Solo contest judge’s #1 recommendation

By John Gardner

excellentMost participants in high school solo competitions are only in the performance room long enough for his/her performance and maybe for a couple friends’. They could learn so much by sitting and listening/observing for a while.

During some down time in between local student performances at a state level contest, I sat in a few performance rooms just to hear examples of what other students around the state are doing.  I did not expect to see the wide range of performance quality given that I was at a STATE level contest and everyone participating had already received a GOLD (top) rating at district competition. If I had to summarize that experience, it would be with the conclusion that…

…not all music education results are created equal.

I did hear some amazing performances, including one from a clarinetist I didn’t know. I liked him and had high expectations before he even started. He came into the room with an entourage, wore a suit, had a cap on his mouthpiece and very politely approached the judge to ask for a second music stand. When the judge said there wasn’t one and that he would have to make due — he didn’t react negatively, electing to put the pages for his second movement on the table and rearranged the stand so he could grab them quickly. When he finished his first movement and several in the room started applauding, he stated simply, “I’m not done yet.” And then, when he did finish and the audience failed to react, he followed with, “Now I’m done.” The judge laughed. Good stage personality.

Less professional presentations…

  • A clarinetist who sat through several other performances (about 30 minutes) before it was her turn. Then, without tuning, she started to play, then stopped and announced (laughing), “Oh, I forgot to wet my reed.” The judge was not amused, and was already writing on her sheet. Once she got going, her performance had merit, but I doubt she overcame the first impression disaster.
  • Another who, based on the following she brought into the room, was a star in her own band. She played confidently and didn’t sound nervous, but demonstrated an uncharacteristic middle schoolish sounding tone. Her toe tapping was distracting, but not as much as the entire body bounce as she kept the beat. She was mechanically close, but demonstrated extreme musical deficiency. She was smiling when she left the room….but probably not when she saw her score.
  • Contrasting her performance was a really musical rendition of a major clarinet work. This girl had an excellent tone and stage presence, dressed formally, and was using a pro-level instrument, convincing me she was expertly coached until I heard the spot where there were some extended runs. She glossed over them terribly in about half the time she had to get them in and then just skipped to the next downbeat. The pianist followed her well, so there were several 6/8 measures with 1.5 beats in them. She deserved a good score, but at her level, someone should have pointed that out.
  • For not the first time, I heard a completely butchered rendition of a Brahms Sonata. I can see how students might tend to pick these, as they are less technically demanding than some of the other pieces….but the reason they are on the highest difficulty list is because of the complex coordination between soloist and accompanist. The soloist was fairly accurate on notes, but completely missed the emotion of the music….and soloist and accompanist were rarely together, so neither was familiar with the piece. The judge was agonizing.
  • One judge walked out into the hallway to pay a high compliment to the soloist (who left too quickly to notice that the judge had something to say), but prefaced with, “The way you walked in here and got ready to play, I was ready for a mediocre performance…..”
  • I observed several students who, at the end of the performance, not only failed to recognize the audience or pianist, but also the judge’s final comment. It was grab the music and go….
  • Multiple brass players when finished, immediately emptied spit while still in front of the audience and the judge.
  • Generally speaking, I saw multiple examples of poor embouchure, bad finger position, incorrect fingerings and horn angles that disappointed me at the state level. Then there were mediocre to totally lacking examples of performance etiquette.
  • Contrasting, however, were excellent examples of both etiquette and performance. I saw tuxes and formals, heard students be extremely polite and respectful to the judge, acknowledging both audience and accompanist.

THE JUDGE’S JOB is to critique the performance. He understands that some mistakes are attributable to nerves and, as long as relative minor, will cut a little slack. She can only comment on the performance at hand without any reference to whether this was an exceptionally good (or bad) run compared to normal. The judge can probably tell (but will rarely say for fear of being wrong) whether a student has an expert coach (i.e. studying systematically).

Most participants were probably critiqued by the band director, but often the time and number of sessions are limited. Critiquing the piece is not the same as teaching the instrument.

If the judge could give one nearly universal piece of advice to performers, especially to those who demonstrate significant musicianship, it would be this…

Get an expert coach for
ongoing systematic study.

Music Lessons & Critique: 3 Options

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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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