Judging, Adjudicating, and Evaluating

Competitions require judges. We have them now on TV every night. Who gets to be a judge and why? Who is judging the judges?

If you are a member of NATS, you might be asked to judge one of their local competitions. You may or may not have expertise, they don’t ask. If you are available and a member, you qualify. No kidding. If you have expertise in one or more kinds of singing and that’s something you have shared with your colleagues, you might be regarded as a potentially “good” judge, but the people making that assessment could be very wrong. Some professional singers have limited knowledge of vocal technique, or wrong-headed ideas about it, and rigid ideas about performing and none of those criteria are mentioned as being part of judging whether or not the person should be a judge. A roll of the dice.

If you want other scary scenarios, read my previous posts about competitions.

If you go to larger vocal competitions where bigger financial prizes are offered, you might have judges who are not singers at all. You could have conductors, agents, managers, composers, producers, and all sorts of other people who are involved with various parts of the music industry. Some of them might know about singing from life experience but that’s not the same as knowing singing. I know about tennis (I know how it’s played and how its scored and I know who some of the famous players are. I know about the strategy of playing and the challenges of the game.) I have never played tennis, and I haven’t even been to a professional tennis tournament. Would you want me to judge a competition of tennis players, deciding who had the “best” swing or serve, evaluating how quickly the player returned the ball that was so close to the net, keeping track of how many of the serves were effective? I hope not. Yet, in singing, we have musicians (pianists, composers and conductors who may not have ever been singers or studied singing, and producers who maybe are instrumental musicians or engineers, or agents or managers who maybe business people or lawyers), deciding who is the “best” singer. What kind of criteria do they use? Anybody’s guess.

If you are a judge of anything, it implies that you have a wide breadth of knowledge and experience in your field and that you are judging whatever it is in a way that is balanced and fair. It’s up to you, however, to decide what balanced and fair is. It’s no wonder that most competitions are frustrating for all but the winners.

I have some suggestions for the people who would judge singing.

Come to the competition empty. Do not bring any previous event with you into the room. Do not bring your pre-conceived ideas about what is “good” or “great” or “terrific” with you either. Bring your intellectual knowledge of music, of repertoire, of performing, but hold it in reserve. Sit quietly and open your heart. Listen. Really listen with no judgement. Look. Open yourself to receive what is being given to you. Do not try to fit it into your mental constructs about what “should” or “should not” be happening. Instead, let yourself be guided entirely by your heart. Without that, you are not judging fairly and in a balanced manner, you are projecting your past onto the person standing in front of you who is giving you their all. Breathe and be still. Let go and allow yourself to be touched by the singer and the music he or she is singing. Only when the song is over, go into your “judge” mode and then write only constructive, empowering comments. Be clear and do not write “voice teacher jargon” about “spinning the breath from the abdomen” or some such. Empty yourself again if there is a second selection or a third. Do this for every contestant and for every song. When it is over, let your mind wander over the people you have heard and see who has left an impression. Contemplate why this is so.

Judging this way is challenging. It is so much easier to be “smart” and to come in as “an expert” to show your colleagues “how much you know”. It can be frightening, lest you look dumb or uneducated or inexperienced. But if you are going to trust your own deep wisdom, you have to get out of your “thinking mind” and get into the part of you that is wiser than words. You have to sink into the part of you that experiences directly. If you can’t do that, or maybe do not even know what that means, you should recuse yourself from judging, as all you are capable of doing is projecting onto the poor hapless contestant your ideas about the past and your beliefs about yourself.

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