So You Want To Be A Judge?

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 1, 2009

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There are many types of activities that rely on subjective assessment and the comparison of one performance to another. Often these judgments decide placement, with winners and losers. Others may rank contestants against a local, regional, or National standard, with multiple gold or silver medalists at a single event. From gymnastics to figure skating to cheerleading to marching band, many popular youth activities involve judges using some type of criteria to arrive at, “And the winner is •”

My memories are filled with recollections of drum corps, band, color guard, and those unbelievable, “how-could-this-happen-to-my-team” results. I still recall the heartbreak of those moments I have felt them as a child, designer/teacher, and a parent. In your experience, it was the performance of the season, yet the judges put you in 3rd place. Who could do this to me? Who would want to be a judge?

With that said, my personal experiences as a performer, educator, and parent have kept me balanced as an adjudicator. After 15 years, one reason I continue to perform this function is that I hope to protect kids from having a negative experience. It took me years to really feel comfortable using certain sheets, weighted and worded in different ways, to arrive at an insightful evaluation and proper placement. There is a lot to learn, and if experienced judges don’t actively engage in the training of potential judges from within the activity, then we invite the possibility that some young musician (and his or her protective parent) will forever wonder how the “system” could treat children so wrong.

So who should consider adjudicating? Who is truly qualified to make decisions of this impact? Although noted experience is certainly an indicator of potential success, the most essential quality needed is the desire to do the right thing. Could you judge a student or ensemble you used to teach? A group taught by a close friend? Performers who exhibit completely different training and artistic styles than those you are most familiar with? These situations happen.

Is it important that an adjudicator has a body of work in the field that is being assessed? (Performer, coach, teacher, designer, choreographer, music arranger, et cetera.) Having a lifelong background in different aspects of the activity adds a perspective that can be a great asset in critiquing, describing, and justifying your analysis of any given performance. Someone with an open mind can learn and understand the criteria and manage his or her scoring to arrive at fair, justified results, but learning the vocabulary and the culture of any organized competitive endeavor can be daunting if it’s something someone has never done before.

The assumption that someone who was a successful teacher or performer can automatically begin assessing other groups objectively has been proven false many times over. People who are rigidly set on their own designs, techniques, and teaching methods will struggle to establish credibility as a judge, regardless of their reputation in that field. A competent adjudicator knows there are many ways to be successful, and continues to keep up with trends, attend training, and stay up-to-date on the groups or performers considered elite in their respective art forms, activities, or sports. Differing techniques, opinions, and styles need to be given a chance in order for art forms to evolve.

Some of my worst experiences as a teacher have come from assessments or clinics from judges with very singular definitions of what achievement looks or sounds like. Organizers of community, scholastic or National events are obligated to provide proven, age-appropriate judges. If training is not available, then the organizer and its sponsors must provide extensive judging criteria, thorough scoring range information, worksheets, and support materials.

For those seeking to get involved as a judge in the marching band, color guard, or percussion ensemble activities, there are online resources to find training info and to contact established judging associations, which offer certification in different disciplines and pass their membership lists on to competitive band and guard circuits. There are judging opportunities attached to many youth activities around the country, and judges can usually start off by “trialing” at shows in their own area. Trialing involves observation, practice commentary, and numbers management alongside a mentor adjudicator at actual competitions. It takes a lot of study and focus to grasp the many factors that go into each and every event. Being able to recognize achievement based on the given assessment criteria, describe your observations with clear and insightful dialogue, and fairly rank and rate all participants is a product of experience. Once comfortable with the process, and after passing all prerequisites, employment opportunities may become available at a regional or national level. All Marching Arts organizations use multiple judge panels at all of their events, giving qualified judges opportunities on most weekends from September into April.

If you are interested in trialing for district or all-state auditions, start by contacting your local Music Educators Association. These organizations usually run annual auditions, with someone on their board in charge of hiring adjudicators. This type of work often requires a judge who has mastered a particular instrument and has taught privately for years. It also requires the ability to rank and rate a large number of auditions, usually playing the same piece, over an entire day. This takes special skill and training, and even trained judges of ensemble activities may find it difficult to transition to this type of assessment.

Teacher associations also run regional or state competitions for marching band, jazz or concert band, string orchestra, chorus, indoor guard, and percussion ensembles. If you live in an area where an established judge certification system isn’t an option, contacting the festival organizers directly and sending them your qualifications may be the only entry point. Often, they have a judge list they hire from year after year ask to be put on that list.

No matter what field and talent or age level you choose to adjudicate, hiring is still commonly done by word of mouth. Make every effort to be cordial with everyone you meet. Judges need to feel comfortable that those around them are also implementing a particular system fairly and justifiably. Impartiality of the highest order is the cornerstone of all successful pageantry events. By being prepared, objective, and never taking for granted the time, effort, and passion that performers bring to these events, you will carry on a valuable service that many are unwilling or unable to provide

Few consider judging a glamorous life. Millions of people still remember when the French judge was accused of tainting the Olympics in the figure skating competition. Certainly this person was qualified to represent her country at the Olympic Finals, but clearly her ability to remain objective and focus on the actual performances was compromised. People will remember when judges make mistakes, but if all goes well and no one is surprised when the scores are announced, then the judges simply go on their way. There is not a lot of glory in this activity, but it certainly can be rewarding. To have a teacher or performer thank you for your help and insight is special. However, reputations are on the line every time someone chooses to judge and rate performances of an artistic or athletic nature. It is a big responsibility and still challenges my knowledge and experience every time I grab a clipboard and sign my name on the bottom of the sheet as the judge for today’s competition.


Central States Judges Association
Judging services for drum corps, color guards, marching bands and drill teams.

Judges Association of Mid America (JAMA)
Judges for Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and the Midwest.

Massachusetts Judges Association (MJA)
Judge training and certification for indoor and outdoor marching activities.

National Judges Association (NJA)
Provides Judges for the Tournament of Bands.

Pacific Coast Judges Association
Adjudicates competitive pageantry from local parades to events of national scope.

Tri-State Judges Association
Judging services for parade and field contests across Minnesota, South Da
kota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Contact Tom Haugen at (563) 382-4069.

Jeff Bolduc is currently the director of Symphonic and Stage Bands at Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, Mass. Jeff is also the Music Caption Head for the Massachusetts Judges Association and has served as a music judge for marching band associations throughout the Northeast, Drum Corps International, and for many district and all-state auditions around New England. Contact Jeff on his Web site:

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