WHAT THE JUDGES HEARD
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
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
won the International Harp Contest in Israel in 1979. She has recorded and
concretized extensively as a soloist and also with flutist James Galway.
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
“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?
“These are players that for sure I want
to hear again. Their playing was interesting, compelling, and artistic.”
“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.”
“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
“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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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
“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.”
“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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?
“Generally, jurors are not allowed to discuss
contestants and voting.”
“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.”
“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.
“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
“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.”
“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,
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
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
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.