January 28, 2007


A good crowd

Last night I had the privilege of judging a singer-songwriter contest for what is to be a series of open-mike performance nights at the local music café. I was one of three judges for the event. We were anonymous and seated throughout the place, though most casual observers surely noticed three people marking things down on paper.

The day prior to the event the café owner asked me to devise a scoring system that would put greater weight on the songwriting originality, the obvious reason being that many good songwriters have no business considering themselves singers, and also that musical talent could be expected to vary widely. In a bit of a rush I came up with an overly-complicated system of scoring four categories on a scale of one to five: originality, performance (weighted at 30 percent each), audience reaction and the “X” factor (weighted at 20 percent each). The latter was an attempt to let each judge score on the intangibles of their choice – that “je ne sais quoi” – anything from how it hit them in the soul or hurt their ears to how cool or dorky they might think the contestant is. Each category score was multiplied by its weight factor and then those four numbers were subtotaled and divided by five to get a perfectly weighted score on a 100 scale. It worked out okay despite the fact that we took about 15 minutes to tally up the results. I admitted my knotty system was in need of straightening, and brought laughs during the tally when I pensively asked, “Now let’s see, does anyone know if the moon is waxing or waning?” For next time we’ll probably drop the audience category, as it was hard to tell a big difference in reaction in a small room of about 80 patrons clapping politely for each act. What I think would be simplest to do with the three remaining categories is just weight them equally, and the winner is the one with the most points on whatever scale is determined. If any of my readers has done this sort of thing before, I would welcome your suggestions for a system of simplicity and fairness.

It was apparent after the scoring was complete that we three judges had starkly contrasting viewpoints on what constitutes talent. One of the other judges was my former guitar teacher, who is an excellent player. He tended to be more discriminating in the technical prowess of the performers, and so his scores for performance varied the most. I didn’t see any great differences, and in fact rated most performers down the middle because to me they didn’t really display the kind of playing that sets talent apart. I was keeping with the owner’s suggestion to consider originality above all, and that is where I differed most from my fellow referees. Each act was allowed to perform two of their original songs, and it was cool to see the different styles. Most of the country and blues performers seemed pretty straightforward - country being typical in its strict chronology and free of abstraction, and blues being similar to the latter attribute as well. I like both kinds of music, but I think it’s hard to be particularly original in either genre. The other judge was one of the videographers of the event, a pleasant middle-aged woman who shared little with me in the way of personal taste in music. My highest scorers were her lowest and vice-versa.

She really liked the country acts, some of which I considered good efforts but a lot like anything else already out there. Now when I say I like country I don’t mean any of the latter-day Nashville pop. For me it’s gotta be the old stalwarts like Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Willie Nelson; the purveyors of hippie country like Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Lyle Lovett and John Prine, or alt-country, neo-folk and newgrass bands like Wilco, The Jayhawks, String Cheese Incident, The Be Good Tanyas, Donna The Buffalo...somebody stop me...The Duhks, Tim O’Brien, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, okay?

From among eleven performers the winner, who earned a modest cash prize, ended up being an older blind gentleman who I had been sitting next to and enjoying conversation (I would have felt a bit more uncomfortable filling out my score sheet near any other contestant). His performance was very good – he tied for third on my scoring. He played a couple of simple cowboy songs, the kind with the alternating bass strum and three or four chords, which had very evocative lyrics for which I gave him high marks on originality. Of my two favorites of the night, one was a pretty young girl who was a bit overweight and self-conscious but who had a beautiful voice and two good songs that showcased her pipes well. The other was a young guy with a humble demeanor who sang two songs excellent in their originality, but as they were on the funereal side he wasn’t a big hit with the audience or the other two judges.

Between now and June each month’s winner will be eligible for the owner to choose as the opening act for one of the bigger name professionals that headline at the café later this year. It was a fun event and I look forward to next month’s competition.


SOunds like a lot of fun. Perhaps you can write to Simon and Paula and see how they handle the scoring..........
How fun! Lucky!
It does sound fun. We "judged" peeps trying out to be Danny and Sandy (Grease) last night on TV. They mostly all sucked. Seems like everything's about looking like a Barbie doll (even for the guys) and less about conveying emotion through song. They were so fake and smooth.
I always find judging very hard. I try to push away my natural emotions to mark up the nervous and less confident but never manage to entirely.
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