Competitions and their Inherent Problems

by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas

based on their book for Oxford University Press:

Power Performance for Singers:

Transcending the Barriers

            Adjudication is an issue fraught with problems for everyone. Both the vocalists and the judges have strong feelings about what ought to be the criteria, the process, and the ethics of judging a competition.

            When a singer or a judge is asked for his opinion on the subject, the most likely complaints to come up are those of ethical misconduct. There is the story of the judge, a voice teacher, who passed out her personal cards immediately after the competition, proselytizing for new students. There is the tale of the judge, a conductor, who sat with his arms folded against his chest at the beginning of an aria, was visibly affronted by some passage in the middle of the aria, loudly slammed the contestant’s application upside down on the table with both hands, and turned his back on the singer for the rest of the aria. Then there was the judge whose vocal inflections carried with each word a clear indication of his approval, boredom, disapproval, or praise. In the early days of the Fulbright Scholarship, a well known voice teacher who often judged was infamous for blackballing those competitors who had left her studio. Clearly, all adjudicators are not of the same mind with regard to the ethics of their deportment.

            Although we of the vocal community are all more affronted by ethical lapses on the part of a judge than anything else, there are equally daunting problems raised by judging criteria and competition processes. The sponsoring organization has a responsibility to make its rules of conduct, its criteria, and its designated process clear to the judges prior to the competition. If these rules are not acceptable to the judge-to-be, he/she can then withdraw before the event. Such questions as these must be resolved:

             How many judges should there be? Even or uneven number?

            Is there a head judge? What are his responsibilities? How much power does he have?

            What are the criteria for judging? Does the organization have firm criteria for the
                        attributes of the singer who should win? Have the judges been apprized of this?

            Do the judges have authority to judge on the basis of repertoire or length of program?

                        Or should those issues be corrected previously by the sponsoring organization ?

            Are the judges responsible for policing illegal photocopies, etc.?

            What method shall be used for ranking--percentage, numerical, etc.?

            How many singers must be ranked by number? All? Just the first three?

            Are ties permitted?

            How many compositions must be heard from each singer? Can the number vary?

            Must the judge write comments that will be given to the contestant at the end?

            Should the ranking appear on the comments?

            May the judge compare the present performance with those at a higher or lower level
                        than the competition?

            May the judges confer during the competition? May they applaud? May they respond


            May the judges engage in conversation with teachers, entrants, parents of entrants after

                        the announcement?

All adjudicators are not created equal. Each adjudicator brings to the process his or her own knowledge, biases, and preconceptions about these factors:

            1. the literature being sung

            2. the interpretation of that literature

            3. the appropriate tone quality or vocal timbre

            4. the size and dynamic possibilities of a voice

            5. the physical processes involved in singing (breathing, phonation,
                      resonance, articulation)

            6. the number and use of registers

            7. the various areas of vocal technique (legato, staccatop, messa di voce, control,
                      vibrato, agility, and consistency of production)

            8. the acoustical environment

            9. musicianship

          10. all factors of communication: appearance, deportment, personality,
                      gestures,  involvement, charisma

            In addition, each adjudicator brings his or her own personal baggage: chronological age, hearing acuity, physical and mental health, years of study, performing experience, teaching experience, and amount of exposure to vocal artists of the highest order.

            In order to understand the problems of adjudication process better, let us imagine two contrasting judges. One is a tenor, sixty-five years of age, retired from an illustrious career in opera. It is safe to assume that he knows the tenor operatic repertoire much better than he does that of other voice classifications, and that his knowledge of art song literature is spotty at best. How can he resist consciously or subconsciously holding up his own interpretation of certain tenor arias to those he is judging? Surely he will expect a voice to be large enough and of a timbre that can be heard over a sizable orchestra in a large hall. Will he be inclined to dismiss subtleties of tonal color and dynamic nuances that will not be heard over an orchestra? Since he has been trained to act as he sings, will he not expect the singer he is judging to move about, make use of gesture, stance, facial expression, and other physical responses to depict the musical situation? Will he judge musicianship and vocal technical skill to be as important as the singer’s realization of the dramatic moment? Due to his chronological age, will he not have suffered a significant loss in his ability to hear high frequencies associated with certain consonants. Will this result in his opinion that many singers have poor diction?

            Another hypothetical adjudicator is a thirty-five year old lyric soprano of international reputation as a recitalist, known for her artistry in German lieder and the French mélodie. She admires Elly Ameling and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and is fond of the timbre of the countertenor voice and its literature. Because of the smallness of her own voice, she has never done much performing on the operatic stage. Will her reactions to the contestants not be different from that of the tenor? Will she be more concerned with vocal freedom, beauty of tone, perfection of technique, musical sensitivity, the shaping of phrases, subtleties of tone color related to the meaning of the text, than she will be with the amount of sound produced? Will she expect the singer to convey the meaning of the song by facial expression and sounds produced, rather than acting it out through body movement and other physical manifestations? Surely she will not have suffered any hearing loss due to age as yet. Surely she will be very knowledgeable about diction and the importance of text.

            Not only are these two hypothetical adjudicators light years apart in what they expect of a singer, but might it not be profitable to consider other hypothetical adjudicators--an opera conductor, a booking agent, a stage director, a voice teacher who never had a major singing career but is a fine teacher? The point has been made: the biggest problem in the process of adjudication is the number and extent of variables present. Some effort must be made to limit or control these variables if the process of adjudication is to be at all equitable.

Possible recommendations:

            1. Include some fixed repertoire in every competition. Thus apples can be compared to
                apples. Requiring a fixed unit of all contestants has worked well in the Olympics.

            2. Each contestant should choose his first number. The contestant should be informed in
                 advance the remaining numbers chosen by the judges and their order.

            3. The number of judges should be at least 5 and preferably 7, with the highest and
                 lowest rankings given by the judges to be dropped from consideration as is done

                 in the Olympics.

            4. The majority of the judges should be teachers of singing and/or performers.

                 In no instance should voice teachers and/or singers be in the minority.

            5. Judges should not be drawn from the same age bracket, but represent a
                diversity of ages, including some below the age of fifty.

            6. Judges should not communicate with each other while adjudication is taking place, and

                should do nothing to indicate approval or disapproval of what the contestant does.

            7. At least in the preliminary round of auditions, each performer should receive written
                comments indicating in a positive way the judge’s evaluation of the performance, with
                 reasons given as to why the performer was not given a higher rating.

            8. Judges should be informed as to the purpose of the competition, e.g., to choose
                the singer who is best equipped to sing a leading role at La Scala tomorrow, or to
                choose the singer who has the greatest vocal endowment and potential for a major
                career, or to choose the singer who sings the best technically and who sings the
                most artistically.

               An effort should be made by the sponsoring organization to list the criteria on which
               they wish the judging to be done.

            9. Performing ability (charisma, vital energy) should be a part of the criteria.

         10. Dispense with elaborate evaluation sheets because judges spend too much time filling
               them out, thereby missing part of the performance.

            On the other hand, wouldn’t it be dreadful if everyone thought alike and judged alike, for that would mean that some singers with cherishable qualities would never have a chance to win anything. In the lower echelons of training it is perhaps preferable to look for talent rather than reward a performance of inferior polish.

©Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas

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