The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 3


Notes From The Judges' Booth

compiled by Molly Tenenbaum

[The contest at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival Clifftop is generally considered by most old-time musicians to be one of the best, most representative, and most fairly judged of any of the summer fiddlers conventions and festivals. For this reason (and because I think that the old-time music community feels that its voice will be heard by this festival/contest) we have chosen the Clifftop contest to be the focus of the article below, although most of the comments (and suggestions) could apply to any contest. - ed.]

In 1997, I served at Clifftop (The Appalachian String Band Music Festival, at Camp Washington-Carver in West Virginia) as a contest judge. I had often wondered what contests were like from the judge's perspective, and now I would have my chance to find out. However, after the contest was over, I realized that all judges come from different musical and regional backgrounds, that they all have different experiences of and beliefs about contests, and that therefore there is no "judge's perspective." I decided to do a little bit of informal research, and collect the comments of as many Clifftop judges as I could in order to see if by studying them all I could come up with whatever the truth may be about contests. I think the results show that a contest is just as amazing and silly, as varied and complex, as old-time music itself. But you may draw your own conclusions.

I know that I failed to get in touch with many judges who might wish to add their remarks, and for this I apologize. If you have been a judge and would like to add comments, please e-mail me at, or write me at 7002 23rd Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98115. - M. T.

Riley Baugus (fiddle and banjo, 1997)

Thanks for the opportunity to speak about my experience as a judge at Clifftop. First let me say that I really did have fun being a judge. It was a different experience than I had imagined it to be. I don't really think that there was a best or worst part of judging for me. I liked some things about it and others I didn't. I really enjoyed hearing all the performances. The ones that I liked most were the less flashy, simple, solid tunes, played very well. All in all, it was a good experience. It helped me to figure out, as a contestant, what exactly I am being judged on, and I think it also gave me some ideas of how to make it a better experience for the judges that I encounter when I play in a contest.

From now on when I enter a contest, I will either announce the name of the tune that I am going to play, or ask the announcer to do it. It was difficult for me to pay attention to some of the tunes as closely as I would have liked, because I was trying so desperately to decide what tune was being played. Everyone knows how it is when you hear a tune, you know the tune, but you just can't come up with the name. Well, that's what was happening to me sometimes. When you hear that many tunes, one after another, it gets difficult to keep your academic senses about the tunes together.

I also thought that most of the contestants played at nearly the same level. What I mean is that everyone was good. That's what makes it a real challenge to come up with 5 out of 95, and then to have only one that is the best on that day.

I think that the Appalachian Stringband Festival is by far, the most fair contest that one could ever enter. I and the other judges that I worked with, seemed to put that one thing above everything else, fairness. We struggled to make the best decisions, to be ultimately fair, no matter who was playing the tune. If they played well, we gave them high marks. This brings me to another difficult part of being a judge. Since we are musicians, we know most of the musicians that are playing in the contest and you can't judge on the fact that someone is a nice person and you like them. It has to be about the music and how well it is played. It also seemed a little strange to have to judge the contestants in the Senior and Youth divisions with everyone else. The seniors are of course the "real" old-time musicians, and I think that they deserve to be judged as an elite group rather than being clumped with everyone else. Sometimes it was hard to judge in favor of a young player over a senior and vice versa. I was thinking sometimes, "Well, this guy has been playing for 50 years, but he's just not playing in tune." So if the next person that got up had only been playing for 5 years, and played with perfect intonation, they probably got a higher score. I just think that there should be three "separate" categories that are judged independently of each other. It is nice for the seniors have the opportunity to win their division as well as the entire contest, but it doesn't seem honorable to judge these men and women, that have played for so long, with those of us who have learned from them. Judging the three divisions together made it extremely difficult to choose a winner in each of those categories. You see, for me the difficulty comes in hearing a youth, then hearing a senior, then hearing someone in the regular contest, then hearing another youth, and now having to decide if I think youth number 1 played as well as youth number 3, or did senior number 5 play as well as senior number 2, and did any of them play as well as regular contestant 8.

One of the very, very positive things that I was glad to see, for the judges' sake, was that they have stopped posting the scores. I think that some people tend to take a number score too personally. It really isn't a reflection on anyone at all. It is a number that is given for a particular performance of one tune, in a contest, by three people who may not necessarily be certain of how to score that performance. As I said earlier, everyone who enters the contests plays so well, it is hard to say that one is really a great deal better than the other. To be scored 20 points lower than the person who won is not a large difference. The whole judging thing requires that you notice every little thing that you can in order to make a wise and fair decision. Every little thing, positive or negative.

I would only change a couple of things about the contest at Clifftop. That would be to split the different age divisions into separate contests, announce the tunes before they are played, and have the judges take a couple more breaks so that it is easier for them to keep a clear head.

To conclude, I'll just say it was one of the hardest jobs that I've ever undertaken, I loved it , I hated it, and I would probably do it again if I were asked.

Paul Brown (full contest, 1993)

Judging at Clifftop was just fine with me. At times it was fun. The worst part was sitting in a chair for hours, unable to play music: I would have preferred a much better reason for a sore rump! Second worst was splitting hairs between great performances to come up with winners. The best parts were getting to hear lots of good music and watching people enjoy the festival.

A contest introduces artificial and sometimes unfair ways of thinking about music because of its judging criteria. But without these rules there can't be a contest in the first place. So I tried to accept this reality, this occasional contradiction between my own feelings about a performance and the rules, and do my best within the structure. I feel that if we musicians could do the same thing when we go up on stage to compete, there would be happier people all around and fewer hurt feelings. Each individual contest has a life of its own based on its rules, the musicians, and the inherent non-objectivity of the judges. So why worry about it too much?

The folks at Clifftop have tried hard to create reasonable rules, and that certainly made judging more pleasant. Still, the big frustration was having to drop points when hearing a performance that was filled with all the things I value - heart, soul, tone, phrasing, deep understanding of traditional style - but contained a small technical flub. It is also frustrating to recognize that by the nature of their rules contests seem to give players with a smooth, refined, technically perfect approach more weight than musicians who present other types of performance, however good. It's something to reckon with and accept, and a reminder for me that the most important elements of a music convention are away from stage, where people are making inspired music and enjoying each other's company.

Having said all this, I still believe our team did an honorable job of judging the contest, helped along in great part by the well-intended rules at Clifftop.

Would I judge again? Sure. I'm as fair as the next person, and with the situation turned around I'd rather have musicians judge me than non-musicians. But every time I play God at a fiddlers' convention, I tend to react to the whole idea of contests with more of a laugh. The music - and the friendships - are out on the grounds. As my grandmother used to say, "Don't take it serious, it's too mysterious." Now let's go play a tune.

Alice Gerrard (full contest, 1991)

The folks at Clifftop asked me to be a judge in the days when the judges had to judge everything, which means we sat there for the duration. It was hard work, but fun too. The fun part was getting a chance to listen to absolutely every band/banjo player/fiddler that came across the stage. I rarely do that - mostly because I love to hang in the "parking lot" - and it really gave me a perspective on the variety of music, musicianship, and musical points of view that exist. I also felt that I could bring a woman's perspective to the judging, and that it's important and fair to have this ingredient if you are assuming there will be both men and women competitors. So, it has bothered me that until recently there have been mainly male judges at Clifftop. I'm glad that Bobby Taylor has sought out more women judges and hope that he will continue to do so.

Maybe Clifftop could lighten up a bit so there wouldn't be so much pressure. I always loved the "attatude" of the 1968 35th annual Berkeley Old-time Fiddlers' Convention which gave 6 pounds of rutabagas to the 2nd place winner and 5 pounds to the 1st place winner. And how about a backup guitar category (the guitar player would be judged playing with a fiddler or banjo player).

Although I feel that there is an essential fallacy in judging one good musician against another (kind of like apples and oranges), the phenomenon exists. I applaud the organizers' continuing efforts to improve the "fairness" factor, and in the interests of both the music and the contest, I hope that people will consider judging if called upon. The more varied the representation and points of view, the healthier the climate. And it's nice to see more women entering the competition. I hope this trend will continue.

Gail Gillespie (traditional/non-traditional bands 1996)

Clifftop has been my top choice old-time festival every year since I went to the first one. From a participant's perspective, it has nearly every feature I hold desirable in a music festival: gorgeous wooded setting at a high enough altitude that even August afternoon temperatures are bearable; luxurious hot showers; giant log building with dance hall and wrap-around porches to hang out on in case of rain and, wonder of wonders: fair judging.

I've been going to fiddlers' conventions since the late '60s and have never known of a contest situation in which the organizers have made such a sincere effort to create at least the appearance of objective judging. Judges, old-time musicians themselves, are rotated each year and represent different regional styles. Last year's lineup for the band contest included a northerner who loves Virginia-North Carolina band music, a West Virginian, and a fiddler who favors the ornate Midwestern sound. When I was asked to judge the band contest in 1996, I knew it would be a lot of work, but was terribly honored to be asked as a known "hard core" proponent of the Round Peak North Carolina-Virginia sound. So my comments below should be considered with all of this in mind. I love Clifftop, but I think it could be made a lot more fun for everyone if a few minor changes happened.

The contest itself, once I sat myself down at the judges' table, was a whirlwind blur in my mind. I remember being astounded at the level of skill represented by the 100 or so bands in the traditional category and at how absurd it felt to have to select only five for the finals. With only a few seconds between each band, there was not a second to mull over scores, let alone make any comparisons with the other judges. The most horrific problem I and my fellow judges faced that year was that the scores got posted publicly. Although this problem has been corrected and scores weren't posted this year, there remains a sense of desperate competition that I believe has no place in old-time music. I give the following suggestions as possible remedies:

  1. "Spread the wealth." It would take a lot of pressure off of everyone, if, as Galax did in the '70s when the old-time band contest grew to enormous size, there were simply more places. Along with this, the size or nature of the individual band prizes would be reduced, thereby removing some of the edge of grimness. When I was researching old contests in North Carolina and Tennessee held before 1920, I thought the system of awarding food and goods was a lighthearted solution. One Tennessee contest had separate categories for popular tunes: i.e. the best "Sugar in the Gourd" earned a 20-pound sack of sugar; the finest rendition of "Leather Britches" garnered a pair of deerskin pants, etc.
  2. Figure out a way to convey the rules to the Non-Traditional band entrants so that so many bands do not end up having to be disqualified. It was painful, the year I was a judge, to be forced to disqualify the majority of bands, many of whom were highly clever and skilled musicians because they a. used electric instruments or accessories, or b. because their selection had absolutely no rootedness in the Appalachian string-band tradition either instrumentally, stylistically, or in tune selection. In other words, we had to award a prize to at least one band that played poorly and disqualify more than one great band because the first band played a tune that satisfied the rules and the second simply played, for example, a swing number using swing instruments. I'm not sure this problem has been totally resolved, since last year I heard bands warming up for the non-traditional contest that were simply playing other types of music. If this is to be the case, the rules need to be changed. Misunderstanding of the rules of the contest caused a lot of agony and angry hate e-mail in 1996 and so I expect it still does.

Clifftop is, by and large, the best festival to go to if you can only attend one. It attracts people from all over the country and, yet, you can still hear and perhaps even share a tune or two with legendary West Virginia players like Melvin Wine and Wilson Douglas. Walking around the campground at night on Saturday last year was an unforgettable experience. Under a crystal sky light up by the Milky Way, I was treated to an incredible smorgasbord of some of the best old-time musicians playing today - and playing fluently in styles that represent the full range of nearly everything possible in the world of old-time music: tuneful pieces in C from Alabama and Georgia; raggy pieces from a Philadelphia band; real Cajun tunes played by folks really from Louisiana; as well as faithful replications of classic piedmont North Carolina bands that recorded in the '20s and '30s. Somehow all of this joy shouldn't be sullied by a contest structure that makes room for people to feel such anger and resentment.

Bruce Greene (fiddle and banjo 1996)

My strongest response to judging at Clifftop (which is pretty much the extent of my judging career) was that there were too many contestants to judge anything meaningfully. If I remember correctly, there were at least 70, maybe closer to 90, contestants in both the fiddle and banjo contests, and honestly, after about 25 or 30, it's impossible to keep straight how they compare to each other, particularly the first few that played. I think it is probably a liability to come on very early in the contest when there is no one to compare to. If the judges start out conservatively, they might not be able to backtrack and put the early contestants in context with later ones. I know it wouldn't be fair to everyone wanting to compete, but I think to get realistic judging, a contest should be limited to the first 25 or 30 to register.

Another aspect of having so many contestants is that the few who make the finals are almost an arbitrary decision. The judges go by the total number of points each contestant receives, and with so many competing when I judged, there were at least 20 or more who were within a point or two of making the finals. So what does it really mean that only five of them made the finals? I tried to explain that to people who were upset that they did not make the finals - that their playing was essentially every bit as good as the winners - but it was small consolation for most. In that respect I think it is good to post scores. I know that can also make people unhappy, to see their score and think they were judged poorly, but I think there is no way to convince everyone that it was fair.

Contests do a strange thing to our sense of values. Everyone wants to know who won, and everybody has an opinion, and often a strong one, about who should or shouldn't have won. Is that what we are playing this music for? Sometimes I wonder if it might be just as enjoyable just to give everyone a chance to play a couple of tunes on stage if they want. I bet just as many people would come to Clifftop whether there was a contest or not.

Despite all that, I rather enjoyed judging. Hearing the wide variety of different styles and tunes was great, and in truth, most people just did it for fun. I would do it again. I tried to do the most conscientious job I could, but I don't take it seriously enough to be really bothered by the controversies. I tried to remember that the spirit of the music is, or should be, that of something we enjoy together for its own sake. Contests really strain that spirit just by their nature, so it seems that we all need to try to do them mainly just for fun and try not to get our egos so involved. It is a difficult phenomenon that the contestants who know they will really be in the running are usually the ones who take their scores the most seriously. They are usually the ones who already get plenty of attention for their playing, so why be in a contest and get mad if you don't place?

Dot Kent (dance contest 1997)

The dance contest in 1997 lasted about an hour and a half or two hours with a total of about 40 or 50 dancers, the majority of whom were competing in the 16-49 year category. This was a terrific display of old-time flatfooting.

The rules were a little baffling, including prohibition of "precision knee bending" and stating that "judges will not look for clogging"; however, the contestants understood the stylistic standards, and only a couple flagrantly violated them for comic effect. There have always been a lot of great dancers attending Clifftop - most of them are also musicians, and they have often chosen to compete with their instruments but not with their feet. I mentioned the dance contest to many of these friends, several of whom came without the right shoes but ended up dancing in the contest anyway.

The best part of judging was being able to concentrate so intensely on all of this wonderful dancing. Of course I could have done this in the audience, but I wouldn't have because of all of the distractions: socializing, getting cold, getting hungry, looking around, whatever. The contest moved very fast, and I found myself coming up with a preliminary score before each dancer was finished, often needing to look down to compare with previous dancers' scores. I was surprised how holistic this process was, since as a contestant I have tended to fret over the details of my footwork. The dancers who stood out showed an immediate and fluid embodiment of the music, a confident direct connection that was comfortable to watch and hear. With so many dancers in the 16-49 category having superb rhythm, control, complexity, and responsiveness to the music, these top three places could have gone to any of a number of people. If I were to sit down, think about all of the dancers there, and come up with names of those who could best represent old-time flatfoot dancing in all its variety, I would choose differently.

That's not how it works, of course. The three of us were individually judging on a personal standard that came down to how each performance made us feel in that immediate moment, compared with the impact of the dancing of the others. This was a hard thing to try to explain to the many folks who asked me about the judging afterwards. I started to feel resentful as I realized how much mental and emotional effort I was putting into answering these queries. I would try to explain that I was very satisfied with the outcome, although of course these were not my personal top 3 selections (being a composite of the scoring of all three judges), and I would try to convey what was so terrific about the dancing of these "winners" and how great most of the dancing had been, and blah, blah, blah. I wised up after a while and began asking my questioners if they had seen the dancers who won the contest and then expressed my condolences for what they had missed: you should have been there, it was so great, hard to explain in words, oh well.

I ended up feeling kind of bad that so many wonderful dancers, especially those I may have coaxed to enter, had nothing to show for how well they danced for us all. I hoped that they had enjoyed dancing for the large and enthusiastic audience or had gotten something good out of the experience. I was also sorry that, as it turned out, all the 16-49 ribbon holders were women. I am very happy to see more and more women playing in old-time bands, but I want to see men keep dancing too; and we certainly had great male contestants in the group.

I consoled myself with the gratifying realization that all this means that the dance contest has become like the music contests with far more talent than can possibly be recognized in the awards process, and that if you worry too much about who didn't win you're missing the whole point.

Brad Leftwich (full contest, 1992)

I enjoyed judging at Clifftop more than I expected. There were, of course, hardships: it was cold that year, the contest went late into the night, and I remember shivering under a blanket and accepting tongue-in-cheek "bribes" of hot chocolate and whiskey. Moreover, this was before they split the judging duties, and the three of us sat in judgment of contestants in all categories, leaving us precious little time to play music ourselves or visit with friends. But I enjoyed it precisely because it took me outside my circle of friends and cohorts and forced me to listen to the entire spectrum of music represented at Clifftop. I heard individuals and bands I never would have heard otherwise, and I was at once surprised at the diversity of what I heard and delighted by how much of it was really good.

I can honestly say that the three judges that year listened intently to every entry and sweat blood trying to rate them fairly. But anyone who enters a contest needs to understand that music is neither math nor science; there are no correct answers. Music's very essence is subjective. Being human, judges - in spite of all attempts to find objective criteria (and bald-faced politics and fraud aside) - will respond most favorably to what moves them the most, and this will vary from individual to individual.

A parting tip to aspiring contestants: there are many good reasons to enter a contest, such as conquering your stage fright, as motivation for working on your technique or learning a cool new tune, challenging yourself to do your best, entertaining the audience, even winning some much-needed cash. But trying to prove you're the best is about the worst reason I can think of, and a winner who believes that's what First Place means is deluding him- or herself. Just play your best, enjoy yourself (if you can), be gracious, and let the chips fall where they may.

Gerry Milnes (full contest, 1994)

I have three main thoughts about my Clifftop judging experience. Two concern the rules, and thus should be directed to the contest sponsors (the West Virginia Division of Culture and History). I suggest a sheet of "Considerations for Judges" directed to them in the form of recommendations to be heeded. In general, the Clifftop judging is the fairest anywhere I've seen in providing a forum whereby traditional fiddling is encouraged through official policy.

  1. Along with standard judging categories (tone, difficulty, etc.) there should be a category that represents "feeling," "emotion," or some such classification that portrays a "gut level" feeling portrayed in the contestants performance.
  2. Since judging is such a subjective process, judges should be required to confer throughout the contest. When judging and rating 50 fiddlers, for instance, if two of three judges are conservative in their differentiation of contestants performances, but one is more extravagant, that one judge essentially picks the winners. This could be held in check if judges conferred and essentially were in agreement (or at least "in the ballpark") regarding contestants scores. Basic standards immediately result against which subsequent contestants can be measured. Without these consistent reality checks and an understanding among judges, winners can be anybody's guess.
  3. If any contest is going to last, the contestants themselves should not take themselves too seriously. Sadly, even at Clifftop, people have dressed down the people in charge for in some way being responsible for them not winning. I know that the people in charge go to great lengths to keep things fair.

Bruce Molsky (full contest, 1992)

My Long Weekend Sitting Down at Clifftop I was asked to be a judge at Clifftop right around the time its popularity really began to skyrocket. I think everyone was surprised by the number of contestants that year, and neither of the other judges (Brad Leftwich and Jon Blisard) nor I had any idea how exhausting it would be to judge all the contests. In subsequent years the responsibilities were spread between two sets of judges.

It was cold on Saturday night, too; no, it was freezing. The band contest didn't end until around 2:00 AM, several hours later than scheduled. We had very few breaks and missed most of the partying. During one of the scheduled breaks Brad and I bolted in frustration to his campsite, played three or four hasty tunes, wolfed a couple of sandwiches, guzzled a couple of malt beverages and ran back to the stage to get back to work. But I'm not complaining. I was honored to have been asked and really enjoyed the intensity of it.

Clifftop is vastly different from other contests I've been to because it is clearly not a regional contest. It's unique virtue is how it celebrates the whole big wonderful modern traditional music community. It's hard not to feel that camaraderie in the contest, and throughout the whole festival. I think that much of the excitement about Clifftop has been because the contest is intended to be inclusive of all traditional American string music styles.

The challenge with respect to judging such a broad contest is keeping personal stylistic preferences out of the process. I'm not sure if I succeeded in maintaining that level of objectivity when I was a judge, but I sure as hell tried and was painfully aware of it the entire time. I decided to listen more for technical and artistic competence and creativity, and to focus less on regional and other defining characteristics. This was the most difficult when Melvin Wine and Mike Bryant tied for first place in the fiddle contest. I think we all wanted to crawl under the table when that happened!

But the benefits of including so many styles (and perhaps age groups) outweigh the complications of trying to judge them all in the same contest, because it has really helped to tear down some walls that sorely need tearing down. For myself, I probably wouldn't have come to appreciate midwestern fiddling if I hadn't met Jeff Seitz and Chirps Smith and some of the other folks who have come east to participate. Judging and participating was a great learning experience, and it opened my mind (and repertoire) to some great music I hadn't noticed before. Plus I've had so much more compassion for other judges since being one myself.

Molly Tenenbaum (fiddle and banjo, 1997)

I had never actually listened to a whole contest before, and I think I learned a lot from hearing so many players. Of 95 fiddlers in a row, some really do stand out as better than others. I was glad to know that the whole contest premise, then, wasn't as specious as I'd thought. However, since lots of players in lots of styles are really good, picking the top five and ordering them seemed a little silly. However, it's what we do here in the old-time world, so I did it seriously, hoping everyone would know that not winning is not the same as not being good. Not winning doesn't even mean that you aren't good enough to win.

I was pleased to see that the people who did win felt happy and proud, and perhaps got some boosts to self-confidence, and I hope that the people who did not win did not feel hurt, and did not lose self-confidence. It seemed clear that much about the winning performances depended on chance, on how nervous the performers got, on how sure a sound they managed to start out with, on how comfortable they were with their own playing, and on how far they have come in defining their own styles. I had to remember that I was judging an individual performance, not a person's playing in general: I heard many players whose music I love, but they made a few mistakes, or didn't play as well as they really play in the campground. I didn't give it as many points perhaps, but I love it just as much.

It was difficult to listen to the beginners who didn't have the mechanics of playing down yet. I had to remind myself that there are many reasons to enter a contest, and winning often isn't the main one. But I didn't like having to score such players - after all, beginners aren't bad players, they're just players who will probably be wonderful sooner than we think. It felt wrong to give such people low scores. It was also difficult to hear people play tunes that were too hard for them, or tunes that didn't suit their style. I got so I was dying to hear people play tunes they loved and could play comfortably at their own highest level. If I ever enter a contest again, that's what I'm going to do - I'm not going to worry about what might please someone, but I'll do what pleases me and hope that some of that feeling gets across.

It was painful to listen carefully and critically to so many fiddlers and banjoists in a row. Also, it was extremely painful to sort the top five into order. However, I know that as an audience member, I have loved hearing the finals - it's a wonderful evening of listening, and every tune has an edge of excitement. So I felt responsible to the audience, and the players - who were really putting all their music and soul out there - to do the best job I could.

The biggest treat of judging was hearing so many fine players, especially the ones I hadn't heard or heard of before. I gained a stronger sense of the range and strength of all old-time music. It was a pleasure to have the chance to recognize great music, though I'm sorry we couldn't recognize it all. I also remembered (vaguely, and probably inaccurately) the stories I'd heard about great fiddlers of the past in contests - how when they showed up everyone else knew it was all over, or how no one had heard of them until they appeared at a contest, and then. . . I felt powerfully that contests are a continuing strand of old-time music history, and felt a little confused to know it was only me sitting there in judges' booth. I believe that all of us, experts and beginners, players and listeners, are a current part of what will be our music's history, but it felt frightening to actually commit my part of that history to the record. Still, I was happy to take a turn - I think the contest, Clifftop anyway, works best when everyone takes a turn, and since we are all part of old-time music, we should all take turns. I would do it again, with a little rest and recovery.

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