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5 Essential Tips on Being an Effective Piano Judge or Adjudicator

I am a pianist and teacher. I love writing about music and cooking.

This article will offer five essential tips for being a better piano judge or adjudicator.

This article will offer five essential tips for being a better piano judge or adjudicator.

Being called upon as a piano judge and adjudicator for a performance event is a distinct honor.

Having had the opportunity to adjudicate in such events, I have gleaned certain "pearls of wisdom" from the experience. I'd like to share just five essential tips for being an effective piano judge or adjudicator—tips that will help you critique performances with confidence

1. Write Concisely and Quickly!

Like mastering an instrument, practicing writing concisely is an art that should be developed conscientiously. Often, you are called to adjudicate many performances in a short time and writing relevant and practical critiques is essential. While complete sentences are favorable, they are certainly not necessary. Practice expressing your thoughts in meaningful and concise phrases:

Good: "Your performance today was certainly entertaining and displayed much confidence"

Better: "An entertaining performance exuding confidence"

Prepare a "Useful Comment Sheet"

Be prepared for the event you are to adjudicate with a "Useful Comment Sheet" you would have readied beforehand. This sheet would include categories like Technique, Tone, Rhythm, General Musicianship etc, and under which you would list descriptive words or phrases that you would find handy and useful at the time of adjudication. It also helps in preventing writer's block!

Start Writing Immediately

Soon after the performance begins, gather your thoughts fast—and start writing! You'll stay on schedule, and organizers will thank you for doing so!

2. See the Big Picture First

There is a strong tendency for many of us to address issues (musical or otherwise) during a performance and while we are adjudicating. In my earlier experiences of judging competitions, I would spend too much time critiquing the details and missed out on opportunities to mention the more important issues that might have contributed to the success (or failure) of the performance. Seeing 'the big picture first' is a practice worth developing. This is how I realize this concept (in a Q & A format):

Q: What is the general music concept I would like to address?
A: Technique
Q: What specifically about the performer's technique need I comment on?
A: Fluidity of scales, brilliance in tone - commendable; unintended accentuation - needs work

Remember: your first responsibility as adjudicator is to critique a performance and provide a score/rating deserving of the performance. Be careful not to step into your "teacher shoes" and focus too much on pedantic comments.

3. Give Praise

Developing a habit of praising others genuinely comes easier for some of us. (It really isn't that hard—it comes from an inward appreciation for life and all that's good in it!) Be fluid, genuine and generous in your praise when it is deserved. Furthermore, your compliments may not only serve to motivate the performer, but affirm what his/her instructor is teaching.

For younger musicians, I have even found myself including comments like: "It is most obvious that you have a wonderful foundation in music. Please be sure to thank your teacher for investing in your success!" It's a double-blessing: the student is happy that you noticed the hard work, and the teacher is grateful that he/she is on the right track.

Your Final Score Should Reflect Your Comments

A word of caution: Be sure that the final score reflects your comments. If your critique is riddled with generous praise and your final score reflects a less than desirable performance, it not only confuses the performer (and teacher) but your scoring method may be called to question.

Craft Unique Praise Phrases

As much as it is easy to write "Good Job" or "Nice Work", stay away from those phrases. Craft your own unique "praise phrases" that show you put some genuine effort! Here are some examples:

  • Commendable performance
  • Truly inspiring
  • Such poetry in your phrases
  • Performed with poise and elegance
  • A generous offering indeed

4. Listen Carefully

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher offers this advice:

"Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak."

As an adjudicator of a live performance, your critique is based on your active participation as a listener. Exercise active listening skills and you will find it easier to judge a performance. Here are some practical ways you can develop active listening skills:

  • YouTube is a great resource for videos of live music performances. Type the title of a piece you are familiar with in the YouTube search box, and select a video performance of the piece. Listen carefully to the performance. Initially, critique the performance by speaking your comments out loud. Later, practice noting your observations on a piece of paper.
  • Develop a sense of focus by choosing a musical aspect you will comment upon BEFORE listening to a recorded performance. (For example, tone production or phrasing.) Discipline yourself to listen for and comment ONLY on this predetermined musical aspect. This not only aids in aural focus but provides you an avenue to develop different ways of critiquing a single musical aspect. (This might be an opportune time to start making that "Useful Comment Sheet" I mentioned earlier!)
  • Record your own students performing their repertoire under study at their lesson time or recitals. Use these recorded performances as a source for your active listening skills. Not only will you benefit from it, but your students will to, in their next lesson!

5. Know Thyself

Knowing and establishing what your standards are BEFORE you begin adjudicating is essential for being an effective adjudicator. For example, in an adjudicated event with a rating system of Superior, Excellent, Good and Fair, would you reserve the rating of Superior solely for performances which are virtually perfect? What constitutes a superior performance according to your standards?

At times, you will be asked to judge a competition in collaboration with one or more adjudicators. Knowing what your standards are become more vital in this situation as you may encounter differing opinions and standards proffered by the other adjudicator/s. In most cases, you will collaboratively come to a consensus as to a final score. At times though, your individual score is independent of the scores given by the other adjudicators.

Talk to the Organizers and Clarify What's Expected of You

If you are new to adjudicating in a competition, always make it a point to speak to the organizers and clarify what is expected of you as an adjudicator and what the judging criteria is. Make an effort to know the rules of the event/festival before it commences. Also, take time to understand the judge's comments or scoring sheet before you begin judging. It might even help you organize your thoughts while you are in the judging process.

In events like evaluation festivals (where the performer is in no competition with other performers), organizers may suggest that judges be "more generous" in their scoring of performances, and where the general purpose of these events is to motivate and encourage young performers in their musical pursuits.

Please Share Your Thoughts and Opinions

These are but a few essential tips I have found most helpful in my experiences as an adjudicator in performance events.

Do feel free to contribute to this article by leaving your thoughts and opinions about the subject. We could all use more tips on being more effective adjudicators!


Geomommaj on November 01, 2013:

Appreciated your concise advice on judging--- especially the advice to not step into teacher territory and make corrections in the performance, but to focus on ideas or themes and accentuate the positive. I also appreciated the reminder to completely support rating with comments. Would appreciate a longer list of words to help with comments.

alexinohio (author) from Cincinnati, Ohio on July 11, 2013:

Thanks all. So glad this article is of some help!

BuffaloPiano on March 04, 2013:

Great article! I will be judging a competition this week and plan on putting these principles into practice. I'm looking forward to sharing constructive criticism and praise with the students who will be participating!

Ron on June 13, 2012:

That's what I call a "great hub". Thank you so much.

Ron from Fitness Tips

GS on February 22, 2012:

Thank you for your comments. They will be very helpful judging this week.