All-West: A Judge's Perspective

Since many of you participated in taking a big audition this past Saturday, I think we should consider the occasion of All-West Tennessee Honor Band auditions on a few deeper levels.

I’m not sure of the exact number, but I definitely listened to more than 120 high school flute players on Saturday. I was the scales/sight-reading judge. How on earth did so many come through the door? Everything went very quickly. I probably heard each of you for two minutes. All judges were instructed to judge the students like a solo and ensemble competition - not necessarily comparing you to each other, but instead judging against an inherent standard for how the excerpts should be best performed. I scored each of you out of 50 points on a Scantron form. A SCANTRON FORM. If you’ve never considered how messed up that is, you’re not thinking like an artist. It’s dystopian.

How can you judge a person’s rhythm on a scale from 1-50 points? It is such a bizarre thing. It felt like turning music into a sporting competition. It felt like judging gymnastics or figure skating, except with fewer standards. Does taking a faster tempo earn a higher start value? If you play a three-octave scale, but play it poorly, will you get more points than a person who played a two-octave scale evenly and with beautiful sound? It’s like gaming the system: choose the triple axel, because even if you fall, you will get more points than if you landed a double. I can’t judge music like that. I gave more points to the person who played the two-octave scale really well.

Turning music into something quantifiable, something that we can count, is the equivalent to turning it into a sport. Or worse. It’s turning art into a commodity. And even though it’s great that so many schools and young musicians participated on Saturday, I believe that this practice of mass auditions is ultimately detrimental to real music-making and to the survival of the art.

Without writing actual comments (which, if I were to have written comments for all 120 of you, it would have taken more like 3 days instead of one), the exercise is worse than meaningless. For example, a flutist in the 11-12 grade group sight-read the excerpt very well with one exception: she played it in Bb major instead of Bb minor. The rhythms were correct, the articulations were all there, the tone and expression were very nice. But what that flutist is going to see on their score sheet is this: almost perfect scales, almost perfect rhythm, almost perfect musicality -- and then a relatively low score for accuracy. She or he probably thought they played it perfectly. What the heck was wrong with that judge, to score someone like that? Their teacher is going to wonder if a mistake was made. There could be an indignant protest about the unfairness of the score. And if I had been able to write a comment, not only would this score be taken more seriously, but we wouldn’t lose a valuable teaching moment. That student would never miss another key signature again. Instead, they’re left wondering.

I have so many other examples that are similar to this, but none so clear. The process on Saturday made us all (students, teachers, judges) cogs in a horrible wheel. Many flutists who participated in the audition actually couldn’t read music that well, or were never taught the correct fingerings, but they were trying to play these difficult excerpts anyway. Some would say there is value in trying, but I disagree. I wish we could take these students and use the same time spent on learning a difficult piece in E major and instead work on the proper fingering for middle D. I wish that there was a mechanism for music educators in schools to just take things slow for those that need to go slow, but there isn’t. The sight-reading excerpts that I judged were appropriate for probably 10% of the students who auditioned. For a huge number of students, the sight-reading was too hard. For another, smaller number, it was way too easy. Why do we try this one-size-fits-all way of teaching music? Saturday’s All-West audition was an exact mirror of our capitalist system: reward those who would probably succeed anyway, and leave others so far behind that there is no hope of catching up. And the simple reasons we do it this way is regional historical tradition and lack of money.

Learning to play an instrument is really personal. It’s a different experience for every person. I wish more than anything that every school music program had a teacher specialist for each instrument. It’s unreasonable to expect band directors to know everything and to do everything. I wish there was a flute specialist in every middle and high school, if only to point out over and over that you play middle D with your first finger raised. But we don’t have this luxury: it would cost too much money. It’s on every student and their family whether they can afford private flute lessons or a working instrument. It’s on every student and their family to ensure that there is a quiet place to practice every day, that won’t bother the neighbors, or the family member who works nights and sleeps in the day. Do you see my point? This is why music education has become the provenance of the privileged. And at no time is it more obvious than at music competitions.

So, how did I judge? I couldn’t see the students, and they could see me, so I didn’t see a lot of things: terrible hand position, weird embouchures, detrimental posture. I also didn’t see all the tears, but I definitely heard crying. How did I judge?

Before you all came in, I decided on a few things, and I was consistent throughout the day:

  1. Scales were mostly judged on right notes vs. wrong ones. If you played your scale correctly in one octave, you got an automatic “good” rating. Two octaves were automatically “excellent.” If the chromatic scale was three octaves, and all the other scales were at least two octaves, and they were played with beautiful sound, that was “superior.” Some impish folks thought they could get away with playing a G major scale when they were supposed to play Gb. They were marked down heavily. You can’t pull one over on someone with perfect relative pitch.

  2. For sight-reading, extra points were awarded those who could stay in the same tempo the entire time. This was very rare. I suggest practicing this for better scores next year.

  3. I did not consider tone quality unless the flutist was scoring very high into the upper “excellent” or lower “superior” categories. If the tone was beautiful and pleasing to me, I awarded extra points, but only in the cases where the sight-reading rhythm and accuracy were already quite good.


Going forward, how do I wish this could be changed?

I wish All-West used real repertoire (Bach, Mozart, etc.) and chose it with consultation from a consortium of college and high school private teachers for each instrument. All-West tried this briefly one year by requiring the third movement of the Bach Partita. This was a totally inappropriate choice that I believe a consortium of knowledgeable flute teachers would have shot down immediately. But I don’t think we should give up on this; I think it should be tried again.

I wish All-West actually did take two days to judge, so that comments could be relayed back to the students. I believe this would actually make the entire process more educational.

Band directors should be discouraged from forcing students to audition. Students who are very far behind in development should not be forced to learn and perform music that is beyond them.

Before the auditions, every instrument should be inspected and fixed. (I can hear every band director reading this just laughing, but seriously! How can these students do well if their instruments don’t work?!)

Finally, I wish that there was a way to fund private lessons for students. This is starting to happen in certain ways with the Memphis Music Initiative, but I wish we could give scholarships to students for private lessons. I was a recipient of a private lesson scholarship for one year in high school and it made a huge difference for me and my family. 

I haven’t even commented yet about the extent to which this audition system suppresses creativity in young people. But I plead to you, reader who has made it to the end of this post: question this. Cultivate creativity in your practice and in your teaching. Don’t allow yourself to practice the same page of music every day for three months. Improvise, make up songs, and encourage your friends to do the same. Don’t let All-West be the definition of music education in our region.