in/out to help, trumpets have a 3rd valve slide and all brass instruments have alternate fingerings to compensate for typically out of tune notes (especially 1 & 3 valve combinations). Trombones are almost without excuse, right? Otherwise, you can bend your pitch up or down by adjusting your embouchure — or by using alternate key combinations. Practice with a tuner to determine which notes are in/out of tune. If you study privately, hopefully your teacher is helping you with the lesser-known key combinations and techniques as you strive for a higher level performance.

In Ensemble performance, try to tune before going into the performance room, but take the necessary time to get it right before you start. If the last sound the judge hears before you start is noticeably out of tune, you are in trouble in this category.


Resonance, control, clarity, focus, consistency, warmth.

Tone is influenced and affected by many factors; instrument, mouthpiece, reed, and performer. If you have a step-up instrument and/or a better mouthpiece than the one that came with your 6th grade year instrument, then you should have some equipment help in tone production. But a good musician can make even lesser quality equipment sound good, while a poor musician can fail to produce what the equipment will allow. In other words, it is more than just the equipment — the judge is judging YOU!

Vibrato will likely be considered here for those instruments that are, at least at the higher levels, expected to play longer tones and melodic sections with a warm, controlled vibrato, typically oboes, bassoons, flutes, saxes, trumpets, trombones and baritones. French horns and clarinets generally are not expected to use vibrato.

Resonance, control, clarity, focus, consistency, warmth….all go to the currently accepted tone for your instrument. The best way, even if you are studying privately but especially if you are not, is to LISTEN to professional recordings. Online videos can be helpful, but some of those are posted by people not better trained or farther advanced than you. Resonance implies a deep, full, reverberating sound vs one that is weak and tentative. Is yours controlled or does it change drastically per octave or when you have skips of large intervals? When I think of clarity, I want to hear the instrument and not the reed, tone without fuzziness or buzziness. Consistency requires control. When someone talks of warmth, I think of a full flavored soft-drink or coffee vs something watered down. Warmth implies some emotional involvement (more below) in your sound.


Accuracy of Note Values, Rest Values, Duration, Pulse, Steadiness, Correctness of Meter.

Note values covers a lot. When a quarter note is followed by a rest, do you go all the way to the rest? When you have a dotted eighth-sixteenth pattern, do you sub-divide to ensure the dotted 8th gets 3/4 of the beat….and not 2/3? A common rest mistake is similar; not giving it enough value or rushing to the next note, which gets into Pulse. If it were possible to hook up a heart monitor to the way you play, you don’t want the screen to look spastic, or as if you are having a heart attack. You should have a clear, easy to read (hear) ‘beat’.

Is your tempo Steady, i.e., you don’t slow down during the faster parts and increase tempo in the easy sections?

Your heart rate increases when you run, but your tempo should not change when you play runs.

Practice with a metronome. If it feels like the metronome is pushing you, you’re dragging. If it seems like it is slowing you down, you’re rushing. If possible for 8th note meters (5/8, 6/8, etc), set the metronome so the 8th note gets the click. Obviously that becomes more difficult the faster the tempo.

TECHNIQUE (facility/accuracy): 

Artistry, attacks, releases, control of ranges, musical/mechanical skill.

A question I’m often asked in a playing test setting where the student is going to be graded on how he/she plays something is; “How fast should I play it?” My answer is always,

As fast as you can play it accurately.

Facility speaks to how quickly or effortlessly you can play something, to your mechanical skill. Are you up to tempo on a technical passage or are you slowing it down so you can get all the notes. Balanced with facility is accuracy. If you slow it down and get it right, the judge might ding you a little on facility but should credit you on accuracy. The opposite is not true, however. If you play at tempo and miss lots of notes, you have demonstrated a lower level of both facility and accuracy. For the highest credit, practice it slowly, get it right, the gradually speed it up (with a metronome) to tempo. Accurately at tempo is the goal.

Is it better to play it slower and accurately, or at tempo and miss some notes?

Judge response: If you want MY highest rating, play it correctly at tempo.

Two terms above go together; artistry and musical skill. Have you interacted with Siri on the iPhone? That is a mechanical voice. Failure to demonstrate artistry or musicianship (musical skill) would be like listening to someone who speaks in a monotone, or someone who writes without any capitalization or punctuation. Similarly to the impact of a well-delivered preacher’s sermon, politician’s speech or orator’s dramatic reading, your artistry will affect your audience…and the judge.

When it comes to attacks and releases, most attack better than they release. Work at both. In a slower, melodic passage, can you start the note on pure air minus the tongue, or at least get the sound started without the sound of the articulation? Sometimes thinking of a football can work with a picture of how sound (or phrases) begin and end. Don’t start with a thud and don’t end with a chop off. Sometimes you need the tongue to stop the sound, but ending with the air is preferred.

Do you struggle with low notes on a saxophone or high notes on a trumpet or clarinet? Or any instrument? That is about consistency and control. It is more than just blowing and wiggling fingers. Can you maintain a dynamic level as you change octaves? A clarinet descending from high to low actually needs more air at the lower levels to maintain the same volume. Do you have some notes that pop out? That demonstrates a lack of control.

Record yourself using a computer device (such as iPad free app “Recorder Plus HD”) that shows your recording level. When you review, look for sudden peaks or valleys in volume… Sometimes you can get a visual of control issue.

And notice that, with this judging sheet category, “note accuracy” is assumed rather than mentioned. Playing right notes is the minimum of any performance and if that is all you do, you should expect a mediocre rating or result. In a previous article, I likened this minimal notes-only approach to driving a car and staying on the road while avoiding the other signs along the way.

Interpretation: Musicianship

Style, Phrasing, Tempo, Dynamics, Emotional Involvement

There is a lot of overlap in these categories. Interpretation involves HOW you play WHAT you play. Are you in the style of the piece. Trills and grace notes in a Mozart piece are different from those from more recent composers. The style of a rondo is different from that of an intermezzo. When it comes to phrasing, are you adding fluctuation to the sound? Is it going somewhere? Is there a beginning, a peak and an end to a phrase? Do you play the way you speak? Phrasing can also include articulation (next category) and dynamics. Just as tempo was a part of fluency and accuracy described earlier, it is also part of interpretation. If you play a technical concerto by Mozart or Weber and you take the allegro section at half tempo to get the notes right, you have mis-interpreted the tempo.


Few things are more obvious to a trained musician than to hear the errors of sloppy articulation; slurring everything, constant tonguing or a random combination.

Music performance can include articulation interpretations, but if you are changing what is marked on the paper, you need to mark your changes on the judge’s copy. Make sure the judge knows that what you played was what you intended.

If you have an extended 16th note run that is market all staccato, and you struggle with playing that, and you don’t want to reduce the tempo, then you might want to slur two, tongue two in a grouping of 4 sixteenth notes, for example. Mark the judge’s copy. He/she could still ding you a little for your articulation interpretation, but less than if you made the change without marking the original.

articulationThe other main weakness in articulation is the technique, i.e. HOW you articulate. Have you ever heard someone with a speech impediment? The challenge in fixing those is that most of what is happening is going on inside the mouth. Speech therapists are trained to do that. Do you need a specialist?

For a reed player, are you touching the reed, the roof of the mouth, or are you making some sort of ‘k’ or other throat sound to stop the air?  Not all articulations are created equal. If you make the judge spend time trying to figure out what is going on inside your mouth (articulation technique), you are hindering your success.


Performance Factors

Choice of literature, appropriate appearance, poise, posture, general conduct, manerisms, facial expression. 

I wrote an article about selecting literature. Read it….

Choice of literature: Demonstrate your strengths, hide your weaknesses. If you struggle some with rhythms, have trouble with fast passages, perhaps you should choose a slower piece. If you struggle with vibrato, don’t select the slow, melodic romantic-style ballad.

Appropriate appearance has nothing to do with your beauty or your weight. If you go to a job interview that would require you working in a business office and you arrive in jeans with holes and a t-shirt advertising an alcoholic beverage, you start with the wrong impression. Most solo/ensemble festivals will accept clean casual. Understand that most of the judges are college professors, where their performers are often required to wear tuxes and formals. Don’t shock them. If you come to the performance room looking like you have dressed for success, that you are showing respect for the judge, the audience and the event, you will earn credit in this area.

Poise and posture. Look like a performer. If standing, consider having both feet flat on the floor. If sitting, move forward on the chair with both feet on the floor. Poise includes the idea of selling both yourself and what you are doing. A college professor was advising a modest, yet talented musician and explained it this way:

Humility is a virtue. It is okay to be meek and mild….UNTIL you put that [instrument] in your hands and walk out onto that stage. THEN I want you to be an arrogant, confident, mean son-of-a-[band parent]. Take the stage. Command and control the audience.

My college professor told me to…

…make them stand up.

General conduct / manerisms, facial expression. Avoid toe tapping. Don’t grimace when you make a mistake. You’re in the spotlight and everything is important.

This is generally a catch all category and judges can use it to give you a higher rating here than maybe they were able to on other areas. This should be the category in which everyone can do well.



Respecting, Preparing For and Appreciating your Pianist

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17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

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