Monday, August 17, 2015

Musical Mind: Judgment, Part 1

judge - to form an authoritative opinion | to form an estimate or evaluation about something

discerning - revealing insight and understanding

Last year I listened to the final round of a snare drum competition.  With instruction to play "up to 20 minutes" of music, the most artistic player performed one piece with such depth that I had to remind myself I was listening to solo snare drum. After the round I went up to my husband, who was a judge, and said, "well, this is going to be easy."  Alas, she didn't win because the other judges had issue that she only used 12 of her 20 minutes, and they essentially out-voted him. She came in 3rd, and this was a surprise to everyone, including the competitors that placed above her.

I learned an important lesson that day - I learned that though we hope to experience the perfectly fair, artistic, and discerning competition, that's not usually what happens.  It's due to nothing more than human nature.  Does a listener care if you played for 12 or 20 minutes? Nope. I would much rather hear a well-crafted, intentional 12-minute performance than 20 minutes of highly executed but un-intentioned music.  I bet you would, too.  So...what happened?

A Scholar's Perspective

The late Dr. Hammond, Former Director of the Center for Judgment and Policy and Professor of Psychology at the University of CO, Boulder, writes:
Under time pressure, the decision maker adopts a simpler mode of information processing.  Rather than evaluate alternative actions completely, weighing and making tradeoffs among all the relevant attributes of each option, attention is focused on the one or two most salient cues and these tend to determine the decision.
- Judgments Under Stress, p5
 How does this figure in to music competitions?  Dr. Hammond describes one aspect of human nature: when placed in a situation where decisions have to be made quickly and have consequences, we aren't able to take in all of the information.  For the judges of the competition I referenced above, it means they weren't able to properly weigh all relevant attributes, and instead deferred to the most apparent: the use of 20 minutes.

I'd assume that our capacity for judgment comes from our species' need to survive in a more primitive world.  As our societies evolved and modernized, we were allowed to shift our skills of judgment from survival to what some may call less vital subjects: academics, philosophy, creativity, etc.


Whenever I hear the word "judge," there's something in me that is fearful. Why? Nobody wants to be called a "judgmental" person. Why?  Well, by the etymology of the very word itself, there's a connection to the idea of law, of a person being tried for a crime and awaiting a verdict that will determine a free or imprisoned future.  For those that are religious, there are connections to the various creeds and scriptures about the final judgment of our lives and all of humankind. So, no wonder the idea of being judged in a competition, audition, or scholarship performance is nerve-wracking: in our minds it connects to a long-standing historical memory of fearful outcomes, many of which are all too final for comfort.

My experience only allows me to speak from the perspective of the one being judged, particularly in musical situations.  I know the hope, the worry, the fear, and the excitement all too well.  But I wonder about this in the minds of the judges, too.  The connotation of the idea of judgment plays on both sides of the coin, I think.  Competition juries are tasked with ranking performances, which is certainly not easy, considering all of the variables that can (and should) be considered.  To be judged is to be rated, told whether or not you are of value; to be the judge is to agree to be seen as judgmental, to agree to authoritatively determine the future of a person, in both immediate and more long-lasting degrees.

Though dismissal before of a final round of competition is an immediate consequence of judgment, the longer outcome could be such discouragement that the player stops performing.  In contrast, winning a competition is an immediate gratification and justification of years of practice, but the long-term outcome could be a successful performance career managed by a great agent with far-reaching connections.  Certainly both of these scenarios are in the minds of both the judges and the judged.

Evaluate | Discern

"Evaluation" sounds more innocent and unbiased than "judgment," does it not?  Can you imagine if those annual teacher evaluations were actually called teacher judgments?! Eek!!  No, thank you.  Perhaps the connotation of "evaluation" is more self-contained - it's less about comparison to others and more about a person's own efficiency and performance.  Even here, though, there's room for bias and ego on the part of the evaluator.  It leaves me to wonder:  Is there a way to simply observe without the need to condemn or rank?

Perhaps the word I'm searching for is "discern," which means to reveal insight or understanding.  In a musical setting, this is what I would like from a judge: discernment rather than judgment.  I want them to look into my playing and see things truthfully, noting improvements to be made or differences from their own that are actually acceptable, just...different.  I want them to understand what my playing tries to say before deciding its value in the realm of a competitive framework.  I think this is a far more difficult task to set, though, as it requires an openness and vulnerability that simple judgment does not require.

In the few competitions I've taken part in, I've seen judgment and I've seen discernment.  Comments and feedback, from the same round of competition, ranged from "I don't like your 16th notes" to "Your voice is mature and natural" to "I wish you played that louder."  Sure, some are rather simplistic, but no less valid than the more discerning comment (the 2nd one listed).

I appreciate the second judge so much for being willing to "dig deeper" into the situation.  Even though I was eliminated, which of course stinks, reading a comment that had some depth to it made it not feel so bad, as I felt like this person was able to listen to me, not just my execution.

Even if we aren't put in the position where we are labeled as "judges" or "juries," we are still responsible for our own moments of judgment.  Listening to a piece for the first time is an example of such a moment.  There must be a willingness to accept the piece for what it is before deciding its value, which is sometimes difficult as we have to get past prejudice for the composer, for the performer, for the instrumentation, for the title, for the text, etc.  Practicing discernment is just as important as all the other kinds of practice we do.

Your point, Laurel?

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to judge someone, especially in a competitive realm.  Broadcasting my failures here, whether or not many people are reading them, adds an element of embarrassment to not winning, to being eliminated.  But I think it's important to show people reality, and to examine it.

I'm planning on writing a good deal about the concept of judgment, separated into "episodes," if you will, here on the blog.  I just hope it's clear that I write about it not because I'm throwing a temper tantrum about not winning - I mean, not winning sucks, sure - but because I've seen such a discrepancy in the experience of the judge and the judged.  The snare drum competition mentioned at the beginning of this article is just one of many situations my husband, who judges often, has described as perplexing in this sense.

We know competitions have their place. We take them; we lose them; maybe sometimes we win them, and when that happens, you hope it's one of the biggies that has just awarded you first prize.  It's a strange concept, to voluntarily travel to come unknown place in order to subject yourself to high pressure and,most likely, disappointment.  It's difficult to not take judgments of your playing personally, as well.  (I find this very difficult.)

After just saying that I think competitions "have their place," I do wonder how they fit into our artistic world.  Inevitably, they do, but I'm curious if there has been a true evaluation of it in quite some time.  Perhaps I don't think so because I'm still inexperienced and young; I don't know.  I'm hoping that by dissecting the very concept I find clarity.  We shall see.
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Harper, Douglas.
The Merrian-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Inc.: Springfield, MA. 2004
Zeltsman, Nancy. "Inside a Marimba Competition." Percussive Notes. Vol. 40, no. 1. February 2002
Access the article here.

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What have your experiences been like?  How do you practice discernment?  I'm very curious to know what others think about this, so if you feel inclined, leave a response in the comments for me to add to my ruminations. :)

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