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What do choral adjudicators listen and look for?

What do adjudicators listen and look for?
This question is addressed specifically to anyone who has adjudicated choirs in any context, as well as to anyone who listens/looks at all critically to any choral performances, as good listeners are all adjudicators!
Listening: Which aspects definitely get ‘points off’, and which get favorable ratings? Comments?
Looking: How important are visual elements? Any comments on choreography?
A colleague and I will be presenting an interest session later in the year on excellence in choral singing. One measure of excellence is that carried out by adjudicators. It’s also something I have wondered about for years but to date have never put the question to an adjudicator, although I myself adjudicate from time to time. Please be assured I will not quote anyone by name without prior consent.
Thank-you for sharing, and for your help in promoting choral excellence,

Donald Patriquin
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on February 11, 2016 9:39pm
     I have adjudicated choirs in Wisconsin through Concert Groups' festivals under the aegis of the Wisconsin School Music Association since 1983. I have reached the top level of Master Adjudicator. For me, nothing detracts more from a performance than bad intonation, or even just not singing the correct notes. In the venues that I adjudicate, choreography is not judged (it is only judged in Show Choir events in the Solo/Ensemble Festivals) They also have very good adjudication forms; I imagine they would be willing to share for the purpose of your research: their contact info can be found at . 
Russell Thorngate
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 12, 2016 7:07am
HI Donald: I've been very fortunate to enjoy a lot of adjudication opportunities over the years and for me intonation is absolutely the number one issue; not merely pitch accuracy; rather balancing of chord tones between and among sections and observation of harmonic function in the context of a wide dynamic range.  One rhythmic element I'm a stickler about when adjudicating is duration - I've noticed a lot of choirs tend to early release phrase endings when they're in the heat of a stressful/excited moment or not prepared enough in terms of breath management (inhalation and exhalation).  Regarding the visual, I do think this is very important in the sense that we must always endeavor to bring the music to life and our humanness offers unique expressive potential.  I want to see the music on people's faces as well as hear it from their voices (or ears perhaps more accurately). Great question to put out here on ChoralNet!
Be well,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 14, 2016 11:07am
For many years I have adjudicated choral competitions and festivals.  Oftentimes, organizations have a standard rubric adressing balance, blend, accuracy (rhythm and pitch), intonation, diction, and appropriatemess of repertoire
Steve Young
on February 14, 2016 5:20pm
I've read the various replies (so far) to the question of what adjudicators listen for with interest.
It's understandable that in the context of judging those doing so have little choice but to focus on aspects that can be quantified. A judge who gave high marks because "it was musical" would have a hard time justifying her results.
But music can't be quantified, it obeys no "rubrics." Its time-world is not clock time; its relationships are not those of the perceptible world -- it exists to lead us to transcend.
I am reminded of Celibidache's comment that intonation is not the most important thing (he was talking about musical performance, not competitions) because the ear tempers what it hears -- i.e., it can recognize what the relationships are even through the fuzz of imperfect pitch. But parts that are not in balance with each other because the performers are not listening intently enough or with sufficient understanding obscure the essential, true processes within the work and render it meaningless.
Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
Applauded by an audience of 2
on February 16, 2016 8:21am
Thank you for this statement, Jerome. "But music can't be quantified, it obeys no "rubrics." Its time-world is not clock time; its relationships are not those of the perceptible world -- it exists to lead us to transcend."
Is music any different than other arts? Can visual art, for example, be quantified? How would you and I adjudicate a painting? Now there’s a can of worms! Music is different from some other arts (mainly visual) in that the creator of a musical work (choral music especially) is normally not the performer, whereas the visual artist is the performer. The adjudicator’s function when assessing a musical performance is generally not to critique the creator of the music, rather the performer. The visual artist gets the full whammy– a critique of both creator and ‘performer’.  (And see 'Barbershop' below)
En parenthese: One aspect which I will at least briefly touch on in our interest session will be to what extent can/should a composer expect to influence performance outside of pitch and rhythm, and how free is a conductor to change what the composer has indicated on the score in terms of interpretation? Does anyone (including adjudicator/conductor/composer) have thoughts on this?
To this end, I am wondering how much attention is paid by adjudicators to stylistic considerations, i.e. the composer’s intentions?
I am learning (I think!) that adjudicators generally do not comment, let alone give weight to, non-quantifiable performance aspects. It follows that a conductor and choir can benefit tremendously from adjudication on a technical level; but how do a conductor and choir learn what is needed to improve on an aesthetic level? It is interesting to note below (David Jacobs) that the Barbershoppers take very much the aesthetic into consideration. Of course it is a much simpler problem that adjudicators have here, as there is a generally accepted 'Barbershop' style (if I am not mistaken) against which any given performance may be judged. There is not a similar 'Choral' style against which any given choral work can be assessed aesthetically.
Still, there has to be a way around this! 
on February 16, 2016 9:27am
Speaking from "outside the box", or perhaps "inside my box", to a few of your comments.
You mention adjudicators commenting (or not) on technical and aesthetic performance aspects.  In the BHS arena, in almost every competition environment, performers have an opportunity to discuss their performance with and even be coached by the adjudicators following the contest.  (Yes, our judges are passionate about what they do!)  The goal always being to help the competitor become a better singer/performer/artist. We strive to help each ensemble move form ordinary/mechanical to artistic performers.
There is a barbershop "style" and particularly our Music category takes into consideration how well the arrangement and even the original work "fits the style". But at some events, such as our Youth Harmony Festival, where young men perform two songs in the barbershop style and a third song of thier choosing, the Music category sets aside the "style" considerations, but still judges the performance on its consonance, consistent theme, and artistic delivery.
Interesting discussion.
on February 16, 2016 10:09am
Donald - You raised a particularly interesting question for me, at least, at the "to what extent can/should a composer expect to influence performance outside of pitch and rhythm, and how free is a conductor to change what the composer has indicated on the score in terms of interpretation?"
I had a personal experience of this about a dozen years ago, when the church choir in which I sang and was (by courtesy) the assistant director of the adult choir, was called on to perform a work by a living composer for a large national liturgical musicians conference (to protect both the innocent and the not-so, I will neither name the conference nor name the composer).  The composer had come to town the last half-week of rehearsals prior to performance before the 1800 or so musicians who were to attend the conference.  As our music director was providing piano support within the chamber orchestra, he (confidently) let me direct the entire group - 40 adults, 30 children, a dozen or so soloists/performers, and an 8-piece chamber orchestra.  I cannot tell you how many times during rehearsals that the composer would criticize this or that aspect of my conducting, most usually the pace - "It's at 92, not 98" he would intone, with his little metronome tick-tocking away.  I was sorely tempted to rip off his little pencil mustache and personally guide him out of the church and give myself a little peace!  As this composer was a celibate cleric, I was also tempted to point out, "Father, I will assume you have neither fathered a child nor had to raise one.  I have done the one and am doing the other.  A composition, not unlike a child, is worked on until it is released into the world - and once that happens, the impact other people will have will change, for good or naught, that child.  You've released the kid; now I'm the world dealing with it!"  I didn't say that, but the truth within that should be fairly clear.
More seriously, here are the issues:  the conductor has to consider the space the piece will be performed in (thereby sometimes necessarily slowing down something that would otherwise be incomprehensible if taken at the originally composed pace); the singers themselves, both choral and individual (after all, how hard CAN you push a soloist and still have a decent performance if the soloist will not be pushed and it's too late to change soloists?); and the simple truth that a conductor, as any performing musician, may "interpret" the piece in a manner somewhat different than the composer "heard" when he/she composed it.  All that said, the conductor must be (within reason) able to change things while still honoring the composer's intentions as shown by specific guidance - but it's GUIDANCE, not LAW.  Realities intrude and must be addressed by....either the solo performer or the small group together or a conductor for a larger group.  Frankly, (and with due respect that you yourself are a composer, Donald) once a composer puts a piece of music out there, it's truly no longer his/hers if they intend it for public use.  A clearly botched interpretation that does not honor the intentions of the composer is subject to the most vitriolic criticism by a composer, and justifiably so.  Otherwise, it falls under the old Latin saw, "de gustibus non disputandum est" - "one cannot argue about taste."
Applauded by an audience of 2
on February 15, 2016 1:33pm
I, like Russell, have been judging events in Wisconsin (and Minnesota) for years, and am also a Master Adjudicator in Wisconsin. Throughout the time I've judged in Wisconsin in particular, I have been impressed with both the rubrics and the training that we need to go through every 5 years. Since the Wisconsin rubric is copyrighted, I can't reproduce it here, but as Russell mentioned, I'm sure that they would let you have access. The rubric covers key areas such as tone quality, intonation, rhythm, accuracy, expression, balance, blend, diction and responsiveness to director (some of these might be subcategories - I'm going from off the top of my head). For each area there are descriptions of what one should expect to hear from the performer (performers) in order to give a certain point value. Much of what we hear in choral performances really can be quantified - our ears will tell us if the singers are responsive, if the diction is good, if the intonation is good, if they are matching vowels, if one part is too loud. 
In direct response to some of your questions, categories really depend on the competition itself. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota's festival trainers instruct adjudicators to judge against a standard rather than to rank choirs as we hear them. Because of this, if all choirs meet the standards, they can all get high scores. The rubrics in both Wisconsin and Minnesota are so specific that we don't have room to give anything more weight - the weights have already been set by the way the rubrics were written.
As to choreography, if the piece requires it, then we judge it, but, again, the weight given to it depends on the rubric. In my experience, choreography has been part of showchoir (and I think there is a category for it on the showchoir rubrics). For other categories, if a director decided to add choreography but it wasn't specifically required, the use of it might fall under a "performance factors" or "expression" category. With music from around the globe becoming more and more part of the curriculum, it is possible that some rubrics are becoming more explicit about this. 
The question of how and even if aesthetics can be quantified has been around for centuries, so Jerome's points are well taken. However, the reality, as you noted in your opening paragraph, is that we judge all of the time. We train our students to have aesthetic judgement - we know that we have to train our students to go beyond the simple "I like this and I don't like that" - we need them to be able to judge their own work so that they can improve. If we are preparing our students for the real world, then they also need to be ready to be judged - every audition is a judgement, every job interview is a judgement. 
I hope this makes some sense, and I wish you well in this Donald.
PS - if you are interested in Minnesota's rubric, contact the Minnesota State High School League
on February 16, 2016 6:03am
Donald, it may be valuable (and interesting) to look at adjudication systems outside the academic choral festival realm for your research.  The Barbershop Harmony Society, has an extensive training and qualificaitons for its judges and judge candidates.  And its judging system is described in detail on its website. (see  There's even a link to the Contest and Judging Handbook, with category descriptions and samples of the actual forms used in competition.
BHS contest performances are judged in 3 equally weighted categories: Music, Presentation, and Singing
Music CategoryMusic is defined as the song and arrangement, as performed. The Music Category judges the arranger’s skill and the performer’s musicianship in bringing the mood or story of the song to life, and the suitability of the material to the barbershop style.
Presentation CategoryThese judges evaluate how effectively a performer brings the song to life. They judge the entertainment value of the performance; the art of the performance.
Singing CategoryIn the Singing category we judge artistic singing in the barbershop style – listening holistically for ringing in-tune voices that use a free, beautiful and rich vocal quality, which is wonderfully unified and vocally expressive.
The categories are described in detail on the site and in the handbook.
I'm sure the members of our judging community would be happy to answer any questions you may have.  I'll be happy to put you in touch with the chair of the committee, if you'd like.
Good luck with your presentation!
Dave Jacobs, Musical Director, Gainesville FL
on February 16, 2016 8:26am
Thanks, David! Food for thought here... I referred (two replies above) to what you wrote here. Good to have such information from 'outside the box'! For sure I'll look at this further. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on February 16, 2016 10:44am
I would like to plug my fellow ChoralNet ChoralBlogger, Lisa Billingham, and her Blog piece, "Festival Season: Part 1" last Thursday.  She has some interesting points to make as an  adjudicator. Her second part will be this Thursday.
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