Seven Things I Learned as an Adjudicator in Terrace, BC

For the last two weeks of April of this year, I was the vocal adjudicator for the Pacific Northwest Music Festival, held annually in Terrace, BC. It was my first time adjudicating a music festival like this one and it was such a wonderful experience. I have never written my blog in the following point form style; however, this way of writing seems more fitting for this entry. Here are some lessons that I learned from a week as an adjudicator.

Fortune Favours the Bold

I was terrified to adjudicate this festival. I am qualified enough, having been a vocal coach for fourteen years, to all age groups and in any number of musical styles. I enjoy air travel very much, even if it’s in a noisy little twin engine plane; I was just happy to travel without small children and if you have had the experience of air travel with small children, you will understand why I was greatly looking forward to ninety glorious uninterrupted minutes each way. What scared me was that this was a brand new experience. I have been a competitor in music festivals like this one when I was a teen and I have had students compete in the Kiwanis Festival but I had never been an adjudicator. I would be on the other side of table this time, writing and giving feedback on music with which I may not be familiar. I have been the student and the teacher who has listened to the adjudicator and, probably due to my own insecure ego, privately and unfairly disagreed with everything they said. Now, I was about to be on display and possibly dissed about the town because I didn’t comment entirely favourably on someone’s wonderful performance. Also, I have only a Bachelor of Music, not a Master’s or a Doctorate although I would dearly love to do a Master’s. One of the adjudicators has an Order of Canada. That alone shows the caliber of adjudicators that they can get for this festival. I had to very quickly make a decision to be scared but not to allow that fear to convince me not to take the job. I’m glad that I accepted the job because although I know that I made some mistakes, I quickly learned how to write and say things that were insightful about the music and still provided some constructive feedback. I listened to the songs ahead of time if I wasn’t already familiar with the material and that preparation helped a great deal in that I was able to make some informed comments about the pieces. I got to learn some new music in the process and I probably became a better vocal coach in one week, all because I was willing to take the risk of jumping into a new teaching situation when I could have played it safe by staying home.

I may have been nervous but the experience of singing in festivals can be terrifying for competitors. One to eight singers are allowed into the venue with any friends or family who wish to attend. The singers then perform individual pieces from memory to the audience and to an adjudicator who is furiously writing all that is usually said in a 30 minute voice lesson onto one sheet of paper. This is a very nerve wracking experience – I’ve been there. Yet these kids, some as young as six, still get up to sing, some of them about five or six times during the festival, all to get the experience of performing and being given constructive feedback. That takes tremendous courage.

It is healthy and often necessary not to make foolhardy decisions but occasionally, we must take risks if we are to grow as human beings, be it mentally, emotionally or physically, by allowing ourselves to have experiences that may cost us humiliation and pain. Those experiences shape you and make you a better and richer person. Fortune does indeed favour the bold.

Introverts Are Social Too

I did not expect loneliness on this trip so when I found myself feeling terribly lonely, the feeling was unfamiliar and unexpected. For the first time since October 2009 when I went to Japan with Laudate and Sinfonia, I was traveling for a week without a husband or children. I had my own hotel room, I have always enjoyed being alone and for the first 48 hours, Mommy’s “quiet time” was very pleasant. In order for adjudicators to do our jobs properly and to be completely impartial, competitors, teachers and parents are not permitted to talk to us during the festival. When I was adjudicating verbally, I could be outward, bubbly and wear my “teaching persona” as much as I liked. I could talk about vocal technique, music, emotional connections – all of the things that are integral to singing, but the conversation was one sided because I was doing all the talking. The other adjudicators at the festival were finished and had already left or were working by the time I had finished my sessions so I had swaths of time that was often devoid of meaningful conversation and human contact. I Skyped with my husband and my children daily but that wasn’t enough. My husband and I have years of shared history, ideas, values and common interests and I missed our conversations – the important and the mundane. A common misconception about us introverts is that we are wallflowers who shrink away from human contact and that is not accurate; we need meaningful connection with people.

Speed Teaching

In a typical voice lesson, you have about 30 to 60 minutes to do vocal technique and work on a song or two. In adjudicating, you have maybe 8 minutes per person: 2 or 3 minutes to hear the song, 4 minutes to write comments and 1 or 2 minutes to talk about the selection and the performance. I think that adjudicating should be called speed teaching because that is exactly what you’re doing. To the long suffering students and teachers in Terrace, good luck trying to decipher my scrawl. Seriously, email me if you can’t read any of my comments. I don’t know how anyone but me CAN read them.

We Are Shaped by the Land

Terrace is situated on the Skeena River and nestled in the Coast Mountain Range, approximately 140 km from Prince Rupert on the West Coast. The snow capped mountains surround the town while the Skeena flows through with menacing, capricious speed. I grew up in Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island, surrounded by mountains and a very large body of water, Cowichan Lake. Living for a long period of time in a place where nature is so ever present and grandiose, where life is so tied to an overstated landscape, gives you an honest and rooted connection to where you came from and to where you are going.

When I heard certain singers at the PNMF, it seemed to me that they were chastened and humbled by the land, as if they already had some experience from which to draw even though they probably hadn’t had much life experience yet. That was especially clear to me on the morning that heard the session of folk songs. Folk songs already have a tradition of history, of connection to the past and present built into them. When these young people sang their pieces, they carried on the aural tradition of folk singing but also of connection to the land, to the past, to the present and to the future. I believe that we are all shaped by the land where we live – wherever that happens to be. The strength of musicality in the young people that I heard was informed by the mountains and by the mighty Skeena River.

Honesty is Seldom the Best Policy

I have not been entirely honest for much of my teaching career nor was I entirely honest in adjudicating. For example, the occasional performance of a song may have been quite poor; however, I never said, “Bad job, that really sucked!” What could possibly be achieved by a comment like that? Words are powerful and they can change the course of a person’s life, not necessarily for the better. Instead, I said, “You sang that song with such sweet tone – perfect for this song. Before you perform it next time, spend some time going over the pitches and the words with your teacher and it will be absolutely wonderful.” When my beloved Real Treble Makers Women’s Choir have not sung a piece well in rehearsal, I borrow a phrase from Lars in Laudate Singers and say, “A lot of good things” and then I tear the piece apart note by note.

We can be permitted to speak our minds but from where does that desire for truth really come? Revealing your true thoughts on a subject or on a person comes more from a desire to be right, to be heard and to inflate your own ego than to reveal your wisdom. I am not suggesting that we become doormats, just strip ourselves of personality and become the most non committal people we can be. Too many women fall into that pit of self doubt and lack of confidence, mostly because it’s so difficult to straddle that fine line between being perceived as an opinionated (insert other name for female dog here) or being perceived as a doormat. Often, we need to decide in a split second whether to be honest or only reveal part of the truth. Everything that I wrote and said in Terrace was as true as what I say to people in my daily life in Vancouver. But I try to leave out at least as much as what I reveal.

We need to ask ourselves the following questions when we are in positions of sharing out views on things – be it singing, art, administration, sports or relationships: Will being completely honest help the recipient? If so, is the potential emotional shrapnel worth it? What do we hope to achieve by honesty? If the answer is yes to the first two questions, then it’s okay be honest. The question of what we hope to achieve by our honesty is much harder to answer. That requires very careful consideration, thought and emotional intelligence in order to answer. In my limited experience, being completely honest seldom achieves a great deal as the recipient will probably get there on their own anyway. To paraphrase the Dowager Countess from the British period drama “Downton Abbey”, “There can be too much truth in any relationship”. Complete honesty is seldom the best policy.

Kindness Costs Nothing

I may be in favour of a dishonest life but I’m also in favour of kindness. I try to live my life free of crime, mostly because it seems like a lot of work and rather expensive when you add in the lawyers’ fees. What does cost nothing, will keep you out of jail and still maintain some degree of dishonesty is kindness. I learned in Terrace that kindness is so important in teaching and that kindness flows like the mighty Skeena. I tried to be kind by making my comments as specific as possible but always finding something good to write about each performance. I hope that I was kind enough to people and if I was not, I sincerely apologize. EVERYONE at the PNMF was terribly kind to me, whether it was the support in my adjudication decisions, bringing me tea and coffee or the lovely lady who baked delicious cookies for weeks ahead of time for the adjudicators. 

I was certainly shown so much kindness throughout Terrace, specifically in the cycling department. I had a bit of time off and I wanted to explore the area a bit more, preferably by bike. After making some inquiries, I was led to the mercifully NDP MLA’s office where I was able to borrow a bike for the day at no charge. It wasn’t the best bike but it was still a bike. I took the beastie into the cycle repair shop just down the street where they oiled up the chain and adjusted the seat for no charge. Pretty soon, I was on my way for a glorious three hour ride to Kleanza Creek Provincial Park. Kindness cost me and Terrace nothing. I have now been on both sides of the table and I know how important the kind comments are. I also know how devastating unkind comments can be. I can quote verbatim a very negative review of my first album, “Subtexts”. That review nearly put me off of creating music and derailed my career for a time. It shouldn’t have but it did. But kind comments and love have sustained me and I can only assume the same for everyone else. We must be kind to each other; it’s the best way of being.

Would I Do An Adjudication Gig Again?

Yes, please!

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