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Notes from a Judge

It's Spring - the season of music competitions. I've already judged three within the last month (one piano-only, and two concerto competitions for all instruments) and they've been excellent reminders as to what the judges are looking for in the performances .

In each competition the overall level was very high. I wasn't surprised... after all, everyone pre­pared well and genuinely wanted to give the performance their best effort.

So, in a field of "very good" performances, who stands out?


1. CLEAN PLAYING: Mistakes are forgivable, but if someone else has a clean performance they will edge you out. The competitive circuit in music is at a high level that continues to elevate, and judges often feel that the easiest way to narrow down the field is to eliminate those who make mistakes. Strive for consistent clean playing in your practicing (after all, if it doesn't happen at home it won't happen in performance). I will take a musically engaging "imperfect" performance over a technically perfect but soul-less perfor­mance any day, but if two performers are neck-and-neck, judges tend to go with the cleaner and more convincing one.

2. CONVICTION: Play it like you mean it! This is not the time to be humble or shy or second-guess your interpretation. Decide what you are going to say and then convince us that this is the way it should be.

3. DYNAMIC RANGE: Lackluster fortes and moderately soft pianissimos won't draw us into a magical musical world. Many young performances stay in the "safe" range of mp-mf. If you want to truly get our attention, follow the dynamics in the music, and use a broad range of dynamics and explore a variety of sounds, colors, and articulations.

This poses a challenge for pianists especially, who don't get to take their own (or their teacher's) instruments with them for performances. Sometimes we luck out and get a beautiful instrument that is easy to play. Other times, we have to work MUCH harder to create an effective performance.

Do we give up when we get a piano that isn't up to our normal standards? No!

I liken our challenge to the process of a chemist analyzing a water sample: we must evaluate the instrument's strengths and weaknesses quickly (sometimes instantaneously, if we don't have a chance to try out the instrument before diving into the performance) and create a plan of action to make it sound as best as it possibly can. I have witnessed many a fine pianist turn a "bad" piano into a beautifully singing instrument through their expert voic­ing, determined expression, and careful avoidance of the piano's weaknesses. Thus, I believe whole-heartedly that it can be done. It's not easy... but we need to be ready to step it up a notch when the time calls for it.


PHYSICAL: How can we play soft without the sound completely disappearing? How can we play loud without the piano shouting an ugly sound? How can we play forte on a "dead" register of the keyboard without excess tension?

MENTAL: How can we stay "in the zone" and lose ourself in the performance when we really aren't sure that it will make a difference?

ARTISTIC: Can we effectively evaluate the instrument and create a beautiful canvas of sound?

Last March, I interviewed pianist Reynaldo Reyes on the occasion of his retirement from Towson University at the age of 81. He was my teacher from my teens through college, and then became my mentor and role-model as I continued to come back to him for advice. Among the topics we spoke about were competitions and he shared this beautiful answer to my question on why he so strongly encourages his students to participate in competitions:"

"If you push someone to a competition, they will practice. It forces you to learn, whether you like it or not. Of course, it doesn't mean that you'll win first prize. It means you'll win first prize for you. Competition is important because it teaches you character. It makes you stronger as a person. When you lose, you accept it. After all, no one can win all the time. And, even if you go through life without winning anything, that's perfectly alright. You win according to how you accept what you are dealt. The real first prize is that you learn!"

by Elizabeth B. Borowsky (excerpted from the VMTA May 2016 Newsletter)

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