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"Why didn't you award her first place? You know she was the best fiddler in the contest. I thought you were our friend!" The sad and stressful ending to a long and stressful weekend. Maybe this article should be titled "Why I don't judge fiddle contests anymore."
From old articles and descriptions, it seems that fiddle contests in the early twentieth century were performed and judged largely for audience appeal. The performer who got the most rousing applause would be determined the winner. Of course, this often meant that the hometown favorite would win out even if he or she were not the best player.
But judging this kind of event could be perilous if the judges were publicly known. I judged a local contest in Georgia in the late 70's where we two judges were placed on the stage near the microphone. After the home town favorite did not win, I received angry phone messages at my motel, and my partner found his car mildly vandalized with shaving cream.
However, by the late 50's the larger contests began to take seriously the various issues surrounding the selection and use of judges, and certain elements have become typical. The main difference is that judges are now sequestered, packed away to private rooms where the music from the stage is then brought in by a controlled PA system. The judges only hear the contestant's number and the title of the selected tunes. Contestants are not allowed to speak on stage while the microphone is on. To do so risks disqualification.
Contest organizers usually start a year in advance to find appropriate judges. There is an assumption that a judge should be able to play at a level which would win the contest if they competed though, at the top levels, good players would rather compete than be stuck in a room. So the judges are selected from a pool of good players who have won some contests and are generally recognized as knowledgeable. But...they need to come from some other area, and not be locals. Most of the judges at the Weiser, Idaho contest have competed at some time and have placed in the top 10-25 players in one of the adult divisions. I know one player who was selected one year as "Fanciest Fiddler" and was then asked to judge on that basis. Payment is based on this notion of ability. Judges are often paid the same amount as the winner, and they are also paid travel expenses.
Judges are usually expected to do a short performance on stage to demonstrate their skills while the final tallies are being added up.
A typical two-day event, with maybe some other contests such as vocal, banjo, or guitar included, would need four judges, three of whom are always evaluating while one judge is given a rest in each round. This is especially true if the contest includes rounds for very young players or beginners whose performances can be painful to listen to in the short term and tortuous in the long run.
A well-run event will include support for the judges: fresh water, comfortable seating, air conditioning or ventilation, good lighting, an excellent sound system with a volume control in the judges' room, nearby restrooms, and perhaps most important, full-time security. It is rarely the performers who will complain to the judges or contest officials about problems, but family members often seem to think that such complaints are their given duty. I observed a contest in central Indiana in the mid 70's where the judges were in a large separate cabin tent about fifty yards from the stage in a well-shaded area. Just as one old-timer began to play, one of the walls of the tent was suddenly pulled up and this well-dressed elderly woman crawled in to the astonishment of the judges and the contest director. She stood up and brushed herself off, and then began to berate the judges concerning their evaluation of her husband, who was at that very moment playing on stage. Her point was that there was no need to continue the contest since her husband was obviously the best player. A very awkward situation. I don't know how they resolved it, but it points to the importance of having a secure judging area. Also, most contests take all complaints to the contest director, not the judges.
About the Author
Dennis Coelho has been a consultant on traditional music to the Smithsonian and the American Folklife Center. He has produced documentary albums, festivals, fiddle contests, radio and tv shows, and written several articles about traditional music. The events in this article are based on judging fiddle contests in Indiana, Georgia, Idaho, and Wyoming.
He currently plays with The Chugwater Philharmonic String Quartet, a bluegrass comedy act, and with The Saddle Pals, a western swing group.