Judging violin contestants online ... Help!!

Edited: April 21, 2020, 3:25 AM · The coronavirus emergency in Lombardy, Italy, has not stopped the 26th edition of the Enrico Arisi competition for young musicians from happening, but the auditions will be online via a private YouTube channel.

I've been on the panel of judges for several years now, but I have not ever encountered a similar situation. Ranking kids playing one after the other is hard enough, but if you start factoring video and sound quality (or lack thereof) it sounds like a nightmare. Not to mention that there will be less stage fright and I suppose if a contestant isn't happy with a video performance they will just make a new one.

So, I know many of you teach online and therefore have experience in exactly this kind of situation. Can anyone please give me some advice, whereby my ratings can be as fair as possible? Thank you in advance, also on behalf of the students!

Replies (32)

April 21, 2020, 5:38 AM · I don't envy you having to judge such a competition!

Unless all students are using the same or equivalent audio equipment to make the recording I think you're stuck. Video quality is less important, but if one person is being filmed using a smartphone and another is being filmed using a $1000 studio mic and mixing board worthy of a commercially released recording and a studio quality video camera, you'll never be able to judge which is the better musician unless one is obviously a failure or the other is obviously ready to solo with the Berlin Philharmonic.

In the case of two students who are just about equal, the quality of the recording will be a huge factor in how much you can hear of their tone production, the clarity of their vibrato and the precision of their articulations. I've noticed in my online lessons that even intonation can be affected by poor quality audio equipment.

Additionally, if one is being recorded with audio compression on and the other is being recorded with it off, the dynamic range they will each exhibit will be very different and not necessarily an accurate version of what they are playing.

If Automatic Level Adjust is enabled on one person's recording equipment then the sound will be totally distorted from reality and there may be some harsh distortion if a person is playing a very soft passage with a single loud accented high note in the middle -- the Automatic Level Adjust will raise the recording level to capture the very soft passage and will thus be too high for the accented high note, which will sound distorted, at which point the level adjustment will lower the recording level and the very soft notes following the accented note won't be heard clearly at all.

Whoever decided to go ahead with the competition didn't think clearly enough about how huge a role the recording technology plays in hearing a musician's true ability.

But since you're stuck having to judge, my best advice is to watch very closely how the student is playing and let what you see help temper what you hear so that even if the audio isn't great between the two (using your eyes as well as your ears) I hope you can get a good impression of the skill level of the young musician.

Good luck and I think that any message sent out about whether a person won or not should include a statement to the effect of "Due to the wide variety in recording equipment for this year's youtube competition, the judging was even more difficult than when listening to the young musicians in person."

Edited: April 21, 2020, 11:09 AM · I am personally disappointed to see national competition finals moving online. Not only is there too much variability between recording setups and venues as David describes (how am I supposed to book a hall for recording these days, or rehearse with an accompanist or group); it also eliminates the moment-in-time magic of a convincing or even brilliant live performance under pressure. We wait until 2021 for the Olympics, and don't have everyone send a video of their best performance at home.
April 21, 2020, 11:35 AM · Have you started judging yet or are you anticipating the issues?

I think you will find that as long as everyone is using minimally acceptable technology, you will be able to discern the differences among the candidates. People play how they play.

April 21, 2020, 11:47 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen. Music Festivals have been using video/audio recordings to judges admissions for years. Conservatories and Universities have also been using videos for pre-screenings and/or admissions for years. Clearly video recordings have been deemed sufficient for judging performances at many levels. Is it ideal? Of course not, but it allows competitions to continue, ensuring that young musicians have a chance to share their hard work. It's not the same as in-person, but it allows the music making to continue while we wait for effective treatments/vaccines/mitigation measures to work.
April 21, 2020, 1:48 PM · I don't think it will be as hard as you think, assuming that you are not judging the absolute tippy top professional level. We've done contests that are video submission only, and one time our camera failed completely, which we didn't realize until after the accompanist went home and we left the hall we were recording in. It wasn't a major contest, so I just ended up sending in my backup iPhone SE video that was really horrible. We did get a comment on the judging form about how the quality comparatively stunk, but they were easily able to tell ability. Interpretation, intonation, etc. all still come through. You may lose tone and some cameras/phones blunt dynamic range, which is why at the very top levels judging becomes more problematic, but for most situations it is still pretty obvious who plays well and who doesn't.
April 21, 2020, 2:23 PM · You won't be able to compare tone quality or volume, but everything else should be possible; intonation, vibrato, rhythm, etc.
April 21, 2020, 2:27 PM · You can compare tone quality and dynamics using recordings. Perhaps Joel is thinking of Zoom or similar apps but that’s not what this is.
April 21, 2020, 6:18 PM · These aren't going to be synchronous performances. These videos are going to be done in professional studios with $10000 microphones and such.
Edited: April 22, 2020, 4:41 AM · Thank you everyone, indeed. Very appreciated.

We have levels that go from first year beginners to kids who play Ravel's Tzigane and bring in their own accompanist (who will complain that we have a Yamaha and not a Steinway).

I'll discuss your advice with the competition boss and hope we can end up doing a good job. Cheers!

April 22, 2020, 5:12 AM · Please keep us posted as the competition moves forward as to how varied the quality of the submissions is and also how easy/hard it is for the judges to discern the differences in musical ability.
April 22, 2020, 5:27 AM · @David, I will be please to do so, especially given the time you dedicated to your post above :-)
Edited: May 7, 2020, 4:03 AM · The competition has been held and then winners selected, so as requested I can give some feedback as to how easy/difficult it was to judge young talents via online videos.

Surprisingly, it proved easier than expected to accurately evaluate the playing despite obvious differences in recording quality. Intonation was clear, and nuances and interpretation were discernable. In fact the points independently awarded by each of us on our panel of four judges were pretty well aligned.

I still think that there was the advantage of being able to make a new video if a contestant flubbed, but that was the same for all of them so it evened out. Stage fright was probably reduced too.

All in all, a live performance is better, but this was an acceptable compromise, in my opinion.

May 7, 2020, 5:15 AM · Thank you for sharing your experience - it turns out my worries were not that important after all. I'm glad it was an acceptable compromise.
May 7, 2020, 6:42 AM · Thanks for telling us how it went! One of my biggest concerns was (and is in regards to digital entrance exams) how the question of finding a pianist was handled. I might have missed it somewhere in this thread, but did they all have to find a pianist themselves, or did they all play without one? I imagine this to be a possible disadvantage for those who play with their "own" pianist instead of one provided by the competition if it was that kind of competition, anyway. Would love to hear your opinion on its impact.
May 7, 2020, 9:35 AM · @Benjamin all of the video recordings we have done for various requirements or auditions since COVID have specified that no accompanist is to be used. Instrumental solo only to level the playing field. My state is still sheltering in place, so many kids don't have access to pianos or accompanists. My kids are younger, so we are talking about youth symphony auditions, scholarship auditions, and pre-college program juries for the most part, but from what I have heard from the older kids in my son's program, the same has been true for conservatory and university auditions.
May 7, 2020, 9:49 AM · @Susan That's very interesting! Does that mean that they have to prepare actual solo repertoire, or are they allowed to perform the solo parts of pieces intended for multiple musicians? I imagine everybody who's prepared any type of (Duo) sonata must be much more frustrated than the lucky ones that went for Bach and Paganini, either way.
May 7, 2020, 10:44 AM · I'm also interested in Susan's comment because I think part of being a good violinist is your interaction with your accompanist. Still, I do also see the point that not all accompanists are created equal, and you don't want to be judging them, even unwittingly.
May 7, 2020, 11:49 AM · In most cases, they have not had to prepare solo repertoire, though my older one has often chosen that just because so much rep sounds empty without accompaniment. He's done all Bach and Paganini for virtual recitals, except for one collab with a pianist on a Mozart Sonata. They recorded their parts separately. It was extremely hard and rather unsatisfying from his perspective.

It's really made him and us choose repertoire in different ways for different activities. For example, the concerto he is working on (Shostakovich), particularly the slower movements, really doesn't stand alone well, so we ended up nixing that for his jury. He's instead playing Wieniawski Polonaise, which stands better on its own.

My little one (age 10) did Praeludium and Allegro and Mozart 3 for her orchestra auditions. P&A isn't too bad unaccompanied, though you miss out on all the lovely 7th chords. Mozart 3 was a bit challenging -- lots of gaps where the tuttis are.

My understanding is a large % of universities and music schools do their auditions unaccompanied anyway, so it isn't really that different for many of them. Only a few of the very top schools require an accompanist.

Competitions for the most part have been cancelled, so we haven't faced how those might be handled.

May 7, 2020, 12:36 PM · All of my daughter's college auditions last year were unaccompanied--this includes the Jacobs School at Indiana University--and the local youth orchestra auditions are never accompanied. Lalo, Bruch, or less difficult student works sound just fine without accompaniment and at any rate give us the information we need to rank applicants.
May 7, 2020, 12:44 PM · I wonder if this quarantine is going to result in composers thoughtfully turning their focus to solo instruments and their possibilities. I guess with electronic production, a lot of different things are possible, so maybe that's kind of an afterthought.
Edited: May 7, 2020, 1:36 PM · If there is a permanent trend toward no-accompaniment in auditions for conservatory, important summer camps, and competitions, then I wonder if that will significantly skew what top students study as they progress, or even how they play. Will see see twice many recordings of the Ysaye Sonatas every year from now on, because everyone prepared them in their pursuit of conservatory admission?

By the way, that "Haffner Rondo" of Mozart is just as difficult, in my experience, as Mozart 3. It might not be as musically sophisticated, and yes, it's an arrangement. But it stands alone much better.

May 7, 2020, 2:20 PM · @Susan and Mary: Thanks for clearing that up! I'm genuinely amazed, as I had no idea that was even possible. I have no experience with auditions for scholarships or youth orchestras, but I don't think there's a single conservatory here in Germany where applicants do not get the chance to perform their audition program with a pianist. That's so much of a given that there's not even a question about it, just as at masterclasses. Now, competitions are a different story, at least the smaller ones for young musicians. There you need to bring an accompanist, no matter whether you're competing in the ensemble or solo category, but the bigger competitions definitely provide professional accompanists, as did at least one competition in Romania. Does that mean that there are no professional accompanists assigned to the conservatory classes, either, or do they just not have to play during the auditions?
May 7, 2020, 5:39 PM · It really varies here. My son's advanced pre-college program does EVERYTHING with an accompanist (at least pre-COVID). Every audition, masterclass, studio class, performance. Even most service performances. They believe in this so strongly that they decided to postpone both new-student auditions and old student juries to August in hopes that the kids can play live with an accompanist. On the other hand, his scholarship program (for underrepresented groups) is mandating juries without an accompanist.

At the college level, once you are there, everything is with an accompanist -- studio class, masterclass, performances. But for some reason most all of the schools have in-person auditions without accompaniment. Some of these require you to submit a pre-screen video with accompaniment.

Summer programs for advanced students in my experience have always required accompaniment in videos as well. I think the ones for not as advanced students are more lenient.

May 7, 2020, 6:45 PM · My son went through the audition process this year. He is so relieved he made it through the audition process before stay in place orders were issued. I can share that Colburn, NEC, and Juilliard all required a pianist for the audition. A list of collaborative pianists was shared and he arranged for a rehearsal and audition. Cost was between $180-$200 dollars. Auditions at Oberlin, Rice and Eastman did not require a collaborator. All auditions were 10 minutes in length.
May 7, 2020, 11:30 PM · Once you're in a conservatory, all performances, studio classes, competitions, etc., are with accompaniment.

For what it's worth, the idea of holding youth orchestra or university auditions without accompanist is hardly new. I never had an accompanist for an audition for youth orchestra auditions, or for undergrad (Oberlin) or graduate (Indiana) auditions either, and that was 40 something years ago.

Edited: May 8, 2020, 8:39 AM · Likewise my university orchestra's auditions are not with accompaniment. I played a page and a half of the F-major Beethoven Romance and was immediately promised a seat, and I auditioned early. Eventually my seat wound up next to the principal violist, but still.

It surprises me that a place like Jacobs would audition its violin majors for their orchestra, but that's because I don't know the numbers: Let's say they have 12 stands of violins, that's 24 people -- how many performance majors are there at a time? Do they have a second orchestra for those who don't make it? How's it going to school for a performance major and then not getting into the orchestra? That's gotta suck, right? You wouldn't think they would take more students than they could provide a robust education for. I'm not dumping on Jacobs, that's just an example, my question applies to any conservatory.

May 8, 2020, 8:51 AM · The local university orchestra appropriated the community orchestra as a second orchestra for music majors, so they have two orchestras now, and the community orchestra no longer exits. That really sucks. I understand why it happened, but it hurts.
May 8, 2020, 9:24 AM · My university does not have a music program comparable to any of the top conservatories, by any stretch. Players who are too marginal to join the university orchestra are recommended to join the community orchestra, and in our case, it is a great benefit to the community orchestra when they do. So it can work both ways.
Edited: May 8, 2020, 10:06 AM · “It surprises me that a place like Jacobs would audition its violin majors for their orchestra, but that's because I don't know the numbers: Let's say they have 12 stands of violins, that's 24 people -- how many performance majors are there at a time? Do they have a second orchestra for those who don't make it? How's it going to school for a performance major and then not getting into the orchestra?“

I meant when I auditioned to get into the school.

Jacobs has ensemble auditions for its winds, brass, and percussionists. I don’t remember auditioning for orchestra but perhaps I have forgotten that or perhaps things have changed, but what I remember is that the professors got together and made the assignments. Every string major is assigned to an orchestra. There are four full orchestras, ranked—Philharmonic, Concert, Symphony, and University—a chamber orchestra, and it’s possible that there might be another ensemble too that I am forgetting. There is also a campuswide orchestra for non-Jacobs students. I might be mixing up Concert and Symphony in the rankings but Philharmonic is the elite group and University is the lowest. University always plays for Nutcracker and the other orchestras rotate for opera.

The top graduate and upper class string players are distributed among the orchestras as concertmasters and section leaders, except that the very top students—the ones expected to be entering and winning international competitions—are sometimes assigned to back stands in the Philharmonic first violin section. This is done so that they can focus their practicing on their solo repertoire.

Winds, brass and percussion who don’t make it into one of the orchestras are assigned to one of the bands, of which there are several, also ranked. All performance majors are required to be in an ensemble.

It is a real accomplishment for a freshman wind performance major to get assigned to any of the orchestras. This past year only one freshman flute major made an orchestra (the others were assigned to the bands). You can watch this past year’s Nutcracker on the IU music site and hear her playing some big piccolo solos. Please excuse the maternal brag.

May 8, 2020, 12:22 PM · Congrats @Mary Ellen! That is a big accomplishment.

My experience has been that universities attempt to match the number of spots they have available in various orchestras and bands with the number of applicants they accept. Most music schools have multiple orchestras. Of course this doesn't always work out exactly, but they make an attempt to make it work. There is usually one orchestra that is mostly freshmen and sophomores. Then one or more higher ones that are for grad students and upperclassmen. Some smaller schools only have one orchestra, and some large ones may have 5 or even more.

Edited: May 8, 2020, 1:28 PM · Susan, thank you! I was so proud.

At least at Indiana, they don't seem to slot the orchestras as for lower class/upper class/grad. I know of one freshman horn player (daughter of a friend) who was assigned to Philharmonic the spring of her freshman year, and I also know of at least one senior/grad student flute major who was in one of the bands. It's pretty much merit based. But I agree that the number of studio spots and the number of ensemble spots are matched up as much as possible.

When I was in Philharmonic, the concertmaster was a very talented junior or senior (can't remember which) and the principal second was a very talented sophomore. My standpartner was a DMA composition student who has since become fairly well known, who was an excellent--really excellent--violinist at the time (I have no idea how much he still plays). The real stars (competition winners) were the last stand of the firsts, and everyone knew they were only there to check off a graduation requirement.

May 8, 2020, 1:05 PM · Wow it's great to understand all that better. It makes sense. I'm not surprised a place like Jacobs would have it figured out. Congrats to your daughter too.

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