ON COMPETITION

        In 1991 I was invited to be the Chairman of the Jury for an international
piano competition in Italy. This was a very interesting experience, especially during
the first round when each pianist was required to perform two short compositions of
their choice from among the works of either Liszt or Scribian. I heard more short
piano works new to me, especially by Liszt, than I ever imagined existed.
        There were eleven adjudicators, of whom ten were well-known European
piano teachers.1 I, as the eleventh, was to serve as an objective listener. We voted
after each performance in the first round like so many Roman emperors – thumbs
up or thumbs down; majority rules. I soon found the other adjudicators, the piano
teachers, were judging on the basis of piano technique, without respect to the
musicality of the performance. To my embarrassment, all too often when we stuck
our hands out to vote with our thumbs the vote would be 10 – 1 in favor, or 1 – 10 in
favor. And I was always the “1.” From time to time I got the evil eye from some
famous teacher, but they had to be nice to me since I was the Chairman.
        I felt badly for some of the young pianists, kids who had traveled from all
over the world and who had prepared for months only to be thrown out without
comment after their performance in the first round. I felt even stronger in the cases
of some of these who were eliminated, yet who gave really musical performances.
Indeed, in several cases, after I had returned home, I wrote to young people and told
them to please ignore the actions of the jury and just keep doing what they are doing
because they are superb young musicians.

 One of these colleagues was a famous blind teacher from Switzerland. It was astonishing to me to hear
him discuss topics like fingering and hand position purely from the basis of hearing.

       After several instances where some wonderful young musician performed,
followed by our vote of 10 – 1 to throw them out, I consulted with one of the judges,
an Argentine teaching in Italy, who spoke perfect English. “I don’t understand
what is going on here,” I said. “This last young lady (from Finland) was very
musical, but all of you voted no!” He answered, “But, a piano contest has nothing to
do with music!”
       I do not know why I was so shocked by his answer, because for decades I had
been judging band contests which also had nothing to do with music. Band
“contests” (euphemistically called band “festivals”) are also judged on technical
matters and no adjudication sheet asks, “Was it musical?” This must certainly be
one reason why serious band conductors are so disgusted with these events.
       But I do not mean to suggest that our high school contests are not taken
seriously. Once during the 1960s I awarded a “B” to a high school orchestra from
Spokane and was subsequently threatened with a lawsuit by the conductor. “You
just don’t understand,” he cried, “we have never received a grade below A.” He
was right, I did not understand. The organizing committee had failed to tell me in
advance that he was supposed to get an “A” no matter what.
       The Texas band contests are especially serious and culminate in what in
effect are state championships at each level of school population. Once I
participated as an adjudicator in one of the final rounds of the top category in one of
these. This was a tape round, with six or so of we adjudicators sitting in a class
room facing speakers some five feet away. Immediately behind us were seated all
the conductors of this category. Even if one of their tapes was not included, they
were there to validate our judgment. Very serious stuff and you felt every
movement you made, maybe like scratching one’s ear, was being watched by a room
full of conductors, sitting behind, for a clue to its meaning.
       Each band in this top Texas category that year was playing large-scale
compositions, works like Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra or Till Eulenspiegel.
Consequently we were sitting for hours with no break (breaks invite talking,
consulting and other evil possibilities). At one point there came the tape of a band
performing the Schonberg Theme and Variations, Op. 43a, conducted by a

gentleman known to me as being, shall we say, “very confident.” To be sure, his
performance was virtually perfect with respect to intonation, accuracy, etc.
Whether it was because I was becoming exhausted from these non-stop tape
performances, or perhaps feeling some frustration over the process, I wrote on the
adjudication sheet, after appropriate compliments, “the only thing confusing to me
in this performance was that I did not hear the third of the chord on the down-beat
of bar 136.”2 Of course, no one would ever hear this missing third, a genuine
Schonberg mistake, and I would suspect that very few of my colleagues had ever
discovered this missing note in the course of their study and analysis. But I
mentioned I didn’t hear it and after the event was concluded this conductor
approached me in the hall apologizing that he did not hear this “missing” note.
Indeed, he was so humbled, so obsequious, that I really felt ashamed of myself for
mentioning this. But this incident does reflect the fact that in our band contests we
are all too serious about the wrong things.
        On the other side of the coin, there are, of course, some conductors who do
not take these contests seriously. I recall once adjudicating the Western
Massachusetts Band Contest in 1973. We, the adjudicators, had a program listing
the name of the bands, the name of the conductor and the repertoire. The very first
band which performed played the Morton Gould Jericho. Of course, being from
Los Angeles, I did not know the high school bands of this area but the big letter “A”
on their uniform seemed to correspond with my program which listed a band from a
town which began with the same letter. I was confused, however, by the fact that
the conductor’s name in my program was a man’s name, whereas the actual
conductor on this morning was a lady. So, when the performance was concluded, I
called her over and said, “I am confused because the conductor’s name I have
published here cannot be your name.” She responded, “That’s correct, I am a
substitute because the conductor is on strike!”
        I recall another instance when I called the conductor to the adjudication
table. In this case he had performed someone’s 5 minute reduction and

  This is one of two genuine errors by the composer in his autograph short score. The unnamed individual
who produced the full score we all know, published by G. Schirmer, made a large number of additional
incorrect solutions, misreadings and just plain mistakes.

arrangement for band of the Beethoven 3rd Symphony. The arrangement was so
unbelievably bad, such an audacious sacrilege, such a sin against art and Beethoven,
that I wanted to ask him what his reason was for performing this publication. So I
asked, “I suppose the reason you selected this publication was to be able to interest
your students in wanting to get to know the original version for orchestra.” The
reader must agree that that is a marvelous example of polite introduction to the
subject, but the reader must also share my astonishment at the conductor’s answer
that he was unaware that the publication was arranged from a symphony of
       The ignorance of this band conductor (in the Northwest) is insignificant
when compared to the conductors I have listened to in band contests in the City of
Los Angeles. I recall one poor fellow there whom we had to inform, after his
performance, that generally conductors do not wear hats when they conduct
indoors. To provide further examples would be too depressing for the reader.
       So why do we have these band “festivals”? Certainly they cannot be music
festivals, for there is never an audience there to listen. Music makes no sense
without a listener.
       The answer is that these band festivals are said to be vehicles of validation of
the band program. But can you have a reputable validation process if the judges
are peers and friends? And what is the point of a validation vehicle if neither the
school administration nor school board acts on the results?


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