Biases in Musical Competitions: Part II

Trumpet StudentToday I want to share with you my ideas about how to make musical competitions and auditions less biased. These ideas are based on my experiences not only as a judge, but also as a student and a teacher.

Click here to read Biases in Musical Competitions Part I.

Personal Biases

I will readily acknowledge that some auditions have already put into place safeguards against personal biases. I think, for example, that the Texas All-Region and All-State auditions have done a great job of protecting against any one judge favoring his own student. The TMEA auditions work on a system where each student’s highest and lowest score is thrown out. I like that because it makes it almost impossible for an audition to be “rigged.” If someone has a bias, either for or against a student, the system will eliminate that judge’s score.

Musical Biases

However, there are other biases besides those based on personal familiarity. I have never been a judge for a competition that protected students from musical biases.

What are “musical biases?”

Unlike personal biases which are based on the judges personal relationship with the student (negative or positive), musical biases are based on the judges’ personal musical priorities. If a judge considers one musical aspect more important than all other aspects and then judges according to that preference, I believe that judge has musical biases.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a judge has a strong percussion background. He went through pedagogy classes in college, but his main instrument is percussion. Now let’s say that this drummer judge was placed in a room judging trumpet players and that all the stereotypes are at play – the judge values rhythm and time over all other aspects of music. That judge is most likely going to rank the performers according to their rhythmic accuracy because he has a musical bias leaning more towards rhythm than anything else.

Would you say this is a good scenario? Not me!

Unfortunately, there is nothing in most musical competitions to protect the candidates from this sort of bias. The drummer example is a bit exaggerated. More often the biases are more subtle than that. Does the judge prioritize sound over all other musical aspects? Does he prioritize technique? How about accuracy? Endurance? Flexibility? Expression? Dynamics?

To be truly impartial, there should be protections put in place that prevent the judges from leaning too heavily on one musical aspect over all the rest.

TMEA Auditions

I often tell my students that the audition process for Region or State is very different from UIL solo contest. In solo contest you are supposed to be striving for “points” for various musical elements of your performance. The critique sheet has rows for comments and scores covering a variety of musical categories. But in the TMEA auditions, you get one number from each judge for each peace you perform. You are NOT getting points added or taken away based on how many notes you miss. You are not getting points added or taken away based on your dynamics, accuracy, endurance, phrasing or anything like that. No, when you finish playing, the judge thinks to hims self, “I think I’ll give him a 79.” That’s it! There’s no breakdown of points. The judge basically decides “Do I like your playing or not? If I like it, how much more do I like it than the guys who played before you?”

Do you see how the musical biases can so easily slip into this picture?

Most of the students who audition for All-Region or All-State mistakenly assume that those auditions are more like the UIL solo contest auditions. Just about every student I’ve ever taught thought that points were given or taken away according to how many notes you miss, how close you were to the tempo, good your sound is and things like that. The reason this is such a bad thing is because students stress over those individual and very specific musical aspects of their auditions when they should be focusing more on the general aspects. That’s what I try to do with my students, is to get them to start seeing more of the big picture, to prioritize tone and phrasing and to stop stressing over the occasional missed note.

The worst thing about the biases in these auditions is that even if a judge is sound-centric or technique-centric (or whatever his bias is), often it’s not even good enough to have a good sound or good technique. For the judge to like your playing more than your competitors, you must have a sound that pleases him or technique that he agrees with.

So What?

I understand what most judges and/or band directors would say about this. They would say that, for the most part, the judges usually agree about who the top players are in the room. And I agree with this. I’ve judged often enough to see this in action. Without fail, the top two to four students float to the top of the list.

I believe this is because those students covered every base in their preparations. Instead of being biased themselves, they prepared thoroughly and were about to appease the musical biases of the judges.

And indeed, that’s what I try to teach my students. I tell the students who are serious about making All-State that they MUST cover ever base in their preparations. Someone who wants to make All-State needs to excel in all of the general aspects of their musicianship and cover all the major bases as well.

But what about those players who do not float to the top? When the judges are supposed to choose sixteen trumpet players and four float to the top, what about the rest of the students? Now, as a private teacher, my attitude towards the students who end up in that vague middle area is that they brought that upon themselves by not preparing thoroughly enough. I strongly believe competing students who are serious about winning a spot in the band should take responsibility for their own practice and preparations and never blame their success or failure on other people. But as a judge, I think it’s wrong to completely disregard the biases that fail to stratify any deeper than the top four students.

My Solution

I doubt anything would ever come of my ideas here, but I have a solution to the musical bias problem in musical competitions. I believe each judge should be responsible for judging a different musical aspect of the students’ performances. The TMEA auditions typically require five judges per room. What if the first judge was made responsible for sound, the second for rhythm and technique, the third for musical expression, phrasing and dynamics, the fourth for articulation and the fifth for intervalic accuracy, then the auditions would go a lot further towards the goal of finding the best players instead of the most “favored” players. Gone would be the days of just assigning some arbitrary number based on how much the judge likes the way the candidate plays.

A judge that is responsible for grading sound would only grade on sound and nothing else. A judge who is responsible for grading articulation would grade only on articulation, and give an appropriate grade for the candidate’s articulation regardless of how bad he sounds.

A system like this would reward those middle players for their time and effort, and more importantly, would place more skilled performers in the band. It would also protect them from the biases of judges who would typically only judge according to what pleases them.

Like I said, I’m just putting this idea out there for people to chew on. I understand that a LOT of people will disagree with me. I also understand how difficult it is to get ANY judges to even show up to most of these auditions, which complicates matters quite a bit. But I do believe that this would be a better, less biased way to conduct musical competitions. Yes, music is a subjective art form, but that doesn’t mean we should throw objectivity to the wind in favor of cronyism in disguise.

About Eddie Lewis

Eddie Lewis is primarily known as a Christian free-lance trumpet player in Houston, TX. Eddie makes a living playing trumpet, teaching trumpet and jazz improvisation, writing trumpet music and authoring trumpet books. His second book, Daily Routines for Trumpet, is used regularly by thousands of trumpet players around the world. If you would like to purchase some of his CD's, feel free to visit our online music store at
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