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View from the Other Side of the Table:
My Experience as a Piano Competition Judge
Jan 28th, 2011 by Andrew Kraus

Although I’ve sat on many piano juries over the years as well as accompanying numerous competitors in competitions ranging from local student to emerging professional national, Sunday, January 23, 2011, was the day when I first got to sit on the other side of the table and be a judge. Katerina Zaitseva, (Russian concert pianist from Moscow now working in Rockville, MD, hailed by Fanfare Magazine “for her imaginative and colorful interpretive approach…”), served with me as the other of two judges for the “Intermediate Level” competitors in the 2011  MSMTA Gertrude S. Brown Memorial Piano Competition.  ”MSMTA” is the abbreviation for [the] Maryland State Music Teachers Association

Over the course of a full day, we heard  fifteen students play the first movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G, K. 453. Fourteen performed the 2nd movement,  and eight the 3rd.  Beverly Babcock, “Resident Accompanist” at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, did the heavy lifting and accompanied all 37 performances.

Not one competitor failed to make it through to the end of their piece. Several had a memory slip, and to their credit, were able to recover and finish.  Several were over powered by adrenalin surges and had fingers that ran away or shook visibly in slow passages.  I was very impressed by the level of commitment, the intensity of purpose, that I saw in these young musicians.

Of course – not everybody was a “winner”, though all won by having the experience of perfecting their performance and playing it for a jury.

Much has been written about competition results being “fixed”, poorly run competitions, the influences of nepotism and politics on judging.

I am happy to report that I saw none of that in evidence for this competition. Hyun Park, pianist and piano teacher from Potomac, is to be congratulated for the success of her efforts as MSMTA Concerto Competition Chair.  Aside from the logistics involved with booking a facility with the right number of rooms and pianos, scheduling all the competitors, finding judges and getting their commitments, I’m pleased to report that she made sure the judges were properly caffeinated and fed.  She was also responsible for the “Adjudication Guidelines” which I cite immediately below.

1)  There are two judges working independently.  Each judge will make an independent decision on the rankings [1 to 6] on the sheet provided.

2)  Do NOT discuss among the judges your rankings.  Each judge will deliver the results to the assigned monitor who in turn will deliver them to the Chair who will compute the final rankings.

3)  If you taught a contestant either as a teacher or in a master class, please complete the critique sheet only.  Then write “Excused” on the student’s ranking sheet without assigning a ranking.  No other actions are necessary such as discussing this issue with the other judge or the monitor”.

I can report that, at least in the case of Katerina Zaitseva and myself, those guidelines were followed exactly.  Whatever the results were, though innately subjective despite the fact that we had certain specifics to consider, e.g., technique, pedaling, memory,  they were obtained fairly.

What was extremely interesting to me was this fact: for all three movements, Katerina and I named the same person as 1st Place Winner, and we did this without, in any way, communicating our preferences to each other. Further, I believe that my 2nd place choices were her 3rd place choices!

In summary, I can say with certainty, that the MSMTA Gertrude S. Brown Memorial Piano Competition is run fairly.   I have every reason to believe that those who did the judging were qualified to do so and were constructive in their written critiques.  The winners will perform with an orchestra on February 12. As Hyun Park says, “This is a special honor and experience for young students”. I agree whole heartedly. I would encourage those teachers who have students ready for the challenge of competition to seriously consider bringing this competition to the attention of those students.  Win, or lose, they will all benefit from the experience.

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