Drum Corps International
A Few thoughts on judging

A Few thoughts on judging

by Drum Corps International

Dave Wilson, the DCI web content manager (I've only recently learned not to call him the Webmaster) has asked me to ponder the field of judging and write something about it, following up on my recent mid-week thoughts on guards and the pit. I'm beginning to fear these special mid-week Fanfare columns are going to be only limited by Dave's imagination and his desire to keep throwing out content to the devouring DCI.org public. (Oh, there's got to be a way to say that so it doesn't sound like tossing meat to zoo animals, but I'm too tired to go looking for it.)

Famed DCI judge Gene Monterastelli
Several years ago, I went through several weeks of a winter guard judges' training program at the suggestion of a couple judges. It was an eye-opening procedure. I enjoyed the tape sessions where we would critique shows on video, and I always had something cogent to say about what I was seeing. I sat in on some shows and put down caption numbers for every guard -- from the best in the Midwest to the most elementary beginning unit. My numbers were consistently right in line with the actual working judges. My written analyses of what I was doing and my thoughts on the activity received glowing reviews from the judges handling the training program. And then it was time to field trial alongside actual working judges. I sat with my clipboard and tally sheets and tape recorder, full of anticipation and secure in the knowledge that what I was to offer on tape was of deep and meaningful significance. The first guard came on, prompting me to turn on the tape recorder. Dead silence. I had nothing to say. It didn't get any better. In the course of my training, I had neglected to ponder this scenario. I had nothing to say because when it came down to putting the pedal to the metal, I was still a fan. I wanted to enjoy everyone. (This is not to imply that judges don't desire the same.) I suddenly found out that when I tried opening my mouth, I was no longer there to enjoy the guards; I was there to perform a hundred thoughts per second and pick out the best thing to say at the time in order to help the instructors improve their product. I was not cut out to judge winter guards. I further extrapolated that I wasn't cut out to judge drum corps, either. But that was fine. I had gained a vastly increased respect for the process and for those who do judge. And with that respect, I was quite content to go back to observing and writing about the activities with a new perspective, although I did end up judging music captions for a couple marching band shows for friends each fall. But those are shows I am comfortable with and at the end of the day, I'm thoroughly wrung out. I couldn't do it every weekend. Not everyone is judging material. Over the years, I've gotten to know quite a number of those who have been judging drum corps and winter guards, and I've found them to be a special group of people. Of the activities where numbers are assigned by a panel of judges, we're rather unique. When you think about it, this dedicated group is a rather extraordinary community. People who have skated and are usually coaches of some advanced caliber in their national association judge figure skating, and ex-divers and advanced-level coaches judge Olympic diving. These people tend to work in their field professionally every day. People who have danced professionally and often are professional dance teachers judge ballroom dancing. Drum corps and winter guards are judged by ordinary working people who teach art in public schools, work in circulation departments at newspapers, sell appliances in department stores and are research scientists. Their love of the activity is what brings them back every year. No one judges exclusive to everything else in life. What makes it more difficult as the performance curve keeps improving is that good, educated, well-intentioned amateurs are essentially judging the work of increasingly full-time professional designers and as-close-to-full-time-as-you-can-get instructors. That forces the judges to continuously keep up on what's going on in the activity so they can properly respond to trends and evolutions. When the Garfield Cadets invested their future in the genius mind of George Zingali back in the early 1980s, visual judges learned that they were forced to accept a new style of drill writing -- a few referred to it as "flex-drill" -- that challenged the traditional notions of construction and demand. When horn lines such as Wayne Downey's Blue Devils' lines raised the bar on brass performance, judges had to change their tolerance levels and become far more discerning in what a 10.0 meant. When Fred Sanford altered the traditional high-sticking rudimental drumming style with Santa Clara Vanguard in the early 1970s, percussion judges had to learn about the lower style of playing and evaluate the field presentations of drum lines in a more musical context. And when dance swept through the world of guard, heavily influenced by the winter guard activity, visual judges found themselves attending seminars on dance and dance recitals to increase their vocabulary of understanding. When the tic system changed from "tear down" (starting with 100 points and subtracting a tenth for every mistake) to a system of "build up" (starting from scratch and awarding for excellence), judges had to do a 180-degree turn in their thinking. It was like going to school to study French and then being told they were to translate Japanese into English, or more demanding, to translate Japanese into Korean. Judging isn't a static art. The variables that make up the judging experience change with the ever-changing activity. If one feels content with their present knowledge base, they have only to look back several years and see how much the activity has changed to realize that they have to keep changing in their expectations and their understanding of what is quality. Otherwise, they will soon be dinosaurs wondering how the world changed without their awareness of the ongoing evolution. That's why it seems the drum corps community can never agree on a judging system that lasts more than a few years. Just when everyone thinks they have it figured out, it changes. Points are increased in one caption and decreased in another. Captions are tied together and separated. Words explaining what qualifies for the various boxes of excellence (traditionally known as poor, fair, good, excellent and superior -- or some variation on that) keep changing. The so-called National Linear Scale (upon which judges are to compare what they are adjudicating at the time with the best in the country that's ever existed) keeps on moving with judges' increased experience. I've sat in on meetings at judges' and instructors' seminars where nuances of words were debated for hours. Several years ago, a number of words disappeared from the DCI judges' sheets, to be "inferred" in the new sheets. When I asked for an explanation, I was told it was like the then-current commercial for Prego spaghetti sauce: "It's in there." I said something like, "OK," and tried not to think too hard about that. I was glad I wasn't judging and didn't have to adjust to the new system. Clarifications to the judging system change so often, one can't afford to get too comfortable with the established system. Sometimes, it can change in front of one's eyes. One year we had guards. Then a memo figuratively went out that we now had auxiliaries, along with an explanation of what the difference was between guards and auxiliaries. Now we have guards, or is it auxiliaries? It's like that whole Siam-Thailand-back to Siam-back to Thailand conundrum. How can anyone keep this straight? That's a lot to ask for from amateurs who have lives and jobs outside of the activity. Judging is fairly thankless. Fans think one is incompetent based on how a judge scores their favorite corps. Staffs think one is incompetent or has a grudge based on how a judge scores their corps any given day. It's possible for a judge to get content and in a groove from judging corps from one small region week after week. That's why judges from around the country are brought in during the summer to judge corps in different regions, so that there are no huge surprises when corps move out of their region and are judged by those who are seeing the product with totally fresh eyes and ears. You'll notice that judges don't stick around after a contest is over. If there is a critique, they hurry out of the press box or stadium seat before the scores are announced to get to wherever the critique is held. If there is no critique, they're on their way to their hotel before the audience leaves. If you've ever experienced a critique, you will understand why some judges don't eagerly anticipate these carefree little moments of giving and sharing between judges and staffs. Frankly, some staff members can be downright incredulous -- to even consider the reality that someone thinks the product they've invested months of their lives in creating and bringing to the field might be lacking in some ways. I've seen staff members yell and accuse judges of having a bias against their corps. It's not a pretty sight. Increasingly, staffs have learned to realize that the judges are on their side, that the judges want to be entertained if they're judging general effect or want to be amazed and impressed if they're judging other captions. (The names of these captions keep changing, but in the old days, we used to know them as the execution captions. Sometimes we still think in terms of execution, but we increasingly think in terms of excellence, a kinder and gentler term that in the long run ... when you think about it ... means execution ... sort of ... I think ... but then again, maybe not.) I've observed an increased hand-in-hand respect between the judges and the staffs over the past few years. Each seems to realize how difficult the other's job is, and the adversarial relationship that used to exist has been mostly replaced by a relationship of conurturing and edification. This may sound in tune with the Oprah-era, a sort of "everyone join hands and sing Kum-ba-yah and then we'll re-adjust everyone's chakras" school of thinking, but it is much healthier for the judges, the staffs, the kids and the activity. We have all come to realize that we couldn't exist without one another. Just don't ask a group of judges in jest to tell you the scores of a show before it happens. A couple years ago, I came across a number of judges outside their Indianapolis hotel the night before the DCI Midwestern Championship. I was there to write Web articles for DCI.org. I jokingly quipped, "Hey, if I can tell me tomorrow's scores now, my job will be so much easier tomorrow." Wrong thing to say, as the judges looked at me as if I had invited them to go hang gliding over downtown in the nude and then spontaneously walked off in different directions. Of course, I was embarrassed, but couldn't help but adding, "Well, I'll have to remember that line in case I need to yell 'fire' at a judges' meeting." Judges take what they do very seriously. They can joke about it. I haven't earned that right. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I haven't figured out if judging is an art or a science or both, but it is darned difficult to do right and it is certainly more difficult than the average fan might suspect when they're trying to figure out how their favorite corps got "screwed." As for me, I'm content to write about the activity. It's much easier than committing my name and reputation to a score that might determine what instructors get rehired for the following season. In the meantime, for some reason, I'm hungry for spaghetti. I'm going to go open up a jar of Prego.

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