I spent part of this afternoon serving as a judge for the Racine Symphony Youth Auditions- which for the first time ever was done as a public performance rather than as a competition with only the judges in the room. And I was asked to be one of the judges because for the first time in many years, they allowed vocalists to enter the competition.
I had only judged this competition once before, and that one was a very very tough contest because it came down to a choice between a spectacularly talented pianist who played something quite difficult, with impressive but distinctly imperfect results . . . and an excellent french horn player who played a piece that was perfectly suited to his abilities because it wasn’t TOO hard. How does one compare two musicians like that? I wanted so much to call it a tie, but that was simply not allowed, and a choice had to be made. Ultimately, we went with the person who was my first choice by a whisker . . . the french horn player. . . but I am still a bit haunted by having to make such a choice.
I remember a similarly tough choice that confronted the judges in the Kenosha Symphony Youth Auditions one year when I was on the panel. It’s been 15 years or so but I remember it like it was yesterday. The top two were a fantastic trumpeter and a fantastic french horn player – and there were tenth’s of a point separating them . . . and it was my firm feeling that we needed to consider that a Tie, because that’s what it was for all intents and purposes. And I’m proud of myself for coming up with what I think was the fairest means to breaking that Tie. Since both musicians in question were brass players, I suggested that the choice should ultimately be made by the one judge who was the brass person: namely, Carthage’s own Ken Winkle. I felt like my expertise as a non-brass person was not sufficient for the task at hand – and my colleagues agreed. So we threw it into the hands of Ken, who chose the trumpet player by a whisker. A tough tough call, but I feel really good about how carefully we went about the task.
There were nine contestants today – and a fine group they were, and I wondered if we four judges would find ourselves struggling to come to consensus. (There was certainly every possibility that we might each have a different Top Three and might not be in any agreement whatsoever.) But as it turns out, all four of us had chosen the very same top three and all we had to do (which wasn’t that hard) was sort out the specific ranking of one, two and three. And in scarcely five minutes, we had our decision signed sealed and delivered. It was actually pretty easy . . . until, that is, we looked into the church sanctuary where the audience and contestants were awaiting the announcement of our decision. We had done our deliberating in the closest private room – which was actually the glass-encased Cry Room just off the back of the sanctuary . . . and when we got up from our rocking chairs where we had sat and discussed and made our decision, we could see the contestants up onstage, each telling the audience a little bit about themselves- and in the audience it was easy to spot the proud parents and / or grandparents. They were the ones eagerly holding a video camera and capturing every moment of the proceedings. Seeing both the young musicians and their families was a stern reminder that the decision we had just made came down to naming Winners and Losers . . . and that our choice would be superb news for three of the musicians and a sad blow for the rest.
As tough as today was, at least it was (mostly) a matter of judging strangers. (In fact, in the interest of fairness, only the contestants first names were printed in the program and announced, in case any of them came from a family associated with the symphony or who might otherwise be known to us.) But a week from tomorrow, my colleagues on the Carthage music faculty will be sitting in judgment of some of our best musicians who want to be part of this spring’s honors recital. We will be judging our own students and the students of our colleagues- and some of these young musicians are more than our students- they are our friends. And I have to say that I already have a bit of a knot in my stomach just thinking about the incredibly tough choices that I know will be confronting us. I guess that’s why they pay us the big bucks. . . for these kind of occasions and the heavy mantle of responsibility which they lay across our shoulders, ready or not.
pictured above: Joyce Gregg, coordinator of the youth auditions, welcomes the audience.