Music teacher judge

In my last 2 articles, we explored preparing your students and parents for the logistics of a Solo Festival, what students can expect on that day, a few tips on mental preparation, information parents need to be prepared and to encourage their child, and when and how to pick the solo pieces.

There’s also one point I have been driving home to teachers; the best preparation is to become certified as an adjudicator. It’s a simple, informative process that, in most states, public and private school teachers, as well as private teachers can partake in. If you want your own students to do well and have a fantastic experience, you need to experience firsthand what really goes on at a Festival.

In New York State, those that want to get certified attend training at a designated weekend Festival. Within that weekend, training sessions are held with experienced mentors who guide attendees through video sessions, mock judging sessions, and at the end of the Festival, watching actual Festival judging and culminating with real room experience judging students under the mentor’s guidance.  Every 5 years, adjudicators renew their certification and brush up on their judging skills. Some of the things to look for as a judge are listed below.

What do judges look for during a performance?

Here are some of the major categories listed in most states’ evaluation sheets. Get familiar with your state’s evaluation sheets and teach each of the concepts/categories to your students. I list some questions for you to think about and ask your students to think about.


This is huge!

  • Did the performance sound enjoyable or did it sound like someone speaking to you in a monotone? (think Bart Simpson: “blah, blah, blah”)
  • Were dynamics followed (or inserted if there weren’t any)?
  • Was appropriate phrasing used?
  • Was there the natural ebb and flow of the musical phrase? (for advanced levels)

Steadiness of Rhythms

Students need to understand this concept better in order to make the performance more meaningful. Feeling the big and smaller beats, and expressing them helps the audience understand each phrase. I use the analogy of someone who speaks really fast, pauses suddenly, then speaks really slow, pauses suddenly in a strange spot, and repeats the pattern again. After a few moments, one gets exhausted with the conversation and moves on.

  • Can the listener feel the big and small beats of the piece?
  • Can the listener figure out where the phrases start and end?
  • Does it sound like a “story” is being told?

Breath Support

For wind players (brass and woodwinds), proper breath support allows one to play musically, complete phrases, articulate cleanly and enjoy the performance more.

  • Is the intonation consistent throughout the performance?
  • Are the high notes very flat or very sharp? (This can indicate not only a lack of breath support but also a weak embouchure and a closed throat)


When a performer does not articulate, it sounds sloppy, and the steadiness of rhythms can be affected.

  • Are the valves or keys being pressed in time with the articulation? This is a coordination issue where, even though the student may be articulating, the tongue may not be coordinated with the fingers. I tell my brass students to “slam” the valves down, meaning press down hard and quickly. I tell my woodwind players to keep their fingers relaxed and on or very close to the keys.

Tone Quality

Tone is the first thing judges (and the audience) listens to in a performance. If the tone quality is not pleasing, the listener is turned off. Many factors affect the tone quality (breath support, embouchure, posture).

  • Is the student’s embouchure (facial setting) hindering him/her from creating a nice tone?
  • Is the student predominantly breathing from their nose instead of their mouth and not supporting the tone with enough air?
  • Is the student’s posture (elbows in ribs, slumped shoulders, extended neck) affecting their ability to produce a good tone?

I do need to say that some of the weirdest looking embouchres still produce beautiful tones and do not hinder a performance. Many people do not place a mouthpiece dead center on the lips due to teeth issues. I personally would not take off points off of a good performance if the embouchure didn’t look “perfect”. I would make some suggestions in the Comments section if needed.

Overall performance

Judges don’t sit there and tally up all the mistakes. It’s the overall performance and presentation that counts. Confidence is contagious!

  • Is the student continually starting and stopping to fix mistakes or to keep trying to get that elusive high note?
  • Did the student put in the effort necessary to perform the piece well?
  • Was the student engaged in performing the piece or bored?
  • Does the student realize this is a performance and not a practice session?
  • Does the student present him/herself as confident or terrified?

Many students watch shows like The Voice or American Idol, and know what a good performance entails. Instilling the idea that a performance involves many factors and is not just hitting the notes and getting the rhythms correct will help change students’ perspectives and boost their confidence.

Action Steps:

  1. Get familiar with your state’s evaluation sheets.
  2. Do some mock auditions using these sheets one to two weeks before the Festival.
  3. Use examples of good performances from TV shows like The Voice to aid your students.
  4. Remember, it’s the Overall Performance that counts!
  5. Become a certified adjudicator in your state.
  6. If you liked this article, please Like and Share on your social networks.
  7. See my previous articles on Preparing for Solo Festivals: Part 1: Tips for Teachers Part 2: Preparing Students and Parents
  8. Subscribe to my site and get a free video and article on my method for Three Steps to Learning Your Favorite Song at http://DonnaSchwartzMusic.com
  9. Check out my radio show on the BAM Radio Network for more in-depth information and special guest interviews with experts around the world: Donna Schwartz Radio