Recently I came across folders of notes I had made when serving on international competition juries over the past decade or more. Pages and pages of detailed notes on people’s playing. Most of them played for at least half an hour, sometimes an hour, so there was plenty of time to make notes. I did so partly because I knew that competitors had the right to ask for feedback. Most competitions offer an opportunity – usually at the point when a competitor is eliminated – to ask jury members what they thought. It’s unthinkable to have to confess to a disconsolate young musician that you don’t remember how they played. So we were ready with our commentaries.
But many competitors don’t ask. If they do, they are not really in the mood to hear feedback, especially if they have just learned that they’re out of the competition. At that point, the competition no longer pays their accommodation expenses and they generally make haste to leave. Some seek advice before they go, but you can tell they’re struggling to listen (and I sympathise). Those who go on to win prizes almost never ask for feedback, which is a pity as I have the most notes about them after listening to them in all the rounds.
All this means that I come home with sheaves of notes which nobody ever reads. I can’t just leave them with the competition organisers, because the notes need interpretation, and a bit of judgement about what to say and how. In theory, competitors could write to ask for feedback when they feel calmer, but they don’t. I remember only one occasion when, weeks after a competition, a chamber group contacted me from a faraway country, asking in very halting English if I could explain why they didn’t get past the first round. Luckily, I could: I remembered them quite well, and I had notes on every piece they played. I transcribed my notes into clear sentences and mailed them a report. I never heard from them again.
Some organisers try to graft educational opportunities onto music competitions, but the two are uneasy bedfellows. The fact is that competitions are not primarily learning opportunities but rather beauty pageants, designed to produce winners and losers. What is ‘learned’ is often hard to digest.
What to do with all my notes? Everyone will have moved on since those competitions. Many of the groups won’t be playing together any more. The notes are going in the bin.