A judge’s point of view

One thing I say to my students over and over again is this: While this process is competitive, it is not like basketball, it’s like running track: you only play offense, not defense, and there is no way to keep others from scoring. All you can do is aim for a personal best.

I’m sure all of you who have ever walked into a Region audition have wondered about what is going on behind the screen (or wall, or tarp, etc.) Who are the judges? How did they get there? What are they thinking as I sing? How do they decide if I make the choir or not? The truth is, since you don’t get to play defense, in the moment those thoughts are probably not helpful. In the moment, you should train your thoughts so that they are completely focused on doing YOUR best and playing your best offense. More on this later…

However, at this stage in the process, I thought that you may be curious about what exactly the judges hear and see, since these are questions I get all the time.

Let’s start with the “who”. There are five judges in each room and all of them are musicians. The first judges to get called up are directors of students who are at the audition. Generally, the next level of judges are other choral directors in the region, such as middle school directors. The third level are the private voice teachers. If need be, there may be other musicians called upon to judge, such as elementary or church musicians. The region with make every effort to select judges who are familiar with both the audition process and the repertoire.

Here are some guidelines that judges are asked to follow:

  1. There is no talking or conferring between judges. Each judge scores based solely on their own observations and opinions.
  2. Phones are turned off and put away, with the exception of the head judge so that they can communicate in case of an issue.
  3. There should be no reactions, smirking, hand gestures etc. to a singer’s performance. Judges are respectful of how hard the kids worked, even the ones who did not sing a stellar audition

While there may be slight differences from Region to Region and audition to audition, here are the broad guidelines of the judges’ process.

  • Judges enter the room and set up a place to sit. Normally, they will be in a classroom so they will have desks set up.
  • They test the sound system. The head judge plays through the cuts and one judge acts as the auditionee, singing through the cuts. They give feedback on how loud or soft the track needs to play from the singer’s point of view, and the other judges give feedback on how it sounds from their side of the screen. Once the volume level is set, it does not change from singer to singer.
  • The judges are given a raw to rank sheet, a score sheet, the cuts and sight reading if applicable and scratch paper.
  • When a student enters the room, the room monitor reads off the singer’s number. At no point do the judges see or know the name or school of the singer.
  • If there is an inconsistency in the audition, such as a fire alarm going off or a student having a panic attack (oh yes, these things happen…) even if this doesn’t seem to affect the singer’s audition, the judges have to write up and sign a report immediately.

Judging Guidelines

 Judges are usually reminded at the beginning of an audition, particularly the early rounds, that the most important thing to judge is accuracy. Sure, some judge may slip a pretty voice with some wrong notes ahead of a less developed tone that was really accurate. But generally the first standard of judging is accuracy and this is something that mostly everyone can agree on.

The first thing I do when I sit down to judge is take my blank scratch paper and divide it into five columns all the way down.

  • Audition number
  • Accuracy (notes, rhythms, and language)
  • Tone (intonation, beauty, use of register, blending ability)
  • Musicianship (dynamics and phrasing)
  • Rank

As I listen to an audition I scribble as many notes as possible. The accuracy column gets a simple +/√/- score. The other columns get more descriptive (intonation issues, nice vibrato, too belty, good dynamics on this cut, needs language work.)

Sometimes in a District or Region audition a judge will hear 70+ singers and to be honest, they start running together in a judge’s mind. It’s helpful in that case to have detailed notes to refer back to. If singer 50 had √+ accuracy, I flip back and compare to other singers with that accuracy and I’m able to note, for example….she had better intonation than number 40 but not as good as 35…so she should go somewhere in between those.

Once I select their rank, I’ll put their rank number on the scratch paper sheet, too. This is especially helpful if I make a mistake and need to refer back to correct it.

The Raw to Rank Sheet

The important thing to remember is that auditions are judged using a rank instead of a score.

The raw to rank sheet is simply a page of columns, five of them to be exact, labeled backwards from 300 – 0. The top left square is labeled “300” and has a blank space next to it. This goes on across the sheet until you get to “0” on the bottom right corner. The columns are labeled with descriptors such as “excellent” or “poor” but I personally don’t use those suggestions. I may re-label them with things like “Pre-Area”, “Region Choir”, etc just to organize my thoughts. For example, at Pre-Area, I don’t put anyone in the far-left column who I don’t think could make the All-state choir because if they end up in the top 5, that’s where they’ll be going next.

It is important to spread out ranks so that you have room to slip people in between. For example, I try to put five or so places in between the first few auditionees and never put two numbers next to each other or give the very top or very bottom score away.

At the Area audition and sometimes at pre-Area the students are given Judge’s feedback sheets. These sheets will have written feedback from the judges that also contains their raw score. This ALWAYS confuses students…. to the point where I’ve almost started refusing to discuss that score. Here’s why.

A singer may flip through their scores and see the following:

Singer # Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4 Judge 5
1 250 150 190 90 150

So they’re thinking….“Wow, Judge 4 really hated me! 90 is so low compared to 250! But her feedback was so positive! How could she have given me such a harsh score?”

However, since Singer 1 doesn’t get to see how they scored the other singers, they have no context to understand what the judge actually thought.

So let’s see how this plays out. Here is an example of 5 Judges’ scores of 3 singers.

Singer # Judge 1 Judge 2 Judge 3 Judge 4 Judge 5
1 250 150 190 90 150
2 230 160 75 80 100
3 240 90 200 250 50

This all gets boiled down into rank.

Singer # Judge 1 Rank Judge 2 Rank Judge 3 Rank Judge 4 Rank Judge 5 Rank
1 1 2 2 2 1
2 3 1 3 3 2
3 2 3 1 1 3

So singer #1 shouldn’t be so upset…. Judge 4 actually gave her 2nd chair!

Then, the highest and lowest scores get dropped and the remaining scores are added. I like to go a step further and reduce the math by averaging. Because a first chair having a score of 3 just confuses my math-challenged brain.

Singer # Judge 1 Rank Judge 2 Rank Judge 3 Rank Judge 4 Rank Judge 5 Rank Average Final Rank
1 1 2 2 2 1 1.66 1st chair
2 3 1 3 3 2 2.66 3rd chair
3 2 3 1 1 3 2 2nd chair

So you can see how there is really no point in trying to guess at what a raw score means. Each judge can use their own system and the scores will still come out.

Oftentimes the 1st chair singer will have nearly unanimous rankings but in a really competitive round it’s sometimes down to the decimal point.

Practice doing some of your own math: Singer 1 gets ranked 1/1/2/3/3. Singer two gets ranked 2/3/3/1/1. Drop the highest and lowest, so both singers are ranked 1/2/3 and a total of 6 or average of 2. If they both get a perfect sight singing score it’s a tie and in that case the computer “flips a coin” and selects who is first chair and who is second. (Yes, this actually happened to two of my students last year. Luckily they were competing for first chair, not fifth, and both of them got to go to the Area audition regardless.)

Sight Reading

A longer post regarding the sight reading audition will come later, but for the purpose of this post, let’s talk a little bit about the scoring.

Even sight reading scores all boil down to a rank. This is tricky because it is possible to have multiples of the same score in sight reading. That means that if 9 out of 10 girls get perfect scores, they all tie first place and the girl who gets one note wrong gets 10th. People will tell you things like “Your sight reading is worth 20% of your score so it can affect your chair by x-number of spots” but that’s just not true. Your sight reading rank is variable based on how others do, so to be safe, just get a perfect score every time :).

True story: a student of mine was in the running for the All State Choir after her singing round but flubbed just a few notes on the sight singing. So many girls got a perfect score that year that even just a few points deduction caused her to be ranked last place in sight singing and landed her 11th chair, just a few spots away from the choir.

I hope this helps to clear up the mystery surrounding judges and our scoring guidelines. Now, go practice sight reading!

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