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Score sheets contain judging criteria such as rhythm, timing, tone, pitch, danceability, and often a more general category of something like "old-timey-ness." This latter category can be scored as much as the other criteria combined. Judges have about four minutes maximum to listen to 2-3 tunes and to make a clear evaluation. Often, this can be done within the first minute of listening, but sometimes a contestant will compensate for a ragged first tune with a great improvement in the next selections. Judges score but the contest staff adds up the scores and the averages. Contestants usually get the score sheets after the contest. But if it is a large contest with 50-100 contestants or more, you will spend six to eight hours per day for two days or more (Weiser goes on for a week!) bringing all of your concentration and musical experience to evaluating the performance. "Exhausting" doesn't begin to describe it. "Thankless" does.
In the top open divisions, judging gets more difficult because the quality differences become very small. The relationship between the difficulty of the arrangement and the performance itself begins to matter more. Hard piece played well vs. moderate piece played really well? Sometimes just a point or two might separate first and second place.
Honestly, in spite of playing experience and regional status, some people should not be judges. Some use their own eccentric criteria in evaluation, which throws the whole thing off. Some party the night before and either sleep during the contest or lose focus completely, especially on the second day. Some do not understand quality criteria for styles outside their own region. Others are not familiar with dance forms uncommon in their area such strathspeys or slip jigs, and therefore score these forms lower. I saw a very talented player from upper Michigan score only fifth in a Rocky Mountain region contest in the mid-80's, when by every criteria he was by far the very best player in the contest. But his repertoire was made up of tunes and dances largely of Scandinavian origin unknown to the judges. I've seen judges who think that hornpipes are breakdowns and that a jig is just any fast tune. It is up to the contest director to get the right people but directors are usually not players themselves and they often depend on the advice of others not well-informed.
So, what is a contestant to do? Most serious contests will have a judges and players meeting before the contest, where the judges will often demonstrate their understanding of specific dance forms, and they will (or should, anyway) demonstrate bowing techniques which are banned. This is the time to get the judges "on the record" as to their expectations.
Still, fiddling and judging are human activities and emotion is sometimes involved. This is one reason why even the best judges like to know where the back door is. So my (soon-to-be-ex) friend cornered me on the way out of the building, really angry that his daughter had not won. He waved the score sheet in my face showing where I had evaluated one of her tunes one point less (out of a hundred) than one of the other judges. There it was, the clear reason and fault for his daughter achieving "only" second place. Nothing to do with her playing. That damn judge just had it in for her.
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.