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Local Piano Competitions and the judges

I don’t like being labeled a sore loser because it indicates an unwillingness to accept a loss gracefully. And I’m not talking about myself as much as piano students who practice arduously in preparation for local competitions and expect to be judged fairly. And then again, what is really “fair” when it comes to assessing a musical performance? It’s a gray area at best, even at the highest levels of adjudication in international concours.

At the last Van Cliburn Competition held in Fort Worth, Texas, a “live” chat produced angry exchanges between posters about who best performed a Chopin composition, etc. Individuals fired insults at one another, invalidating opinions that were divergent. The spirit of musical sharing and kinship went down the drain.

At the local venue, when children as young as 8 or 9 prance onto the stage in the end of year piano competition, the judges are supposedly drawn from a list of out-of-town university or community college faculty.

But I’d noticed some budget trimming in the last few years, where local teachers were asked to judge students studying here in the Valley. My first visceral response: A big NO NO!

As much as music teachers would like to think of themselves as unbiased, there can be any number of relationships, close or distant that might compromise a rendered decision. How about conflicts of interest?

Example: A teacher could be teaching students from the same family. They eventually grow up and leave, then produce the next generation of pupils, who might re-connect with the same piano instructor, though now in her advanced age. Misfortune, divorce, a squabble about Junior continuing piano could have intervened resulting in emotional pain on both sides.

Or, a student might have left this same teacher, not under optimal conditions, but her cousin, or cousin once, or even twice removed might re-appear in the same studio. Any number of ties can be forged, with lesser and lesser degrees of separation. Relationships can be bumpy at times. Students who quit piano or transfer to other teachers could have left behind a reservoir of unresolved remorse or anger. The old teacher may resent the new one, or question the conditions of transfer. It could have been a conspicuously pulled off pupil snatch and now the snatched student is up on stage being judged by the former teacher. (See blog on this subject:

Still, some might be on the opposite side of the fence in this matter, arguing that local teachers can judge the area’s competitors with fairness.

That’s up for debate, but nonetheless, it may be best to err on the side of caution and disqualify them.

Assuming that professors, or associates from out of the area are invited to adjudicate…

Next question: What about the applications for the competition and whose hands they might pass through. Here in this city, I have seen teachers who have competition entrants shuffle through the paperwork, knowing in advance what another teacher’s student will play, etc.

I don’t think this is a good idea. The defense of this practice is that “we are all volunteers” and not everyone wants to take on the administrative end of the competition.

If so, why not hire an outside individual to process the application? It seems sensible to keep the whole landscape clean, clear, and above the fray.

What about the social chit chat between the local directors and judges prior to delivered results. A big No No?

It’s not a big leap to fall into cozy conversation about one’s own student who is carded as entrant #5. “Oops, I shouldn’t have let that slip out.”


When the results are decided:

A few comments, on the comments I have received vis a vis my students’ performances over the years.

Here are samples:

“Student needs to practice bowing. Suggest not tilting her head down without a dip in the waist.” (Another paragraph followed about styles of bowing over the ages.)


“Excellent performance, but needs better phrasing, improved fingering, dynamics, and projection.”


(Since there are usually two invited judges, opinions might conflict.)

Judge #1

“Well delivered Mozart, but more pedal needed.”

Judge #2

“Mozart is not played this way. Please don’t use any pedal.”

Judge #1

Tempo is way too brisk in the Beethoven Sonata.

Judge #2

“The pace of the movement is dragging. It’s too slow.”


Okay, so we have the usual schitzy results that can drive the student and teacher up the wall.

But what really upsets me are some of the outcomes.

I’ve seen what I experienced as impeccably beautiful playing being totally unacknowledged and unrewarded. (and this goes for students in other studios as well)

Not even a golden piano charm given as the booby prize?

A student playing a flashy Chopin Etude seems to grab all the attention. How many notes can be tabulated under a submerged pedal?

It’s often suggested in off-the-record conversations among teachers, that judges will adjudicate based upon their repertoire favorites.

I had a very gifted, hard-working student who played Scarlatti, Debussy, and Schubert quite beautifully with gorgeous phrasing and tone, but wasn’t one of the finalists until she performed a flashy Shostakovich selection. That earned her the Prize!

Live and learn!

I always forewarn students about the diversity of decisions, and how they have to go into the competition thinking of it as another vital sharing experience. To heck with the results. Yes, in an ideal world, such dispensed wisdom might be cherished.

But coming down to earth, feathers are ruffled, and students can be upset by what they think are unfair decisions.

Perhaps a middle ground perspective is best. After all, there’s always another performance opportunity in the offing, and the student will grow with confidence with each one. (Hopefully, that is)


4 thoughts on “Local Piano Competitions and the judges”

  1. Competitions: vicious, stupid, and for most of the students (who are studying only for enjoyment of music and playing) destructive and pointless.


  2. Thank you for putting into words (many of the same words we use) what we experience in these competitions. What to do with a child who loves nothing better than being a pianist, who gets judged by judges that do not know the child and then the child wins or places, but when judged by local judges, insults fly in the comments mixed with very odd’ forced’ positives-all from those judges who do not like the child’s previous teacher, or the current one. The thing we wish we could find is a place where children who LOVE to play for people can just play! They have to win to be able to share their music and garner interest. So sad.


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