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What Do Judges Look For in a Music Competition Performance?

You already know that all the hours you spend practicing your violin and satisfying your music teacher’s performance expectations is as important as what you actually learn about music theory and technique. The same is true for judges scoring a string music competition.

Technical expertise and mastery of your chosen piece are essential. Yet there are other things judges keep their eyes, ears, and hearts open for when ranking talented musicians. This is especially true during the semi-final and final rounds when it may seem it's impossible for them to choose a single winner.

Key Notes From the Judges' Corner

We’ve posted numerous articles aimed at those of you who participate in string competitions. Some of the most helpful are Getting Ready for 2020 Competitions, and Secrets of Choosing the Right String Competition for You, both of which provide useful tips.

Today, however, we want to shed light on the “Judges’ Corner,” providing more insight into what judges are looking for when scoring talented musicians.

1. It’s about more than technique

We would never diminish the importance of technique, but competition-level musicians are expected to have a bold check in the “technique” box. That’s the price of qualifying to compete. But beyond technique, almost all judges agree they are looking for something special.

In the case of the American String Teachers Association, hosts of the renowned ASTA National Solo Competition, that “something special” can be conveyed via the musician’s personality and expression of the piece. Judge and professional cellist Jeffrey Solow states, “Judges look for technical excellence, beautiful tone, intelligent and informed interpretative decisions, plus personality and communication.”

Don’t be afraid to loosen up and move with the music as comfortably on stage as you do at home.

2. Hone your tone

If you are newer to the competition scene, this is a good time to work with your instructor and dial in your preferred tone. Tone can make the difference in the emotional expression of a song, so make sure your instrument is creating tones that resonate with you and capture the essence of what you want the music to convey.

Practice playing on different sets of strings, and ask your instructor to provide any micro-feedback about how you can optimize your tone even more than you already have. Even the slightest improvements in violin tone result in better receptivity from judges and audience members.

3. Don’t be afraid to be an individual

Violinist Dr. Eduard Schmieder, Carnell Distinguished Professor of Violin and Artistic Director for Strings at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music in Philadelphia, has spent decades judging prestigious, international strings competitions. In a 2015 Strings Magazine interview, Schmieder was asked what he looks for in a great competition performance. He replied, “Most and first of all, I am looking for the individuality and vivid artistry supported by advanced technique.”

The temptation to blend in, rather than stand out, can be strong. While you want to absolutely respect any guidelines around performance dress codes, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be yourself. Being in touch with who you are comes through in a more individualized expression of the music.

4. Perform passionately, but detach yourself from the outcome

Bassist DaXun Zhang is no stranger to competitions. In 2001, he was the youngest musician to win the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and he has soloed with orchestras across the world. Twenty decades later, Zhang is frequently invited to judge competitions. When asked what it takes to perform well at a competition, he replied, “Just like any other great performances, the ability to communicate with the audience.”

The desire to win a competition can diminish a musician’s ability to play with passion and expression. If you are playing solely for the judges with a competitive bent, rather than for the pure joy of what it means to you to bring a piece of music to life beneath your talented fingertips, wins may remain elusive. Most judges agree that one of the best ways to win a competition is to forget the judges are there and play for the audience, even if you have to pretend they are out there.

5. Be comfortable on stage (and in big spaces)

Musicians are used to practicing at home, in small university practice rooms, or in the comfort of their school and community stages and auditoriums. However, most auditions take place in big halls or concert venues. This can be intimidating for musicians less familiar with playing in a variety of spaces, especially big ones.

Being as prepared as possible includes practicing in a variety of rooms, atmospheres, and venues. This will help you adapt to wherever your next competition takes place. Try to become as comfortable in a small music classroom or the vestibule of an apartment building as you are in a big concert hall or a large open amphitheater. Play in places that have a variety of activity and noise — how about outside on your deck, on the school's football field, a street corner, or a busy restaurant. You never know where the competitions or concert schedule will take you or how quiet or busy the venue will be. Your ability to adapt to a variety of settings makes you a more confident competitor and performer, both of which enhance your ability to remain authentically expressive. Strange, noisy, or busy venues will no longer distract or unnerve you.

Take Your Music Competition Entry to the Next Level

Yes, your strings technique, mastery of the selected piece, and a historical understanding of what you are playing are all things the judges expect to critique. However, your intention to go above and beyond, adding your own emotion, energy, and expression to a musical piece, is what will set you apart from the rest.