By Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in the Harp Column September/October 2003 issue, vol. 12, no. 2)

     Competitions are a fact of musical life. Entrance exams for music school, orchestra auditions, concerto competitions, local or international competitions—all of these events require performing under stressful conditions after months or even years of preparation and then being graded by a jury.

    Frequently after the contest is over, there is lingering grumbling about the judging. “The judges wanted this,” or, “The judges were looking for that,” is the most common lament. Usually the assumption of what the judges were looking for is a description of how the winners played. And then there are stories about judges arguing amongst themselves in the jury room, or one juror trying to twist arms to favor a particular player.
    Do judges really go into a competition looking for a specific type of player? And do they, consciously or unconsciously, hold grudges or prejudices against one type of player (or method) or another? We talked with four harpists who have been on judging panels many times, including at international harp competitions.      

Kathleen Bride

is professor of harp at the Eastman School of Music and has judged many harp competitions, including the USA International Harp Competition and the International Harp Contest in Israel.      

Sarah Bullen

is Principal Harpist of the Chicago Symphony; previously she was Principal Harpist of the New York Philharmonic and the Utah Symphony. She has judged harp competitions many times, including at the USA International Harp Competition.      

Emily Mitchel

won the International Harp Contest in Israel in 1979. She has recorded and concretized extensively as a soloist and also with flutist James Galway.      

Susann McDonald

is professor of harp at Indiana University and founder of the USA International Harp Competition. She has judged many competitions over the years, including the USA and the Israel competitions.

      We asked these jurors the following questions: The first stage of a competition is the only one that involves all the contestants, and it also requires the largest elimination of players. Are there common problems you hear in this stage that result in a contestant being eliminated? Are there specific things a contestant could address prior to competing so they would stand a better chance of making it to the next stage?      

Susan McDonald:

“I feel that weak or dry tone production is probably the most obvious problem one hears in the first stage, which leads to being eliminated by comparison with a stronger, warmer, and more projected tone quality. Sometimes nerves lead a contestant to pull back and play more safely or softly. This can be overcome by sufficient performance experience prior to the contest. I listen for a confident overall performance, an artistic sense of communication and musicianship, and good tempos. Tempos that are not fast enough, or the opposite, a player who is rushing, can be another cause for elimination.”      

Emily Mitchell:

“I listen for a contestant who is ready from the very start to engage in performing. The pressure of having to deliver a beautiful performance under the insensitivity of competition undoes many a contestant, and elimination becomes pretty clear pretty quickly. I have such compassion for contestants, but the bottom line is, a contestant has to put in the hours of practice and dedicate themselves to an Olympian conditioning.”      

Kathline Bride:

“In the first stage I always listen for the player who ‘grabs my ears,’ because they have something to say about the music. Technically, at this point all contestants should be at the top of their game. I want to hear a player who is not only musical and thoughtful, but enjoys what they are doing at the moment. The most common problem involving many contestants centers around their neglecting one important step in preparation—multiple performances in front of an audience of the repertoire in the competition. If contestants performed their competition programs ten times or more for live audiences before appearing on the competition platform, they would all be more secure performers. In speaking with contestants who were eliminated in the first round, they frequently admit to only performing their repertoire one or two times before leaving home for the competition. They are nervous, frightened, and generally unprepared for the mental focus needed for this stressful time.”      

Sarah Bullen:

      “In the first stage, very few people will be able to play convincingly, which means to play with great personality and also with attention to minute detail, and get it right. The problems that show up over and over again are really simple—memory slips and pedal problems. In harp competitions, the pedals pose such a memory obstacle. It’s not to say that such problems can’t be forgiven, because they can. As long as the contestant knows how to get out of problems like memory and pedals. To me, it’s the polish and professionalism that count the most. And how can it be polished if it’s pockmarked with mistakes? A lot of the problems at this stage are preparation problems. Performing the program five, six, or sevven times in public before the competition would help a lot. Most bad performances are probably due to nerves. I would say the thing that lets people down the most is that with nerves you’re suffering a limitation technically. Instead of being at 100 percent, you’re now performing at 70 percent. As a judge listening to a competitor, I want to feel that I’m in the hands of someone who is close to being a master. I want to feel comfortable. I want to feel that this person is taking control of the performance and is putting me at ease listening to them.”

      To wrap up this stage of the competition, we asked the jurors to characterize the playing of contestants who pass to the second stage. In other words, what did those contestants do that made them survive the first stage?

Susan McDonald:

      “These are players that for sure I want to hear again. Their playing was interesting, compelling, and artistic.”      

Emily Mitchell:

      “To me, all stages of a competition are a package deal. The contest is to perform a great amount of repertoire involving all the ingredients of a fine performance: style, creative individualism, tone, intonation, technique, continuity, and confidence. The playing has layers and levels of color (dynamic shadings). The phrasing is complete and an expression of self-knowledge. Technique is a support system, not an exhibition. A real bone of contention with me is too-fast playing that covers up not knowing what to do with the music.”      

Sarah Bullen:

      “To tell you the truth, in the first stage there are usually very few players that I can be really excited about. So a judge can be a little more liberal in passing people that may have been borderline. There are hopefully a few standouts that you’re really looking forward to hearing again. I think that early on, as a judge, you are waiting to be convinced by the performance. You’re wanting to be convinced.”      

Kathleen Bride:

      “Contestants who pass to the second stage need the same qualities of musicality, thoughtfulness, and enjoyment as those in the first stage. They must play with authority and maturity.”
    In many ways, the second and third stages of international competitions like the Israel and the USA, constitute the meat and potatoes of the competitions. These two stages can best be characterized as short and long recital programs with a few required pieces and numerous free choices. So does the judging change for these two stages? Do jurors listen for different things?      

Susan McDonald:

      “I find that juries rather agree upon what constitutes a good performance. It is true that judges may count more or less for accuracy, and some judges are very lenient about accuracy but want expressivity and musicality above all. There is usually considerable tension among the jury as the contest progresses and the stakes become higher. And there are often real surprises as to who the final winners are.”      

Emily Mitchell:

      “As the competition progresses, it becomes clear who will win which prize. Who maintains the highest level of performance. I believe most juries are listening for playing that moves them. There is no such thing as ‘the jury wanted this,’ or ‘the jury was looking for that.’ A jury made up of diverse personalities can’t possibly know such things.”      

Kathleen Bride:

      “I don’t think that issues for the second and third stage should be different from the first stage. Wonderfully mature playing is still wonderfully mature playing no matter the stage of the competition. However, the player who has managed to make it into the second stage with a weaker technique (in certain styles of music) will be subjected to more stress and possibly a greater incidence of technical breakdown. I do think some judges feel that one missed note is grounds for dismissal from the next round, and I find this to be a horrifying thought! Live music is just that-live. Anyone can miss a note or two at any time whether it is a competition or recital. If we are looking to judge automatons who produce every note and every rhythm just as noted on the page, we should be looking to judge computer models of harp music! We need to think about the winner who will represent the harp and take our instrument out into the world to compete with all the violinists, cellists, and pianists who are currently on the concert platforms. Our goal as judges should be to choose the most musical, most virtuosic, and most thoughtfully mature player from the entire list of competitors.”      

      Picking the finalists for the last stage must be very difficult. Are there standard issues on which contestants at this stage pass or fail? Do the finalists in all competitions share common bonds regarding what got them to the final stage?      

Susan McDonald:

      “It is true that the last stage performers are normally those who are very polished players. However, even here I think differences in personality and verve and artistic expressivity and excitement become very apparent, and usually it is pretty clear who played the best that day at that hour. Contests do not always show who is the best harpist and artist, but who did the best that day.”      

Emily Mitchell:

      “When the level of musicianship is high, it becomes more difficult to choose those who pass to the finals, but generally the first three prize winners stand out from the beginning because their playing is multi-dimensional.”

Kathleen Bride:

      “Last stage performers have to show their best qualities from the very first note played in stage one. They should have not only a solid, reliable technique, but their own musical ideas that are expressed convincingly to the judges and audience. Sometimes these musical ideas may run counter to the standard interpretation. The performer must have the courage of their convictions to present these ideas in a manner which draws in every listener and challenges their thinking.”      

Sarah Bullen:

      “In the end, the question for each contestant is: How do you rise above the standard level? It takes force of personality. And the ability to put it out there, like a pinch hitter, and just do it.”

     After talking with the judges, we had a much better understanding of their thought processes. We could understand why contestants mistakenly assume that the judges have preconceived ideas about quality of playing. We could also understand why, from the judges standpoint, this could not possibly be true. Next we asked the judges to tell us what they thought the value of competing in an international competition was.

Susan McDonald:

      “It depends upon the seriousness of the harpist. I feel often students want to compete when they really are not ready. I hear many say, ‘I don’t expect to win, but I’m doing it for the experience.’ I think the experience should come before the contest!”      

Emily Mitchell:

      “I don’t think competitions should be used to gain experience. This can be gained through intensive study and much preparation in the learning-to-perform process. Otherwise, competition is demoralizing. In the music world we harpists are still struggling to be recognized as viable soloists, so winning even a major harp competition can only result in something to write on your resume. When I first came to New York after winning Israel, I had a coveted appointment with a major concert organizer. I was so excited telling him I’d won Israel. He just looked at me and said, ‘So, can you play?’ I looked at that two-bit hustler and said, ‘Yeah, I can play!’ He could have cared less about me being a winner of a harp competition. He wanted to know the word of mouth about me.”      

Kathleen Bride:

      “There is great value in participating in a competition: The discipline of learning large amounts of repertoire, sticking to a schedule for learning, understanding the demands of attention to detail, the joy of making wonderful music, and meeting colleagues from all over the world. Competitions are not for the faint of heart however. Students who enter competitions should be fully ready for the rigors of this work, and it is the job of their teacher to insure that the student who really ‘needs another six months of maturity’ is not put on the competition trail just to satisfy the ego of the teacher."
    So what advice would our judges give to someone who is thinking about entering a competition? Is there a check list of things that are important to preparing a competition program?  

Susan McDonald:

      “It is critical that the contestant be prepared long in advance to have sufficient time to practice performing all of the repertoire. Then they should play the repertoire over and over again for friends and family and nursing homes and retirement communities—not to mention their teacher—enough times that they are able to play the music consistently at a high performance level.”      

Emily Mitchell:

      “In my experience, it served me best to play for myself, not my teachers, nor my parents, nor the other contestants, nor anyone on the jury. This is not easy, especially if you have your teacher(s) on the jury and a stage mother. But remember, when you walk out on stage, it’s just you and your instrument, and the hardest person to please is yourself. If you can please yourself then you can walk away satisfied.”      

Kathleen Bride:

      “Start learning the music as soon as the list appears. It is crucial to have the repertoire fully memorized and comfortable well in advance of the competition so that there is time to ‘try out’ the stages for many audiences. Pay attention to details. Learn dynamics well, play with strong rhythmic drive and conviction, and know every phrase like your own name. Music is about communication. Don’t just play to play all the notes correctly. Be sure you know how to move the audience with your thoughtful, musical playing. If you have learned your program well and you have prepared the stages in front of live audiences before arriving at the competition, then you are fully ready to go and play beautifully. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities. Do not let other competitors scare or intimidate you. Mental toughness and readiness are a part of the game. Be prepared for it.”      

Sarah Bullen:

      “If you know that nerves are going to be an issue, then you really need to perform the competition program numerous times in front of an audience. Also, tape yourself constantly. And listen to many, many different recordings early on in the preparation. Educate yourself to different approaches. In thinking back on the Bloomington competition, there was a tendency to play too fast. There was not enough breathing. This may be because of nervousness, or maybe an attempt to try to impress the jury. But really, it comes down to immaturity. And that’s a big mistake too. If speed is what the composer had in mind, then speed is appropriate and impressive. But you’re not going to win a competition just because you play the fastest Mozart. It’s got to fit into the musical context. I think more than anything, it’s knowing how to turn a phrase, knowing how to breathe with the phrase that’s important. And those are things that are a mark of maturity in music making that a lot of players have not yet discovered. I think students often think they never have enough technique, and so they think it’s all about technique. It is about technique, but it’s also about sound. It’s also about phrasing.”

      We have already covered this one indirectly, but let’s hit it once more head on and put it to rest. Do jurors ever discuss contestants during the competition?      

Emily Mitchell:

      “Generally, jurors are not allowed to discuss contestants and voting.”      

Sarah Bullen:

      “At Bloomington, we could not talk about the competition at all. Not until the last stage was over. The reality though-which doesn’t affect the outcome of the competition-is that you sometimes pick up little things here and there. You could just tell. By the end, it was no surprise to me. But there was no deliberation at all. You’re not even supposed to sit close to any other jury member.”      

Kathy Bride:

      “There is no discussion about candidates.”
       One last question. We asked our jurors to tell us their thoughts about the difficulties of judging a harp competition.      

Susan McDonald:

      “It is always difficult to make choices that will be hurtful to some of the contestants. I personally feel depressed and sad after most contests, because usually only one person is happy: the first prize winner. And I know how close the decisions often are, so that by small margins—decimal points—careers are sometimes made or broken.”

Kathleen Bride:

      “I hope the competitors understand what tough decisions we have to make as judges. Not all of us are happy all of the time with the outcome of every stage. Competitors must remember that scores are averaged among all the judges. It is not individual opinion. Many of us are distressed when a competitor we thought was a wonderful player does not make it into the next round. The competitors need to understand that we have no direct control over this process of elimination. The good news for those eliminated before reaching the finals is this: ‘The cream always rises to the top.’ Your time will come. I am always impressed with the amount of effort put forth by each harpist as they begin to play. It always represents years of training, several years of learning this particular repertoire, tryout recitals, travel and its expense, bringing a harp or playing on a borrowed instrument, and the overall stress of competition. From my perspective, all of the candidates are winners. That may sound corny, but we play a very difficult instrument, and I appreciate all of the combined efforts that have brought these young players to the stage to compete.”      

Emily Mitchell:

     “Competition is, at best, a limited view because you are judging what you hear right now, not the way it might have sounded yesterday or the way it might sound next week. That’s why competitions sometimes seem unfair, because they are based on how the contestants played that day. A different jury might choose an entirely different contestant on a different day. You just hope, as a judge, that you are choosing contestants who are consistent beyond the competition.”      


How Competitions Work

     Some competitions, like the Anne Adams Awards, have only one stage. Each harpist is heard once, and that’s it. College entrance exams are usually the same. Others, like orchestra auditions, have two and possibly three stages. Competitors are heard multiple times by the same judges. We focused on the process of judging an international harp competition, which usually has multiple stages. But what our panel had to say applies to all competition situations. First of all, let’s look at the two most prestigious harp competitions—the USA International Harp Competition and the International Harp Contest in Israel—and how they are run. There is a significant difference between the two concerning their judging systems.
    Ester Herlitz, director of the International Harp Contest in Israel, provided me with these details: The competition, which takes place every three years, uses the judging system of the Leeds Piano Competition in England. No points are assigned whatsoever. A maximum of 36 contestants are accepted to enter the competition. The jurors each choose 18 to pass to the second stage. The score sheets of the individual jurors are tallied by the competition director, and from that tally, 18 are chosen to pass to the second stage. Then the jurors each pick 6 to pass to the third (semi-final) stage. And finally, three are chosen to pass to the fourth (final) stage. In the final stage, the three contestants are graded First, Second, and Third. The jury may at no time talk amongst each other or discuss the contestants. The director of the contest receives the voting papers and marks the master list. In the case of a tie in any stage, there is a repeat vote of the two contestants who tie for last place. The judges meet before the start of the contest and have the system explained to them by the chairperson of the jury and the director of the contest.

    The USA International Harp Competition also takes place every three years and is divided into four stages. It is open to harpists of any nationality who are between the ages of 16 and 32 in the year of the competition, and a maximum of 45 contestants are accepted to compete based on a selection committee review of the application materials submitted. All stages of the competition are open to the public and take place on an open stage without a screen. Jurors may not communicate with participants or other jury members, and may not vote for any participant who is or has ever been their student. The judging system involves assigning points, on a scale of 0 to 30, to each contestant for each stage. Only whole points are given, and their value is as follows: 26-30=excellent, 21-25=Very Good, 16-20= Good, 9-15=Satisfactory, and 0-8=Poor.

     At the end of the first stage, the 25 competitors with the higest points pass to the second stage. 10-12 competitors-again with the highest points-pass to the third stage. And three finalists pass to the final stage. In calculating the results of the final stage, the average of the points of
stages 1 and 2 counts for 15%, the points for the third stage count for 35%, and the points for the fourth stage count for 50%. This is how the first three prize winners are selected. A tie at any stage of the competition is resolved by a simple majority vote of the jury. If that does not break the tie, then the president of the jury makes the decision.      


Carl's Experience at Judging

     It all started with an invitation from Sally Maxwell to be one of three judges for the Anne Adams Awards. I had never judged a competition before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My concerns leading up to “judgment day” were pretty basic, nuts and bolts issues. Would I be able to distinguish between the contestants enough to pick three prize winners? Would I be able to remember accurately how all 18 contestants played? Would I be able to stay mentally focused for 12 hours of judging and listen to three pieces 18 times without wanting to slit my wrists? And would my decisions be the same as, or at least similar to, the other two judges? I can’t say I was worried. But I was very aware that I was entering a situation for which I had no previous experience.

    On the morning of the competition, the three judges met in the auditorium where the contestants would play. Patty Harris, Anne Adam’s daughter, was the coordinator. She handed each of us the first score sheet—there would be one for each contestant—and explained the system. There would be points awarded in five categories: A maximum of 15 points for tone; 15 for intonation; 30 for technique, subdivided into 10 for finger facility, 10 for accuracy, and 10 for pedal facility; and 30 for musicianship-again subdivided into 15 for phrasing, artistry, expressiveness, and style, and 15 for tempo and rhythmic control. Finally, a maximum of 10 points could be awarded for memory. A perfect score equaled 100. In addition, there was a box at the bottom of the sheet for comments. These score sheets and comments would be given to each contestant after the competition was over.

     It was not important that our scores be consistent with each other, just that we be consistent with ourselves. After each contestant played, we were to add up the points we had given the player, record it at the bottom of the column, write our comments, sign and date the sheet, and then give it to Patty. Patty explained that at no time and under no condition were we to talk about the players amongst ourselves. The three of us were seated at a table behind a screen about 15 or 20 rows from the stage. We didn’t know who was playing, and the contestants didn’t know who was judging.

     We already had copies of the three pieces we would be listening to and a legal pad and several pencils; we were explained that the legal pad was for our individual use only. I had already numbered every measure of each piece, and had decided to take copious notes in the hope that, by referring to those notes, I would better remember a particular player and how they played.

     The competition started at 9:00 a.m. Throughout the day we listened to three or four players and then had a break. Each player played the entire Pescetti Sonata, the Grandjany “Rhapsodie,” and specific excerpts from Ein Heldenleben. Remember, this was a one stage competition, so we only heard each contestant one time. The players could play the three pieces in any order they wanted, and I can tell you that we had no prejudice concerning the order a given harpist choose to play the pieces.

    I took about a page and a half of notes on each contestant. I wrote furiously, in a scribble indecipherable to anyone else, a running commentary on the player. In looking back on those notes, I find that my attention was less focused on wrong notes and pedals (although I did make note of those) and more on phrasing, tempo, and musical expression. Most importantly, I wanted to see how well the player seemed to understand the structure and style of the piece.

    After one player was done, we had about 10 to 15 minutes to write our scores and comments. My notes on each contestant filled the box on the front and most of the back of the score sheet. In fact, I took those score sheets to lunch and diner so I could finish writing my comments.

     At 8:30 p.m. we were finished listening to everybody. Patty gave us another sheet, which was for our ranking of the contestants. She explained that we were under no obligation to stick to the points that each contestant had been awarded. If there were two contestants with point totals that were close, we could give the contestant with the lower total a higher ranking if we felt that was fair. I seem to remember that my point totals were in line with how I felt about the top 5 or 6 players, so my ranking of the contestants followed exactly the point totals.

    Once we turned over our ranking sheets, Patty and Sally Maxwell tallied them and came up with the winners. The three judges were too exhausted to talk about anything. So we just waited to see who had won.

    When the winners were announced, the other harpist-judge on the jury and I had picked the same first place and the same second place winner. The next three or four rankings were the same players, but in slightly different order. It was very interesting that the non-harpist on the jury had quite different ideas about the players, and his rankings reflected this.

     What impressed me about the three prize winners was all things mentioned by the jurors we talked to in this article. The winners were secure and convincing. Their playing was clean and they played as if they understood what the composer was trying to say with the piece. I felt comfortable and calm listening to them, meaning that I felt they were in firm control and that if they made any mistakes, they would be able to get out of them discreetly and artistically. There was never any issue about their approach to a piece being different from mine. I wasn’t listening for that. I was listening for an approach to each piece that sounded true and heartfelt and that the player understood.

    The contestants with lower rankings had many of the same problems. They were often compromised by nerves, some more than others. There were lots of mistakes—wrong notes and buzzes in particular—that I think were due primarily to nerves. The Pescetti was frequently played too fast. Way to fast! The result was often technical difficulty, but also a bland colorless performance. But even the players with few technical problems or nerves often played-the Rhapsodie in particular-as if they didn’t really understand the piece, and were simply doing what their teacher had drilled them to do. The result was a mechanical and uninspiring—“unconvincing” as Sarah Bullen says—performance.

    What can a potential competition contestant do to improve their chances? To summarize the thoughts of the four panelists, as well as my own observations, I would suggest the following checklist:

     Learn all the music as early as possible. Ideally, for a major competition, it should be ready one year in advance. That means memorized and at performance level. That way, you can spend the year before the competition living with the music at that level.

     After learning the competition material, you will then have to learn to perform it. Perform the competition program as many times as you can before a major competition. At a minimum, six or seven times. Several of those performances should be in the last weeks, just before the competition.

      If you have a problem with nerves, find a solution. If performing the material doesn’t get better with each performance, and you are always terribly nervous, then you have to address the performance nerves as a medical issue. (See my article on beta blockers in the March/April 2002 issue of Harp Column.)

     Listen to recordings and performances of the competition pieces to hear different approaches to the music, and study the music away from the harp. You should have a concept in your head of what you want to do with the piece, and what the composer meant to convey when he composed it. Your teacher should not be imposing an interpretation on you, but rather helping you make your interpretation of the music as effective as possible.

      Record yourself frequently to see what your playing really sounds like. If you’ve never done this, you’re going to be very surprised. It’s very common for example, to discover that you’re playing everything much faster than you think you are.

    Listen to other music from the period in which the competition pieces were written. If, for example, there is a piece by Parish Alvars on the program, it’s extremely important to understand what Bel Canto singing sounds like, and to listen to great Bel Canto singers and arias, because that was the model for so much of his music. If there is a Bach transcription on the program, listen to the same piece played by harpsichordists and organists.

      If you are thinking of competing one day in a major competition, try to attend that competition, or any music competition, as an observer first. It will familiarize you with the whole process. But more importantly, it gives you a chance to hear the whole spectrum of ability and performance levels that compete.

      Lastly, make sure that you have done all the preparation you can so that when you walk out on stage and sit down at the harp, you know that you are there not with the expectation of winning, but rather with the expectation that you will play your very best.