What I listen for in student competitions and auditions

Updated: Mar 15

Insights from a seasoned panelist


Most competitions are performed only for the panelists without an audience


By Shelley Mathews


From concertmaster reseating auditions, solo and ensemble festivals, certificate exams, to memorial competitions with prize money and full length programs, there are four main components that help form my comments and decision making process. Please keep in mind, most of the specifics listed are geared towards string players (mostly violinists).



I totally agree that sound is an extension of our voice. It is deeply personal, takes years to evolve, grow, and perfect, and is what forms a lasting impression if developed with thought and intention.


Solid Foundation

Of all four components, a solid foundation is perhaps the most non debatable. Specifically, correct rhythms, note accuracy and clarity, intonation, and set up (left hand posture and bow arm and bow hold set up). I look and listen for what is working and what could need improvement regarding these main aspects in a solid foundation. For competitions, if any one of these have any major flaws, it will be hard to place for a prize. I do want to emphasis though, that although a “perfect” performance is what we all strive for, for me, this is not the most important thing, especially at the student level. We are ultimately here to learn and cultivate our musical artistry, understanding of phrases, and to be able to express effectively on our instruments. While perfection is important, it is a journey that must be walked in tandem with a greater artistic understanding of the purpose of music and what it serves to us as performers as well as to an audience.


Sound

It may seem odd that sound would get to be listed as an entire bullet point. For me, sound is a huge component into the greater impression of the performer. When I have a new student come for a first lesson, one of the things I always ask is, “what is it about the violin that draws you to it/why do you want to play violin?”. I am always amazed that no matter the age or level of student, the answer is usually somewhere along the lines of the sound (of the violin) drawing them in and also it being similar to the voice. I totally agree that sound is an extension of our voice. It is deeply personal, takes years to evolve, grow, and perfect, and is what forms a lasting impression if developed with thought and intention. Sound is hugely important. I listen to see if a student’s sound has been given priority in their pieces and scales, if they have variety in it, if they are able to change the character and colors in a way that makes musical sense, and the overall impression that their sound leaves to an audience, especially on an emotional level.


Context

Context, meaning has a student gone beyond their piece or program to research a composer, style, or technique. This starts to get more into higher level students' capacity, but is very important for me, especially in a competition setting when the base level is going to be very high. I listen for if a student understands the style of a particular composer and is sensitive to that when they prepare full programs. Mozart should not sound like Bartok, and Beethoven should not sound like Haydn, even if they are played flawlessly. It takes further wisdom and understanding to take your already beautiful and technically perfected passage and make it sound truly "Beethoven" or "Romantic era". I also listen for if a student has an understanding of what is either going on in the orchestra or piano part and if their playing shows that they are sensitive to this. It is understandable that context would get neglected when we feel we have to have a perfect performance. But, I feel the performers that are most memorable are the ones who are also able to do this effectively.


What Stands Out (in a good way)

What still inspires me to this day, is that no two live performances will ever be the same. They will sound different and feel different to both audience and performer. With this in mind, I listen for anything special that stands out in a performance. It could be a phrase that is sculpted with such beauty, a passage that is played so cleanly and with such great intonation, or a moment when I can hear the performer play from a place of deep expression and vulnerability. The fact is, there are so many of us and there is only so much standard repertoire. I listen for the performer who can make me love listening to a fifteenth rendition of Mendelssohn Concerto when the competition is running an hour behind, I’m hungry, and yet I am drawn to their performance.



As with any competition or audition, there is going to be a degree of subjectivity. These are just a guideline to my own personal rubric that I use in addition to any given criteria from which to judge.



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