A brief history of American judging - by Dallas Niermeyer


Dallas Niermeyer gives us a brief overview of the history of brass band adjudication in America. Can the British learn anything from the American experience?

Dallas NiermeyerDuring the past 50 or 60 years the process of adjudicating music units of all types in contest situations in the US has undergone a steady and continuous development and growth; however, the underlying premise about what contests should provide for the competitors has remained much the same during the entire period. 

This process has been shaped by a joint effort of both the judging community and the competing units from the areas of bands, orchestras, choirs, and small ensembles as well as the performing groups from the area of pageantry.

Although any contest is, by definition, an event in which performers vie for placement, and in particular, selection as the winner or perhaps placement into the top few positions, the contest environment in North America has produced additional agendas which have grown to nearly equal importance. 

Before we get into a more detailed explanation of the "how, what, and why" of these agendas, let's take a quick look at some of the history and development of adjudication during the past 50 or so years.

For several years just prior to and immediately following WWII, most adjudication of musical units was primarily focused on the pursuit of technical perfection and the subsequent recording of "errors."  Judges were given sheets on which to record errors, often referred to as "ticks".

Each competing unit was assumed to start the performance with a perfect score and from that score the judge would begin deducting points by recording errors.  Elaborate systems for encoding, categorizing, and recording the various types of errors were formulated.  This system, often referred to as "tear-down" system, persisted for many years.

While it produced performances that were often technically clean, it did little to promote musicality or encourage groups to take musical risks.  It did, however, give musicians a precise numerical evaluation of at least their technical and mechanical ranking among their competitors.  The fewer mistakes the judge could hear, the higher the score and judges became highly skilled at ferreting out minute flaws in any performance.

The Ranking System:

So, one of the first concerns of the contest results was formulated; namely, that no matter where a unit placed in the contest, they would know exactly by how much they had missed winning the event.  They were given an objective numerical evaluation of the very subjective experience of performing music.  Competitors and judges alike felt, for example, that even if a group placed 14th out of 20, they had a right to know by just how much they had beaten the 15th place group and  by how much they had missed being 13th or even 12th.  The implication was that this kind of information would help them in their future preparation and be a guide to their eventual improvement. 

We quickly learned that to simply Rank the performances, first through last, does little for any group except the winner.  The concept of Rating, that is, assigning a definite numerical value to each performance, lets the competitors know by precisely how much they were ahead of or behind any other competitor in that contest and leads to the first premise of applying this system of judging that contest results and judges' evaluations should help educate the competitive units.  Through education, the performers should have increased opportunities and additional information with which to structure their improvement.

In a twenty band contest for example, to simply tell 17 of the bands that they weren't in one of the top three slots tends to lump them together in a mass that is often viewed as simply a group of losers.  Three bands were "in the money" and the rest were not.  Not precisely accurate of course, but a simple Ranking system does not provide any information about just how much better the 8th place band was than the one immediately behind it, nor does it tell the 4th place group just how much they will need to improve to attain 3rd place in a similar field of bands.

Making Music:

Still, technical excellence alone does not provide much information about what should be the real reason for any musical performance; namely, Making Music.  Performers increasingly demanded that judges provide information and insights into what they perceived in the way of musicality and musicianship, and to a lesser degree, the overall success of the effect of the performance, which might be described as the entertainment value or audience appeal. 

Clearly, a musical group that provided an appealing and entertaining performance, often driven by the type of literature selected, would not necessarily be at the highest musical level.  In the current brass band arena we see this concern most clearly in entertainment contests.

Groups at all levels of proficiency began insisting that judges provide guidelines for their analysis and numbers assessments as well as increased feedback on how they had arrived at their opinions.  Score sheets were devised which listed specific items for consideration by the judge; such things as balance, blend, intonation, tone quality, phrasing and many others were now part of what judges had to be sure they considered, not just personal preferences of tempo, style or interpretation. 

Judges began directing their written comments on the sheets to these specific areas, which seemed to sharpen the focus of their analysis but still did not provide a clear or detailed enough picture of how the judge had arrived at the more subtle details and still not a lot of information about musicality.  Things were getting better but musical groups wanted still more information about what the judges had heard in the performance, both positive and negative.

Positive judging:

Sometime in the late 1970's the concept of using the cassette tape recorder was introduced as a judging tool and quickly became a standard device that almost no contest or music festival in the US would now do without.  The taped commentary allows the judge to comment on the performance as events occur, judging through time, as well as allowing the contestants to hear the performance itself in the background when the tape is played back following the contest.  Everyone involved quickly learned that, with training in the proper use of the tape recorder, both the judge and the contestants could benefit immeasurably.

For the contestants, the tapes not only allowed them to hear a fairly accurate recording of their performance but it also allowed them to hear the judge's commentary and follow his train of thought and emotional reactions to the performance.  Perhaps most important for the growth of the competitor was the ability to repeat the tape and study the responses over and over in detail.

For the judge, the reaction to the process of analysis was instantaneous and certainly quicker than writing on a score sheet.  Since the music can always be heard in the background, it greatly reduced the amount of score-referencing necessary.  The judge's thought process by which he arrived at a score became much more apparent. 

For example, if the tape was filled with comments and reactions concerning mechanical problems and had little information about musicality, the judge's emphases and perhaps even his biases would be evident.  The judge was now encouraged to make something besides negative comments that simply listed faults and shortcomings.  In nearly every performance at any level there are some things that deserve a positive reaction and in those performances of the highest caliber there may be just a few things that would induce some negative response.

In short, the judge was now provided the means to quickly and clearly provide a balanced  response to performances at all levels of proficiency.  This of course, enhances the educational component of the contest. All groups need to know what they did well and what items, no matter how minute, need their attention for future growth.  All of this is geared to helping the group improve.

As the judging process has become more sophisticated, so too have the contestants.  Increasingly they have demanded to know by what standards they are being judged and to what standard they are being compared. 

In the early years there simply wasn't much in the way of a standard.  When questioned about their decisions judges would often reply something like "I know what's good and what's not".  Not content with such an autocratic reaction, contestants formulated a linear scale, which listed qualities that should be evident in performances at various levels and provided a numerical range of scores that the judge might assign for that level. 

For instance, if the score sheet had a maximum of 100 points, the range of numbers for what the judge perceived to be an "excellent" performance might be in the range of 64 to 80 points and a "superior" performance in the range of 81 to 100 points.

The Criteria based refereance system:

The details of the actual numerical values often varied from one contest or judging association to another, often driven by geographical preferences.  Understandably, this often led to confusion and frustration for both the performers and the judges.  What was excellent in one part of the country might be regarded as superior somewhere else and perhaps only very good in yet another area. 

While the linear scale was a vast improvement over having no system at all, it was clear that we had to find a better way.  Within about the past 10 years most contests have now adapted some form of what is usually known as a "delineated scale" or a "criteria-based reference system".

This system still breaks down into ranges or general areas of numbers assignments for performances, but each of these areas has a detailed set of qualities and descriptors which must be met to achieve a score within the range. Score sheets are often grouped in 4 or 5 areas or "boxes", each with increasingly more stringent criteria which must be met to get into that box. 

Although contests and associations may vary in the exact details of what musical and technical qualities must be achieved in each area, the similarities of the criteria from one contest to another have become remarkably alike. By looking at the sheets and their criteria before  the contest, a group will know what is expected of them to achieve a certain range of scores.

There are, of course, several interdependent facets to all of this that are essential for its success. First, someone or some group must take the time to formulate the criteria and organize it in a clear and meaningful way.  These qualities should be arrived at by both meeting the needs of the competing groups and taking into account the capabilities of the judges.

Secondly, the judging community must be trained in the system and fully understand how it works. To ask bands to put in as much time and effort as they do in order to achieve excellence on the contest stage and then subject them to adjudicators who haven't studied and practiced their craft is both insulting to the bands and stultifying to the activity as a whole. 

All judges must continue to study, learn, and practice their skills as adjudicators and communicators.  Happily, the vast majority of adjudicators in North America at least, has taken their responsibility very seriously and regularly attends clinics, workshops and training sessions to continually sharpen and update their skills, staying current with changes in rules, sheets, and competitor's preferences.

Meeting the needs of the Competitors:

The final part of the equation of course must be the bands and their conductors.  The criteria and judging standards must ultimately meet the needs of the competitors.  They have a responsibility to make their views known.  After all, contests are for the competitors, not the judges of the contest sponsors.  For example, if the bands decide they want more emphasis placed on technical excellence, then they can build that bias into the criteria.

On the other hand, if particular facets of musicianship, such as intonation, blend, balance or sonority are to be given more weight during the evaluation process then those things could be structured into the adjudication.   Whatever it is, everyone involved, judges and competitors alike, knows up front what the expectations and the criteria will be.

These emphases can certainly change over time, depending on the needs of the bands.  A clear example of this in the brass band world might be in the realm of the entertainment contest.  For a time, the focus on entertaining through new and exciting music shifter to entertaining through extra-musical devices, such as funny hats, prat falls, dancing tubas and a whole host of funny but often shallow devices. 

Now the trend seems to be shifting in another direction.  Is any one of these styles better than another?  Probably not, IF that's what the competitors want.  Although each of us will have our own opinions of what sorts of things make a band entertaining, the important thing is that the bands and the judges agree on the criteria, style, and standards by which they will be evaluated.

It should be clear that throughout most of North America at least, the judging process and the competitive expectations have undergone a steady change, but what may not be so apparent is that all of that evolution has ultimately led to real growth for the performers. Not without a few wrong turns here and there to be sure, but with a clear purpose and desire to help improve the performers and their performances.

Dallas Niermeyer

Dallas Niemeyer

Dallas Niermeyer holds a degree in Music Education from Northwestern University as well as a Master Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from National Louis University.  He has recently retired from 35 years of teaching music in New Jersey and Illinois, most recently as Director of Bands at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, IL

As a performer, Mr. Niermeyer has held the position of principal trumpet of the Lake Forest Chamber Orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic, and the Evanston Symphony, as well as free-lance and studio work in both the Chicago and New York area.

Mr. Niermeyer is an active adjudicator of musical groups of all sorts, having judged contests in 42 states, Canada, Great Britain, and Japan.  His articles on performance and adjudication have appeared in magazines in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.  He has recently been appointed Midwest Judging Coordinator for Drum Corps International.

For the past seven years, Mr. Niermeyer has been the conductor of the Prairie Brass Band of Arlington Heights, Illinois, recent winners of the Honors Section of the North American Brass Band Association and sponsors of the US Open Brass Band Championships.


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