Charade

April 8th, 2011

I’ve been staying here in balmy South Texas since yesterday, doing what I’ve done these past nine or so years, adjudicating at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College Classical Guitar Ensemble Competitions.

I’ll have to say I’m simply amazed at how many good young players there are these days. But that’s not why I’m writing this post.

I’ve noticed with increasing alarm, attempts to influence the competition by stacking it with judges from a particular quarter. I first noticed it a few years back, when there were attempts to skew the results of one competition. I successfully resisted those effort and the prize was awarded to the deserving performers.

Today, I had to withdraw myself from the results of the competitions, again because it was clear that the results were skewed by the presence of two judges who seemed to be overwhelmingly in favor of their buddy’s group.

The choice of first place was given to a group who, admittedly is good, but whose sense of musicality is overshadowed by a far better group. If it was a close match, I would have gone with the decision, but the more deserving group had so much more musical polish, incredible sense of rhythm, and great dynamics. They were hands-down good, that’s how good they were.

And the ‘winning’ group? They were good but they played with the mechanical precision of a robot and was slightly more expressive than a robot too.

The bias was actually quite brazen. One of the two judges openly said he was hoping the rival group to his buddy’s group would ‘crash and burn’ in their last piece because, as he said, it was ‘a difficult piece.’  When a judge openly expresses the hope that a competitor he was judging would ‘crash and burn,’ we have a problem.

So why does this concern me?

Some might say, lighten up, it’s only a guitar competition. True, but some of these competitors came from long distances at great expense to themselves. To deprive them of what they have worked so hard for, simply because they don’t have buddies in the judges is simply wrong.

To me, there’re two solutions to the problem.

First, from the competitors’ viewpoint:

Before you invest all that time and money to enter a competition, invest some time to research that competition. Go back several years and find out who the winners were and check the judges roll to see who awarded them those prizes. If you see a direct correlation between the judges and the winners (friends, old classmates, buddies, students, students of students, anything that presents a conflict of interest) that competition is tainted, don’t waste your time. (How do you find out these relationships? Some of them are obvious, some less so. You’ll have to do some networking.)

From the competition organizer viewpoint:

1. To preserver the good name and integrity of your competition, require that all judges disclose any potential conflict of interest in the particular competition they are judging. This will include the list above — friends, buddies, students, students of students, and anyone posing a conflict of interest. Here you have to trust their word and integrity .

2. If they have friends, buddies, students or students of students (and anything that presents a conflict of interest) competing in the competitions they are judging, require them to recuse themselves from the judging. This is the least you can do for your competitors who have come at great expense and have invested much time preparing for the competitions, and who are expecting a fair and transparent competition.

I don’t think anyone will argue with the fundamental logic and fairness of what I just proposed. As someone who came from a part of the world where political corruption and cronyism is rife, it’s a bit disconcerting for me to see the same thing happening here (albeit on a smaller scale and in the much gentler world of music.)

Yes, I know this post will not bring me many new friends, but I don’t think Serpico was worried about his popularity, so I guess I shouldn’t too.

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