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John Stewart on Judging Vocal Competitions

Each year The Classical Singer magazine, devoted to singers interested in professional work, sponsors an on-line vocal competition. The categories are arranged by age: high school classical and Broadway, and the same division for college and then after. For the third year, I have just finished judging about 50 college and post college classical singers. For twenty years, I judged the Metropolitan Opera Auditions the three levels of which are District, Regional, and finals in NYC at the Met. Adding up both of these competitions I’ve listened to more than 400 singers, and have heard perhaps 20 that were in any way ready for professional work.

Some time ago in Chicago, the local organizers asked us how we could judge. The reality is that you know a sizeable percentage by how they walk on stage. Confident, energized, or not. And if the panel is composed of singers you form a 90% judgement after one phrase, immediately hearing flaws. Presentationally, contestants generally fall into two categories, not only visible in person but online: either waving their arms around in bad operatic fashion having little or nothing to do with what the aria is about, or looking like a deer in the headlights and dead in the face. I drew up a list of audible qualities: are they singing consistent vowels throughout the range, i.e. an identifiable ah? Do they have a range that extends over 2½ octaves, especially top notes? Even basses need high notes that don’t morph into a woofy uhhhhhhhh. Do they sing in tune? Is their voice capable of loud and soft throughout the range? For example, many soprano voices are weak on the bottom. On one hand, does the voice bleat like a goat, or on the other hand have a wobble you could drive a truck through, making it impossible to tell what the pitch should be? Should that vibrato pulse be energized and exciting – think Pavarotti for an ideal one. Etc. It’s really like mining for gold. When you hear a good one or an almost-good one, you are so excited and grateful.

In both of these competitions my reason for judging is clearly not fiduciary. Rather, it’s an opportunity to offer feedback. Advice, if you will. Not all the Met auditioners will stay around to hear what they fear might be confidence destroying, but I have really never done that. Sugarcoat the pill, always. I do talk about stage behavior in both competitions and for the Classical Singer competition I do spend time expounding on what makes a good video submission, and you would be dismayed at how many are so bad that making a fair judgement of the talent is made difficult. For example, don’t use your phone camera. Let’s see your whole body, not just the torso, and not from 100 feet away. Don’t make musical mistakes. Good sound quality is easily available. Any submission longer than 7 or 8 minutes will be skipped through, unless the singer is impossibly wonderful, and you’re sorry when it’s over! For the Met Auditions the singers bring 5 arias, themselves choosing the first one, and the judges choose the second. Almost every panel I’ve sat on tries to decide which of the remaining 4 arias is the shortest, or at least the most contrasting, or if we’re really feeling cruel, which aria has the most difficult passage or high note.

I could go on. I really enjoy judging, putting my teacher hat on, and hoping that I can offer some kind of practical wisdom that will help the contestants move forward.

2 comments to John Stewart on Music Judging

  • Tim Adams

    Great insights from the man who sang Mary and me into wedded bliss 57 years ago!

  • Chris cory

    Thanks, John. Fascinating. A great public service by you. One question: why don’t the contests post some of the more obvious criteria in a way that would weed out weaklings before they take your time? Or do you sometimes get a slumper who nonetheless has gorgeous tone and range and musicianship? — chris