From the Adjudicator’s Chair

This week, several readers have contacted me asking whether I could write a blog post on the subject of what adjudicators or jury members are looking for in a competition performance. It’s wonderful that so many of you are preparing for amateur piano competitions all around the world. The main concern or question seemed to be ‘is the visual aspect of performance important and do adjudicators take note of how a performer looks whilst playing?’ This happens to be quite a topical question at the moment, as it has been the subject of much scrutiny in the newspapers here in the UK this week.

When judging any competition, it’s impossible to ignore an artist’s appearance completely. To do this, we would need to erect a screen and not see the musician at all, in order to only listen to the sound produced. This may be an effective option and many orchestral auditions are conducted in this fashion. Certainly it’s a more impartial way of listening to classical artists, but are we not missing the point by doing this? It is definitely easier to focus on the sound produced without looking at musicians, but isn’t the whole purpose of a performance just that? The sound and the visual? Otherwise why not listen to a recording as opposed to attending a live concert?

It may, on the face of it, appear to be advantageous only to more attractive performers, but a proportion (albeit small) of a performer’s ability to convey a piece of music successfully does, in fact, come from the whole package; watching every arm, hand or finger movement and enjoying the spectacle or mystic some performer’s definitely create whilst on stage. This shouldn’t be confused however, with their sexual allure. Many fantastic musicians bring a theatrical quality to their performances which would certainly be lost if we only ‘heard’ them and this particular characteristic is significant in a live concert. It contributes to the atmosphere of a recital. Of course, many will disagree here and will wager that the ‘sound’ is the most crucial factor, but whether we enjoy the ‘theatrics’ of a performance or not, this argument has virtually nothing to do with an artist being attractive which is a different type of ‘adulation’ completely, and one which sadly appears to be more and more commonplace in the world of classical music.

Many adjudicators and jury members probably do take note of the visual aspect of a competitor’s performance. They would be inhuman if they didn’t do this. I can only speak for myself, but, when adjudicating, I’m usually quite pre-occupied with writing reports so spend little time actually looking at competitors; I prefer to listen as I write.

I do make a point of watching pianists at the beginning of their recital. It’s good to make eye contact and give, young pianists particularly, confidence, but it’s especially interesting to note how pianists approach the instrument. Whilst examining, I could always tell if a candidate was going to give a distinction worthy performance or not, by the way they merely walked into the room. It’s all a matter of confidence. Generally, features such as posture, poise and a convincing opening are crucial and all make a good impression. The opening of a performance does tend to ‘set the scene’ for what’s to come, so young and amateur pianists should perhaps bear this in mind. It’s just as important as the big finish! Concentration, intensity and a good sound are also vital attributes in my opinion. A pianist who is totally engrossed in the music is a joy to behold.

Facial expressions are another moot point. Are they necessary? Some think they enhance but others find them atrocious. It doesn’t bother me specifically, and it usually doesn’t detract from a performance either. On the contrary, sometimes it can enhance if done in a convincing way, but as with anything, exaggerated, outrageous facial expressions do disturb.

Most adjudicators or jury members are hoping for the same outcome; an accurate performance with plenty of colour, variety, adherence to the score and awareness of style, as well as a captivating quality that ‘screams’ first place. Competitions aren’t for the faint-hearted, but they do instil confidence and can improve your playing.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. byen says:

    42:00 mark

    “There are many many people who strived for a career as a concert pianist [ scientist, Racer, etc ]
    ahh..the Ones that SUCCEED..just accept the fact that they have fabulous technique..and accept the fact, you know, they can play the instrument..*WHAT makes people SUCCEED, is how they are able to CAPTURE THE AUDIENCE*”
    — Schuyler Chapin/Impresario, “The Art of Piano”

    NASCAR, a niche-market sport (similar to niche-market Classical Music), is #2 watched Sport in USA (Football is #1, while national-past time is Baseball #3), because of above “Human Interest” factor (part of their hybrid model, Business & Entertainment..latter based on driver personalities/conflicts). It’s called “Soap Opera on 4- wheels” (Drama), to complement it’s HUGE advertising business-model (“Billboard on 4-wheels”)

    Science is also a niche-market (like Classical Music, a solitary type of study, steep-learning curve), which has struggled in USA & UK (STEM Crisis..Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). They recently score a BREAKTHROUGH with the #1 sitcom in USA — TTBT (The Big Bang Theory). A human-interest “story” (NOT documentary), in the dry/boring field of Theoretical Physics/String Theory. Again, personalities (friendship & conflicts) are the basis for its success. It’s making history, breaking records & rivaling iconic sitcoms like I Love Lucy, Friends, The Dick van Dyke Show

    Lang Lang is approaching the above NASCAR model, with his Entertainment Model for Classical Piano. Drawing non-endemic Sponsorship like BMW, Rolex, Nike (!!). Advertisers want “eyeballs” for their product, mass-market sensation Lang Lang brings that to them. Maksim (UK based pianist) & others are trying a “hybrid solution” in presenting Classical Music, mixing it with a modern presentation (ballet dancers, etc). Purists are “crying foul”, but it was Franz Liszt who “invented” the piano recital, that made Piano accessible to a “voyeuristic Public” (see above Youtube video).

    Most certainly, “Presentation” is part of the package. See “Legacy of Rosina Lhevinne” documentary, where she stated:

    “You are not only heard, but SEEN”

    She wanted her students to practice while dressed in concert clothes. Yuja Wang is dabbling in some “revealing outfits”, creating some controversy. Both she & Lang Lang are Curtis Institute grads, maybe this is Gary Graffman’s influence?

    Style & Substance (“making music”, not just playing notes), certainly Style is a factor. The female artist certainly can exploit the Style aspect, it’s part of their Uniqueness. Yuja’s friend Katia Buniatishvili also has a nice Style/Substance package, very talented/attractive.

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