Making the Most of Piano Competition Judging


by Nancy L. Ostromencki and John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA


iano competition participation can be an integral part of a student's musical growth and tremendously valuable for teachers in evaluating his progress and needs for remedial work. Anyone who has considered being a participant in a competition, whether judge, teacher, or student, should realize the potential value - and pitfalls of misinterpretation - of the written comments made by the judges.   This brief article will give some tips on competition judging - how to do it properly and how to use it to the best advantage of the student. We hope that our comments will both encourage more teachers and students to participate in competitions and help improve the competition experience for everyone concerned.


About Competitions

Competitions can be of two basic types: those where there is one or a limited number of "winners," while the rest of the participants get some sort of certificate of participation, and those where the students are judged only against themselves and the standards prescribed by the music and the contest. Participants in this second type of contest usually receive ratings and/or medals. While students should be encouraged to do their very best in either type of competition, both types should be viewed by teachers, parents and students as learning opportunities, first and foremost. There is simply no better way to learn what parts of the student's technique and understanding are firmly grounded and what parts need work than to place him/her in the stressful crucible of competition and performance. With proper preparation, the student can both enjoy the experience of and benefit from competition. For tips on how to prepare and what to expect from competition, see our article Competitions - Preparation and Expectations.

Judge Preparation

The prospective judge should communicate with the contest director about the philosophy and standards of the competition well prior to the contest, preferably no later than 4 weeks before the contest date.  The judge should determine from the contest director if the contest is to be a screened competition, or if  communication with the contestant will be allowed. In our view, the director should provide copies of  the judging sheets, directions for teachers and students, and the directions to the judges to both judges and teachers at this time. This assures that everyone understands clearly how the competition is to be evaluated and what standards will be applied. The judge should be thoroughly familiar with the judging sheets by contest day . A copy of a judging sheet that has been used for several competitions and festivals can be viewed below. It can be a starting point to think about what might work best for your contest. Information on how to run a competition successfully can be found in our article, Organizing and Running a Student Piano Competition.

3rd Annual Sonatina/Sonata Festival

Performer:                                             Performance time: 

Age:         Grade:        Years of study:    

1st Composition:                                            Composer:   
2nd Composition:                                           Composer:  






Strong Points:

Needs Improvement:

Additional Comments (if any):

Medal: Bronze ____________ Silver ______________ Gold _____________

Signature of Judge: _________________________________ Date: _________

If specific repertoire is required for the contest, the contest director should get the repertoire listing into the hands of the judges no later than 4 weeks prior to the contest. If any of the repertoire is not readily found in most piano music anthologies, the judges need to have copies of the music for review and study. A conscientious judge will take the time to go over each and every piece of music in the repertoire listing. The judge should not only play through all of it as a type of sight reading exercise, but take the time to study the technical difficulties of the music and experiment with different types of interpretation that might be applied to the music. A well-prepared judge will know the music well enough so that he or she can can listen and concentrate on the student's performance, rather than trying to follow an unfamiliar score note-by-note.

Learning the repertoire thoroughly takes a lot of time. Judges will often feel that they know all that there is to know about a some pieces of music, like a Bach Minuet, for example. However, chances are that there are going to be a myriad of different performance styles and interpretations presented at the competition. It makes sense to realize far in advance that there is no one definitive and "correct" way of performing a piece of music. If one interpretation were to "fit all," there would be no need for the many different performances of various works available from professional artists.


Judging itself is a difficult and under-appreciated task. That said, there are a few ground rules about the judging which will serve everyone in good stead. The judge must avoid unnecessarily harsh criticism of the student, especially if the mistake or error has been one taught by the teacher. For every criticism made, the judge should also try to offer a constructive alternative or way to fix the problem. When we are trying to keep students interested in the art of performing and studying classical music, not only is it important to let the student know how they can improve their performance but also to keep them interested and encouraged to continue their study of classical piano music.

Ideally, the contest director will explain prior to the contest the degree of importance that various aspects of the performance (wrong notes, musicality vs. technical proficiency, memory slips, ‘different' interpretations, evidence of originality and independent thought) should assume in the judging process. More often than not, the individual judge is left with making these decisions. These issues should be pondered carefully before the contest day, and if allowed, discussed with the other judges on the panel. 

Since students are performing in what is often a stressful situation for them and usually on a piano that is not their own, judges can reasonably make allowances for wrong notes, with some allowances for the age of the student and length of study, and adjustments for how large the allowances should be. We believe that judges should not get too wrapped up in wrong notes, unless they are so frequent as to interfere with the music or so consistent as to indicate clear gaps in training or ability.

Some students will be technically proficient in their performance, but lack that ‘breath of life' we call musicality. Sometimes, a judge can tell from the performances that a group of students study with a particular teacher, in that the students all provide the same interpretation for their contest repertoire, almost as though they were cloned. The same can be held true with those students who take their interpretation of a piece of music directly from a recording. These students will do each note exactly as it is done on the recording. This type of performance can be disturbing, as it causes one to wonder about the musical growth and individuality of the student. We believe that musicality should assume at least as important a role in the judge's decisions as technical proficiency. In the end, what good is technical proficiency if the student's performance is painful to listen to because it is mechanical or slavishly derivative?

All of us have had memory slips during performance. What is most important is how we handle them. A good judge should concern himself not only with whether the student has had any memory lapses, but how the student deals with them. Does the student let the memory slips destroy the musical ideas of the piece or continue on performing? Is the tempo of the piece kept consistent through a memory lapse or does the student get faster and faster as a result?

It is sometimes useful to utilize two judging sheets: one that will go directly to the student and another one that is directed towards the teacher. Unduly disparaging remarks should never be  made to the student, especially if the comments are ones that should be more properly directed to the teacher. All ‘negative' comments should be written down in such a way that the student sees where they need to work out some problems and are motivated to do so. Perhaps a good standard of measurement is to think of how you would feel, as a teacher, if you were given the comments that you had just written down. Would they help your teaching, would they help your student, would they help the parents of the student?

After the Contest

Once the contest is over, the job of the judge ends and that of the teacher, parents, and student begins. We've already mentioned that those aspects which are weakly learned will be the first to desert the student under the pressure of competition. Therefore, the judging sheets will give an immediate indication of where the student needs remediation. The fact that the student needs work on particular areas is to be expected.

There is more that can be learned that just that. For example, if the teacher puts a number of students in a competition and most or all receive judging sheets portraying identical or similar problems, the teacher should interpret these as areas of teaching which need to be stressed, improved or changed. If there are many memory slips or consistent errors in basic technique, both the teacher and parents should ask themselves if the student is practicing insufficiently or ineffectively. On the other hand, if the student plays flawlessly, it is probably time for 1) hearty congratulations from the teacher and parents and 2) more challenging repertoire.

Parents, students and teachers need to remember that judging sheets are not the final word, either as a summation of a student's talent, or a teacher's work. In particular, it is usually a mistake to interpret a judge's discouraging comments as indicative of a need to change teachers. Changing teachers is disruptive for everyone concerned and should only be undertaken for specific and well-founded reasons and only after sober reflection and careful discussions of the issue with the current teacher. Judging sheets can sometimes be used much as a patient will get a second opinion from a different doctor. Just because there is a difference of informed opinion, it does not mean that either doctor is necessarily wrong. The important thing is to get enough information and to consider it sufficiently to make your own informed decision.

The Real Value

The judging feedback on each student will be individual and will require individual attention. It will need to be interpreted in the light that it is, in the final analysis, an opinion. The important lesson to be gained from competition is not whether the student "won or lost," whether it was fun or not, or even whether the teacher is right for the student. Rather, the learning that competition can foster is the important outcome. If the piano student has learned things that will make him a better student, pianist, and human being, that fact will play a far greater role in his life than whether or not the student was the "winner" in a particular competition. In competitions, the real winners are those judges, students, parents, and teachers who take away something lasting from the experience.
Page created: 1/16/99
Last updated: 05/25/19
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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