What are adjudicators looking for?

I have been invited to adjudicate on numerous panels recently (must be my age…) so I thought it might be helpful if I wrote a blog giving guidance to any aspiring musicians out there who are applying for grants and awards and wondering what adjudicators are looking for.

Here are a few things to think about:

Your audition will likely be short, so first impressions are really important. Often the adjudicators will have made decisions about you by the time you reach the end of the first phrase of music – so make sure you start well! If you mess up your first entry it takes a lot of nerve to recover and win everyone over in the limited time remaining. It can be done but it’s better for your own psychology if the opening goes well.

If you can get to the venue with plenty of time to spare, that should help you feel warmed up and relaxed when you enter the room. In the UK, as a general rule, always get the train before the one you really have to get….

Why not have a pre-concert routine? Athletes know what their bodies need in order to perform well, so I don’t see why musicians shouldn’t learn how to get the best out of themselves. Make sure you have that banana/ flapjack/ cup of tea/ drink of water before you play and on no account eat something you’ve never had before!

Don’t ignore mental preparation either, whether it’s meditation, warming up your instrument in a certain way, cleaning your teeth, having a wash – do what works for you to get yourself into concert mode.

Being in tune straight away is important as there won’t be time to gradually get up to pitch as you play.  Tune carefully to the piano before you play.

Don’t be tempted to play a large portion of your programme unaccompanied (guitar, piano and harp and percussion excepted). A key quality of fine musicianship is an ability to play with and in tune with others, and it’s hard to tell whether you can do this if you devote your recital to solo works.

 It goes without saying that mastery of your material is of paramount importance. And when I say mastery, I really mean it. Ideally you should have memorized your music. If you do have your score in front of you, you shouldn’t really need to look at it. The music you’re playing should be so familiar to you that it feels like an old friend. Remember too that the music stand isn’t a screen to protect you – nobody’s going to throw things at you! We should hardly be aware it’s there.

Music students spend a lot of time being told how to play. Absorb all that advice, then throw it off. An audition is an opportunity to be yourself.

If your performance lacks dynamic range the judges will penalize you. Sometimes it’s good to assess the room as you walk in. Play with your fullest Pavorotti forte in a large hall but dial things down a notch for a small room. A small space gives you the opportunity to show how quietly you can play. Recently I was issued with ear plugs before adjudicating wind players but I couldn’t think of a polite way to put them in my ears once candidates had started playing, so I really appreciated the players with a pp as well as an ff in their armoury.

Judges also like to hear that you can play in different styles, so remember to programme contrasting pieces with from a variety of eras and countries. Much less can be gleaned about you as a musician if you play only in a modernist style at the expense of more traditional music, so don’t devote all your recital to modernism. It may be fiendish to play but it doesn’t impress in this context.

Don’t feel you have to play something from all eras either. If you’re not comfortable in Bach – AVOID BACH. Play to your strengths.

Often you may be very aware of the panel listening and scribbling notes. My advice is to go into your own musical headspace. Concentrate 100 % on your performance and as far as you can, imagine you are giving a concert. Although an audition for an award is always an artificial setup, try to feel a lunchtime recital vibe.

Oh, and be careful not to catch the eye of the judges whilst you play because that can be awkward….do however look the adjudicators in the eye if they talk to you.

Visuals are quite important in our media age. If a candidate makes an effort with their appearance, that can only count in their favour because it looks as if they care about the occasion. However too much effort on clothes can send out the wrong signals because judges (rightly or wrongly) will think you are not a serious musician…maybe ditch the crop top and matching sequin shorts on this occasion.

Please take the opportunity to introduce what you’re going to play, especially if it’s something unfamiliar. The panel will warm to you if they know why you love a certain piece.

If you talk to the panel at the end of the audition, they’ll often be interested to know what your ideas are about your way forward and your hopes for the future. Have a think about this and about what you might say.

HOWEVER You can ignore all of the above if you do the one thing that overrides all others –  communicate the music. It’s surprising how rare it is to hear a performer who is at one with the music and whose technique is sublimated into communicating the composer’s musical intention. If you can do that, you allow the listener to just sit back, so caught up in your performance that there will be no question of scribbling a critique. The award is yours!