Subjectivity of Competitions?

January 19, 2018, 6:19 AM · How subjective are judges in violin competitions? Of course typical things like intonation, tone, precision of rhythm count but what about individual interpretations?

Replies (25)

January 19, 2018, 6:53 AM · In my opinion, intonation, tone and precision are fatal factors which should be agreed by judges, candidates who cannot satisfy will be ruled out soon if competition competitive enough, but the genre or style vary with judges, that’s a problem, for example, some judges like presto-like tempo while some not, in terms of an identical work how can they agree with each other?
Edited: January 19, 2018, 9:21 PM · Young career Violinists seems to have a much lower rate of obesity than that generally observed in the population. Could be my imagination, or sample bias. If it is true however, beside lifestyle, perhaps one has to wonder if appearance, consciously or not, also influences judges and others of influence in one’s career development. It seems that it does in orchestral competitions since some go through the effort of conducting blind auditions. Many of the current world best soloists, one must admit, look pretty darn good too (regardless of gender)! I am not saying that talent and overall performance is overlooked, it is obviously a given pre-requisite, but does appearance give violinists an exta edge, which may contribute to their success over others?
January 19, 2018, 9:39 PM · Interpretation in competitions is likely to be along the lines of the "typically acceptable", i.e., respects the intent of the composer, as well as the contemporary conventions for the work, plus maintains rhythmic integrity / pulse, and has a sense of line.


January 20, 2018, 4:15 AM · Judges do not need to agree. They just assign points that get averaged by the organiser. More reputable competitions have quite a sophisticated forumlas, how to disregard extreme ratings and average the rest.
January 20, 2018, 5:53 AM · Figure skating, notorious for corrupt judging, has improved on their scoring system:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISU_Judging_System

Violin competitions are, in my opinion, way behind.

The very fact that there are famous violin players today who did not win any major competition, as well that there are dozens of violin players who won and sizzled away is telling me that violin playing is not athletics or swimming. It is and will always be subjective.

January 20, 2018, 8:42 AM · The question is not "how subjective are judges" but rather "how objective?"

Everything about a violin performance is subjective. People have differing sensitivities to intonation. They have different ideas about rubato and vibrato. We are all fixated on "how I was taught to play that concerto." How can you possibly assign an objective measure to thousands of notes that go by in a blur?
Maybe AI will get there in 50 years.

It's really not that much different than a dog show.

Edited: January 20, 2018, 12:57 PM · Pretty much everything about music is subjective. Sure, you can clearly see when someone's not in tune, bad sense of rhythm, etc... but we are talking about violin competitions, all these "basic" skills are already mastered by the competitors. I've never been in a competition, and I don't know how the scoring works, but what I know is that the "first" prize could be, according to my musical taste and understanding of music, way behind, say, the tenth competitor.

How can you prove that Perlman's Bruch was better than Hahn's?
You can't. Even if you try to explain that Perlman understands way better the concerto and he does this thing there while Hahn is not doing it, and so on and so on, at the end it's basically how YOU think the concerto should be played. Also you can break rules sometimes, and if your interpretation has sense and you find it amusing, then there's nothing wrong about it. YES, I think that if you play Bach like you play Bruch, doesn't really matter how "creative" you are, it's not gonna go well.

Also, being "the best" is not about technique only. If we would want to make competitions as fair as possible, all competitors should use the very same violin, bow, play under the almost exact same weather conditions in the room/auditorium, of course the violinist could not be seen, all blind competitions. Then the judge could 100% be more objective, there's not doubt about that.

But playing the violin is more than just "sound". There's an art about choosing your bow and your violin, that's also violinist skills. How do you want to sound, what bow should you use, etc... all those decisions also matter and can make a violinist "better" than other that has no sense about what bow fits this violin. So it is with the rest of the gear. We also appreciate easy movements, relaxed technique and expressions, good posture, nice fluent bowing, etc... And yeah, the looks ALSO affect. I don't know why people make such a big deal about it. In every field LOOKS affects how you are perceived, deal with it. When you go shopping, shoppers can be more friendly with you based on the clothes you have, on the hair style, etc... A good looking violinist, a weird hear style violinist, etc... all of them will definitely make some impact on the judge.

January 20, 2018, 2:06 PM · Does your question also pertain to orchestral auditions Miles?
January 20, 2018, 2:37 PM · Miles,

While I have never been a judge in a competition, I have been one of the volunteers who assist at a major competition for a number of years. I've been privy to the judges discussions while keeping them fed-and-watered. How subjective is the process? Completely subjective.

Considering that there are no real objective standards beyond intonation (you either hit the notes or you don't) and accuracy (you play a wrong note and at least one judge will know). The rest is subjective and at the whim of the judges. Most of the commentary I've heard was in emotional language: #7 moved me, #12 got on my nerves, #3 brought me to tears,...

As with life, do your absolute best, accept the decision and move on. FWIW: This competition once awarded third place to a violinist who went on to have a fabulous solo career and that year's winner hasn't been heard from since, took the cash and went to medical school instead of a solo career.

Edited: January 20, 2018, 3:55 PM · Criticism of art is subjective to an extent, and playing violin is an art. What is more, a violin performance is theatrical, which requires visual factors, besides just technical fluency or sound-wise maturity.

People don't go to a concert to listen to a recorded radio. They come with the expectation of some visual experience of live music and atmosphere, and therefore the soloist and the orchestra's appearance (not necessarily beauty), presentation and mannerism do play a role.

Among these non-sound factors, my prediction is that most judges would care more about how the performers would connect with the audience by their facial expression, their body movement, and how easily they incite strong feelings in the audience through their 'thespian' abilities, than their good looks (which does play a role - but a lesser one).

I haven't seen any famous soloists on stage with a wooden face (showing no emotion). AFAIK, Hilary Hahn is frequently criticized as showing too little feeling when she plays, even though in my opinion she has been doing well on that (only to a lesser extent than others). This gives me an indication of how important and sought-after 'acting on stage' is.

January 20, 2018, 4:00 PM · Peter,

I thought about it but wouldn't orchestral auditions be less subjective due to curtain auditions? I'm not completely sure.

January 20, 2018, 4:14 PM · Screened auditions are different; there's obviously no visual factor involved there. (But be aware that screened first rounds are the professional norm in the US these days, but unscreened final rounds are not uncommon.)

Auditions and competitions are different beasts, though.

Edited: January 20, 2018, 4:28 PM · Lydia, I was gonna say the same thing. As Tim said, in competitions, the blind recording was there to ensure all good technique and intonation etc. is satisfied.

But then the final rounds, I wondered, is the overwhelming majority of them not blind? The final rounds are where I would expect acting and presentation to contribute a part towards the results, though I could be wrong on this.

Edited: January 20, 2018, 4:34 PM · I feel like every single element is subjective. There are some that are a little less so, but even things like intonation and rhythm have it to a small extent. I think that competitions could do a lot more to promote creativity. Other genres seem to be far ahead in the versatility that one can reasonably expect from its average star. Not a single major international competition, as far as I am aware, combines playing with original composition. You could also have a competition in which violinists demonstrate familiarity with electronic components, such as amplification, effects pedals, and MIDI controllers. I have heard of one that requires original cadenzas, but that seems to be as far as it goes. They also have such a narrow list of repertoire, and the judges seem to want to just regurgitate the arbitrary rules of interpretation their teacher taught them.

I feel like today, when I hear various competition winners on the radio, I just can't tell them apart, and this goes especially for the younger generations. If I were a judge, I would love to hear a Bach partita that sounded unique, that I could pick out in a crowd, even if it were "unstyllistic".

January 20, 2018, 7:32 PM · I think most competitions with a recorded first round have gone to video at this point, rather than purely audio. It helps ensure the integrity of the entry -- it's much harder to unnoticeably edit a video.


January 20, 2018, 8:51 PM · Orchestral auditions are somewhat less subjective, but it depends on the level. Rushing, dragging, poor intonation, poor spicatto, poor choice of tempo--these will get you eliminated early. At higher levels where everyone is well-trained and well-prepared, then it will get subjective.

Personally, I've always thought the American procedure of first rounds behind a curtain but later rounds in view is total BS. Either have it all behind a curtain...or don't. But don't go "halfsies" and expect anyone to believe the process is blind and only based on playing.

January 20, 2018, 9:26 PM · That’s a great point Lydia. Other things being equal, I think the judges would prefer to have more to less information. A video submission allows for blind assessment as well if they want.
Edited: January 22, 2018, 5:25 AM · Sorry for not replying .Stomach flu with my boys.
You beat me to the punch Scott.I think it's a travesty that orchestral auditions destroy any chance of impartiality with the screen coming down in the finals.I have never in my 31 seasons been given an adequate reason why this is so.Auditions can be a sleazy affair.In fact I refused to try the last audition for the 2nd Associate Concertmaster for this very reason.
January 21, 2018, 1:14 PM · Unlike some sorts of competitions, where a judge only needs to see or time who gets to the finish line first, "art form" competitions will inevitably involve subjectivity.
January 23, 2018, 11:26 AM · I don't have a problem with auditory subjectivity.My beef lies in throwing in the visual component which has very little to do with how well one plays or not.We had a certain conductor here a few years ago who sits in for the final round of an audition and upon seeing one of the candidates lets out a soft whistle and whispers"wow she's gorgeous".It wasn't just his ears he was using for evaluating candidates.This wouldn't have been a problem IF the screen stayed up.
January 23, 2018, 2:49 PM · Did she get the job? :-)
January 23, 2018, 4:10 PM · Actually she did but didn't receive her tenure.Rather messy situation.
Edited: January 25, 2018, 2:40 PM · For the sake of knowing the other side of the argument,can anybody state a good reason why the screen comes down in the finals of some professional auditions?
Another example of the skullduggery of nonscreened rounds...during the finals of another audition last year, a male candidate was brought out and set up his music etc. but he was wearing a really hideous shirt and tie that didn't match.Here I am staring at this apparel disaster and forcing myself not to let that interfere with his playing or my objectivity.Again,not a problem IF the screen was still up.
Edited: January 24, 2018, 10:36 AM · I tend to think of auditions and competitions more like job or college interviews. All the applicants reflect a level of excellence, otherwise they would have been screened out for me earlier. At this point, I'm looking for a little sparkle that sets one individual apart and above the rest. (Frankly, "perfection" is boring.) Something has to tell me that I want to hear this person for the next thousand nights ~ and that I will continue to be interested and intrigued in that this violinist has to say.
January 25, 2018, 1:38 AM · Music is an art, not a sport. One cannot measure art objectivly. It is always subjective. That is the problem I have with competitions.

Having said that I have sent pupils into competitions if they are aware of this and accept this fact. Competitions can be good because one can learn and improve a lot during the preparation and one gets the chance to listen to a lot of other players.

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