Triumphs and Tedium: Reflections (and Advice) From an Occasional Juror

triumph and tedium juror momentito

In various countries around the world I have had the good fortune to be on the jury of guitar competitions. It is an honor and a privilege to find oneself in such a context, but also a responsibility with subtle elements of risk.

The panels of juries vary in size from five to 20. In each case the verdict is a collective judgement, on some occasions fiercely debated, at other times voted upon anonymously. The group of jurors usually originates from countries and backgrounds supporting diverse guitar traditions. Italian guitarists may have aesthetic concepts different from Russian jurors, and German experts may not always see eye to eye with Spanish or South American representatives. All of them may well disagree with my British perspectives, molded (I hope) over 50 years by the artistic examples of Julian Bream and John Williams.

The bigger the jury, the wider the spread of dissent. Of course, nobody’s opinion should be paramount, though it is sometimes difficult, when great players such as Oscar Ghiglia or Konrad Ragossnig are leading the jury, to mount an appropriate opposing statement. Moreover the greater the number of competitors, the more complex the assessment process becomes.

The largest number of performers I have heard in a week was around a hundred. This is a considerable strain on the ear-drums, especially in a crowded, hot room in July or August. The problem is often more taxing if each player has to interpret a set piece specially written for the occasion. Such works are rarely memorable and endless repetition does not improve one’s reception of them.

But there are interesting competitive strategic ploys to observe which lighten the juror’s load. Some players seek to impress the jury with the intellectual side of the guitar repertoire. Certainly, learning Henze’s Royal Winter Music or Takemitsu’s Folios by heart can be astonishingly impressive. But likewise it can be stunningly boring. Such masterpieces require a master’s touch, not only to perform technically but to interpret expressively. Jurors are obviously human, despite their occasional grim appearance as they hear the 53rd candidate that week. So a balanced program is usually the wisest approach on the part of young artists.


A few competitors have been observed to set out on another very precarious course—playing their own compositions. Even one of these pieces can be a killer. The assumption the player may appear to advance is that his or her composition is preferable to works by established composers. In an ideal world, such a daring move might bring about Schumann’s response on hearing Chopin’s Variations on Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano for piano and orchestra (written when he was 17): “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” In the context of a competition, I have never been fortunate enough to witness such a response or hear myself saying such a thing. A pity! But it could still happen!

Fortunately, as on the race-course, winners emerge however big the field. In the easiest scenario, the leaders establish their own credentials with the beauty of their playing, the smoothness and ease of their technique, and that indefinable quality of musicality which you recognize when you hear it. Quite often at the highest international levels there may be three or four such artists whose playing seems outstanding in every way. Then the horse-trading in the jury begins in earnest.

Some jurors occasionally become very passionate in their advocacy of this or that player of the top echelons. The other jurors then have to decide whether it is worth opposing such strong opinions or to submit to them. The subsequent discussion, if it is permitted (which is not always the case), can become most interesting. I have seen noisy confrontations of a particularly heated variety, and I have also participated in more subdued rational discussions through which personal subjectivity is steadily transformed into an objective group decision.

At the 2017 GFA ensemble competition, judges were (L-R) Oscar Ghiglia, Bill Kanengiser, Christina Singer, Andrew York, and Doug Rubio.

The sad truth is that in competitions somebody of excellence may well have to lose the day, and another with a different kind of excellence will win the laurels. In the jury, as with competitors, there may well be individuals who are not entirely satisfied with the outcome. The world of competitions at the sharp edge is undeniably brutal.

Yet the decision will be announced and the public will be none the wiser for the machinations—or otherwise—that go on behind the scenes. People appointed to juries are usually strong personalities and it is the mixture of viewpoints, experience, knowledge, and expertise from which the verdict is, for better or worse, distilled. When it is presented to the audience, the result appears clear-cut, unambiguous, and definite.

Of course, the art of music should never be a competition. It should be an experience by which we listen to wonderful music. But the modern situation favors the ruthless sifting and winnowing of gifted artists in this way. Often those who come lower down the list continue bravely with their careers and ultimately do equally well as the prestigious winners.

The music profession at the top is indeed something of a lottery. Endurance and perseverance can be as vital to an artist as supreme musical and technical ability. For both winners and losers, only time will tell the full story of their artistic destiny. As a juror, one can but hope that the crucible of competition will help young players to develop their potential and enable all who participate to discover new musical depths within themselves.