Thoughts on adjudication Part 2 - by Dallas Niermeyer


Dallas Niermeyer continues his series of thoughts on adjudication.

Dallas Niermeyer

Read Part 1: A brief history of American judging

If you've followed the previous articles on this site outlining the development of music adjudication in North America, you may be wondering if there are any principles, concepts or practices that can be applied to the brass band contesting scene in the UK and throughout Europe. 

It does seem clear that there is a growing discontent with many contesting results and by extension, dissatisfaction with the judging.  At the risk of becoming an interloper in an already crowded field of critics, I offer a number of ideas and opinions for consideration which may, at the very least, lead to some thoughtful discussion and at the extreme to some sort of reform.

Contests must meet the needs of the contestants

Whatever changes may occur in the contest procedures and judging practices must be what the bands and their conductors want.  Judges should not dictate to the bands about how bands should perform, what type of sonority they should be seeking or anything else.  Bands have every right to expect that they will be adjudicated in the manner that is best for the bands and the band activity as a whole. 

Having said that, one must also realize that one of the very best resources for establishing sound judging practices and procedures are the judges themselves.  Judges should be consulted and utilized as a valuable resource when formulating any sort of change.  This, of course, assumes that the judges are experienced and most importantly, well trained.

All judges must be thoroughly and professionally trained in the craft of judging

Judges, regardless of their background as musicians or their experience judging, must regularly train and retrain to both keep current with the activity and to maintain their adjudication skills.

To quote the late Dr. Bernard Baggs, who spent many years of his life training judges and establishing sound contest procedures throughout North America, "Judging IS Judges."  The single most important part of adjudication equation is the judge.  Even given a poor contest environment, poor acoustics, poor contest structure and ambiguous rules, a well trained and experienced judge will somehow nearly always be able to make the right decisions.

Just as not all good players make good teachers or good conductors, neither do all experienced conductors make good judges.  Some will, some won't some will need a great deal of training and mentoring by a master judge to be only adequate while others will skip through the basic judge training sessions with ease and have a genuine affinity for judging well, regardless of the system in place at any particular contest.

Consider that at a contest of just 12 bands for example, it is certainly not unlikely that each of the bands will have spent nearly 1000 man-hours of rehearsal, practice, and sectional time preparing their performance. Add to that the travel, registration and related expenses and it is immediately clear that the judge may easily be responsible for sorting out the result of 12,000 man-hours of labor and thousands of pounds of expenditures. 

This is a serious and heavy responsibility which no judge must ever treat carelessly or flippantly, no matter what section is being evaluated or what the performance standards of the bands.

Now let's consider some judging techniques

What is being judged?

At any contest at any level, the judge must be very clear that he is judging that day's performance and not the band.  That is, his decisions should not reflect who the band is, what their history may be or the fame of the conductor.  The judge's assessment must be in response to that performance and that performance only.
He is not evaluating how good he thinks the band should be, how they may represent the area later on, how much potential he thinks they have or anything else except how they performed that day.  Therefore, on any given day, any band should have an equal opportunity to win, regardless of the band's reputation. It must always be the PERFORMANCE that is being evaluated, not the band.

If the judges are to accurately evaluate performances, they must have clear, concise and repeatable criteria by which to evaluate every band's performance.  In contests where judges are faced with the extremely difficult task of sorting out 15-20 performances of exactly the same music a test piece the need for guidelines to separate and delineate what are often very subtle differences in performances is crucial.

Criteria for judging

The details of the actual criteria, their selection and organization, how they are numerically weighted and defined are a matter separate from this discussion.  However, most musicians would want to have their performance evaluation based on their achievement levels in the areas of tone quality, sonority, balance, blend, intonation, musicality, rhythm, tempo control, style, and interpretation, to name just a few. 

Whatever the criteria and the emphasis, the final decision must meet the needs of the contestants.  They must have the final say in deciding how they will be evaluated.  It is quite likely that bands of great proficiency and skill will want criteria skewed somewhat differently than those bands in lower sections with less-developed skills.

Having said that, we must remember that one of the most knowledgeable resources about banding in general will be the community of experiences judges. The answer then, is a cooperative effort between conductors of bands and the judging community.  Conductors will usually know what they want from a contest besides just winning and judges can often help them find ways to achieve those goals.  The band/judge relationship need NOT be an adversarial one.

Recorded comments

Although it is true that contest performances at the highest level of achievement by the best bands in the world probably won't benefit much from suggestions for improvement from the judging community, it is also true that the vast majority of bands can use the input of knowledgeable and experienced judges.  One of the best ways for the judge to communicate his responses to the performance, both positive and negative, on a moment to moment basis, is through the use of a recorder.

In addition to writing comments on the score sheet, the judge speaks into a recorder during the performance.  He will succinctly respond to what he hears, noting both details and generalities, mechanical as well as musical concerns and at the conclusion will give a brief wrap-up of the performance.

The reason for this technique is really twofold; the band gets the recording to play and replay as a means of structuring their improvement.  They get to hear not only the judge's responses and musical acuity but his emotional response to the program as well.
However, there is another reason for the judge to record his comments through time, and that is that verbalizing his responses and insights, both positive and negative, will greatly help in the formulation of his final opinion of each performance.  It is extremely difficult for any judge to listen to perhaps as many as 20 performances, each of which may last as long as 15 minutes or more and keep all the details and nuances of each performance clear and organized in his mind. 

Verbalizing his impressions during the performance is a huge step in assisting the judge in making consistent and sound decisions. 

Making clear, concise and helpful judging recordings is a skill that does require training and practice, but one which has proven to pay huge dividends for the contestants.

What about "The Box"

Brass banding is, by its very nature, a musical activity that is heavily tied to its traditions, particularly in the UK. It is largely tradition, after all, that has dictated the keys of the instruments, the restrictions about their numbers in a band, the clefs in which the music is written and much more.  Many of these are solidly based in musical expediency and give banding not only stability, but a degree of historical charm that makes brass bands unique, special, challenging, and just downright fun!      

Few of us in the activity would be in favor of utilizing such things as trumpets, French horns, bass guitars, synthesizers, or piccolo trumpets as anything other than a rare novelty item in banding.  Most bandsmen seem to feel that those sorts of things would just corrupt banding.  However, there is one traditional practice that seems unique to the brass band world that I feel needs to be reevaluated in modern times, and that is the practice of putting the judges behind a screen, or worse yet, "In the box."     

While most of us are aware of the historical reasons for this practice, I submit that the basic concept for this idea is flawed, particularly in modern times.  If judges are not supposed to know who is performing, it implies that either the judge is NOT impartial that he has personal like and dislikes about certain bands and conductors and would not be impartial in their evaluation or that he would be intimidated by certain bands and conductors.  In either case it paints the judge as either unethical or incompetent or both.  I submit that these conditions simply do not apply to the vast majority of judges who are currently active.

By extension, this system implies that the judge, if he could see the band, might make a different decision, based on who is performing or conducting.  It may also be true that this anonymity provides a certain level of comfort to the contestants.

I submit that there is no box or screen at any contest venue that does not distort or mask the sound to some degree.  The visual experience may add an additional touch to the whole experience that can have some importance.  The visual connection to the performers has the additional benefit of allowing the judge to know who may be "cheating" by doubling parts, swapping parts, using unprescribed mutes and other practices that some bands try using to gain the competitive edge.

The details and nuances that often separate performances of the finest bands at the highest levels of achievement are best heard without the encumbrance of a box or screen.  The judge must be given full aural access to all the musical subtleties that bands work so hard to achieve.

Summary of ideas

As with all aspects of adjudication, judges who are unwilling to practice their skills in order to improve their craft should not be judging, regardless of their reputation.  Judging at any level is very a difficult job, but also one which carries with it a heavy responsibility.  Adjudicators must continue to strive for excellence in their craft, just as they demand excellence from the performers whom they judge..     

I believe that, regardless of the details of the criteria on any given set of judging sheets, there must be some means of numerical weighting assigned.  This allows the bands to know exactly how they scored in relation to all the other bands in the contest.  Every band is ranked, first through last, and every band is rated; that is, given a number based on their achievement.  Every number assignment has meaning, so that the spreads between scores have an inherent message.  The judge must be trained in and have highly developed skills in numbers management in order to assign scores that are meaningful, relevant, and helpful to the bands.

As a brief summary then, consider the following suggestions:

  • Contests should have a judging sheet with specific criteria for achievement, including, but not limited to such things as musicality, tone quality, intonation, technique, balance and blend, rhythmic accuracy, and interpretation.
  • The criteria on the sheets are given numerical weight, which will then produce a resultant score. Judges should record their comments on both a recording device and the judging sheet.
  • Judges should be allowed to do their evaluation in the open, out of a box, for the best possible aural access to the performance.
  • Judges must undergo thorough training in the use of the recorder, numbers management, ranking and rating.
  • Training of adjudicators should include not only the technical aspects of the music and the listening skills to perceive it, but the mechanical aspects of arriving at the ranking of bands, first through last, that the judge actually intended. 
  • This requires the mastery of the techniques of impression, analysis and comparison, as well as sampling.
  • At any given contest, all bands must have an equal opportunity for success, regardless of their history, reputation or experience. 
  • Bands must be judged on their performance that day, not their reputation or their conductors.
  • Contests must be organized in such a way as to meet the needs of the contestants, not just the contest sponsors, a special few bands or the judges.

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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