Old jury notes from music competitions

7th September 2017 | Concerts, Musings, Teaching, Travel | 3 comments

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.


  1. Mary Cohen

    All that distillation of thought…I’ve had similar moments when throwing out competition notes.

  2. Christine Gwynn

    Sad and subdued to read this and your recent post (tweet?) about masterclasses.
    How much wisdom, experience and insight is offered – but not received or appreciated.
    I often share your posts (and books) with piano and vocal students and members of my choirs. I related to one this week the gist of your masterclass post and she was aghast that such a golden opportunity was being bypassed. She would so relish such an opportunity as would her university-and-school-aged musical offspring.
    Thank you for continuing to share your musical wisdom so generously.

    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Christine. People have pointed out that there is still lots of interest in masterclasses in specialist music courses and so on. Perhaps it is in university music degrees, where ‘performance’ is just a small part of the course, where organisers have difficulty in capturing students’ interest. I am sure students still look for advice, just maybe not in the same places they used to.


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