10 of the Best Piano Judging Comments
by Marcia Vahl, NCTM
Here is another fantastic post by Marcia Vahl, the current Judge Education Chair for the Minnesota Music Teachers Association. Ironically, this is a critique of critiques and should help those of us not only judge piano students in competitions, but also simply teach our students. You’ll also be interested in Marcia’s other articles about piano judging: The 4 Elements of a Great Critique and 4 Ways Judging Can Make You a Better Teacher.
I’m convinced we have the best judges in Minnesota! When Wendy asked me to write this guest post on the top 10 piano judging comments, I had no problem finding enough material. I did have a problem limiting my focus to a few resourceful, well-written comments! As I wrote the article, my heart became so full of gratitude for all the inspiring judges I get to work with every year.
Early Beginner Piano Judging Comments – Age 5-8
Bach’s Music (very early beginner): “I love this little piece and you played it so nicely. Your notes were just right. Could you be careful to lift your RH on the rests at measures 18, 20, etc. Try to add more dynamic contrast. Sometimes I could not tell if you were making changes. A little faster tempo will help the music flow a little better.”
Rockin’ Good Time “Are you having a “Rockin’ Good Time” when you play piano? I hope so, because you play so well! I wish you lots of Rockin’ Good Times at the piano!”
Mystery at Blackwater Creek “I wonder if the mystery was about a strange sound that came over the creek at sundown? You played so well today with such great attention to all the musical dots and dashes. Did you see that the last notes in M. 4 and 20 are not staccato? I think you are strong enough to even make a larger crescendo on m. 16-17. It would add suspense to the mystery, or scare the bejeepers out of me! Bravo to you and your fine teacher.
It is most challenging to write a great critique when the music is not very complex and the reader is a young child. How can you make these types of critiques interesting and helpful to the student? Be sure to write in the language of the child. Many good judges for this age print their comments rather than write in cursive, to be child-friendly. Make the language simple, like the examples above. I love that two of the judges in the examples use imagery to put across their message. Even a beginner can begin to think artistically, and the judge is encouraging that. I also really love in the “Bach’s Music” critique that the judge is very gentle in the way the comments are expressed.
Middle Elementary Piano Judging Comments – Age 9-10
Tarantella Vico – “Wow! You really had those dancers moving! Your accents were great and the staccatos were crisp! There is so much to like about how you played this piece. This was a very spirited performance and a delight to hear!”
Jamaica Me Happy! “Jamaica me happy listening to you! Musical Performance. Bravo to you and your teacher!”
Missions In Outer Space “You sure were prepared for this day! I love your sense of drama at M. 13-16. Thanks for a fun performance.”
I especially love a critique that uses the form or type of piece to make comments. It is especially important when the piece is a dance form. Look and listen for the piece to make YOU want to dance. Reading the critique of “Jamaica” would make both teacher and student smile! In “Missions” I love the reference to the student’s fine preparation. I’ve often said the what the student learns in their preparation is the most valuable reward from performing, far beyond a winning performance or an excellent score
Early Intermediate Piano Judging Comments – Age 11-14
Sleighing Party – “You set a fun and exciting tempo and I wanted to be on that sleigh listening to the horses’ jingle bells! Your playing was bright, exciting, and sounded extremely fun. Well Done.”
Chopin Waltz in A Minor, Op. Posthumous – “Charming performance today, with some areas you can improve. I don’t think the pedal markings mean to play staccato on beats two and three in the measure. This piece works better with a good finger legato and thinking in even longer phrases. I think of this as a concert waltz, not a waltz to be danced. I really enjoyed your chosen tempo and it was so well maintained. Romantic music also demands rubato, so try to be flexible in the tempo. Work with your teacher to learn how to hold back sometimes, and give a little more other times. There is so much repetition here. If you use the same strict tempo always, there is no variety, and Chopin himself probably wouldn’t have played the melody in the same way twice. A performance that keeps our interest will include interesting dynamic changes rather than mostly mf playing at the same tempo all the way through. Think of ornaments as melodic as well. Because of the historical style and melancholy mood of the piece, use a flexible rubato to your advantage, especially to blend at transitions between sections. Let the first section kind of melt into the new section, holding back a little at first and then work into the a tempo. Use a little wiggle room. “
I like these comments because they encourage the artistry and inspiration that an early intermediate student can bring to their performance. At this age, the student’s music is getting more complex, so the comments can be more direct and complex. I love that these comments do much to avoid the “laundry list” of negatives in the performance and focus on what can be done positively to improve the performance. For this age group I like my piano judging comments to speak to how the performance affected me. Have you ever just shut the music and let the performer touch you with their artistry? Try it; you’ll like it.
Intermediate Student Piano Judging Comments – Age 14-16
Chopin Nocturne: “A great teacher once said, ‘Any melody this beautiful should be at least mf.’”
I believe this great statement is attributed to the great pedagogue and performer, Nelita True. I’ve heard her say it this way, “All Romantic melodies should be played forte.” It’s such a great statement, because the melody is not just the thing, it’s the only thing!
Advanced Piano Judging Comments – Age 15-20
About a Shchedrin Humoresque: “You really captured the humor in this piece! It was elegant as well as funny! Good control of tempo. You kept it moderate. Nice dynamic contrasts throughout. You did an excellent job on the leaps. I liked the intensity with which you played the piece. Very enjoyable.”
I love it when the judge notices the student bringing out the humor in a piece! Sometimes we tend to treat a critique as a “laundry list” of what went wrong. Instead, I love it that this judge communicates her enjoyment of the piece and that the student got into the interpretation deeply to bring out the humor and elegance.
Debussy Estampes: Beautiful atmosphere at the opening. I loved your colors and the suppleness of your phrases. You had wonderful tonal variety throughout the movement. Your playing is so detailed and refined! I wish your pedaling was a little more gentle and subtle so as not to detract from all that is so beautiful. Try slower, gentler changes of pedal to avoid foot tap or damper sounds on strings. Lovely changes of texture that you handle with such grace!
I love the language of this critique! It’s soft, appreciative, very descriptive, and conveys the refinement the judge heard in the gracefulness of the performer.
My goal in writing piano judging critiques this year: No Laundry Lists of things that are wrong! At the final performance level we’re hearing, all notes should be secure, and what we need to focus on is not the crescendo that starts in the middle of measure 12, but on artistry: all the reasons the music demands expression in measure 12, or any other measure. I’m going to look for students who are totally involved and inspired by the music they are performing.
Marcia A. Vahl, NCTM, is owner and teacher at Maple Grove Piano in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Her background includes degrees in music education and piano performance, 30+ years teaching experience in the classroom and private lesson studio, and more than 20 years church music ministry. She is an active member of both MMTA, MTNA, and National Piano Guild. She has served MMTA as hospitality chairman for judges at the state contest, judge for theory, piano exams, and contest, and secretary for the Education Council. Most recently she served as State Contest Administrator for 2005-2006 and Vice President of Minnesota State Piano Contests from 2006-2010. She has given presentations on Motivation, Building A Website for Your Studio, and Judge Training at the Minnesota State Convention. Her current responsibility is Judge Education Chair for Minnesota Music Teachers Association.