Monday, November 3, 2014

On Being A Judge: The Facts

Yesterday, I had the honor of judging the Oklahoma State Championships. This is a show I've been a part of now for the past three years and each year, I learn a little bit more about myself as a judge and as a person. I'm writing this today as a shout out to all of my judge friends and colleagues, who every weekend, every season, make a choice to step behind an audio recorder and  make judgments on the hard work and sweat of the young people of our activity.

For the record, I am not one of the judges that do the activity year round. It's a choice I've made to keep a bit of sanity in a life that sometimes is filled with chaos. I go heavy in the winter, spend my summer drinking sangria at the beach, and in the fall try to find a good mix between real life and marching band. It's my system and it works for me. Other people I know are weekend warriors only and others are year round explorers of football fields and gym floors. Some are just starting out and others have been judging the marching arts for decades. Many are national based, while others are national hopefuls. Many are local. They are professionals of music and dance and life long lovers of the activity. All of them, regardless of their path, are caring individuals hoping to give something back to an activity that gave so much to them.

Yesterday after the show, a long day spent outside in wind and frigid temperatures, the judging panel was standing in the parking lot waiting for our rides back to the hotel. It was late and we were tired. While standing there, our attention got drawn to the props of a very prominent program in the activity and we wanted to take a closer look.

"How was it made? How much did they spend? What do those props mean anyway? Can I get my picture with my head in one of them? O.K. probably not. That might me taking it a bit far."

While looking at the props, a parent of the program came up to me and asked if we were judges. He thanked us and was grateful for our hard work. As visceral of a response than I've had in a while, I shook his hand and said, "Are you kidding! It was an honor to judge these kids!"

The interesting part and something many people don't realize, is that when it comes to judges, we are just as much in awe of an activity that year after year continues to push the creative envelope, as the audience members who pay hard earned money to watch this version of entertainment.

I've heard a lot of myths about judges over the years. Some are based in possible reality, others just simply based on emotion. In this world of the marching arts, a subjective sport and one fraught with potential missteps, I've learned a few absolutes about the life of a judge.

FACT 1: They Have The Highest Respect For The Kids And Staff

All them! Not just the great programs, but all of them. Every judge I have ever known has the deepest respect for anyone who has the guts to step out in front of an audience for judgment and critique and show months of work, sweat, and tears. The reality is that judges who don' t have an honest and internal respect for the programs, don't make it very far. Sure, we have some in the pageantry arts that have forgotten what it's like to spend a week at band camp for 12 hours a day, trying to teach freshmen what a down beat is. Some of them, in fact most of them, couldn't do some of the work that the kids are attempting. Sometimes I judge a colorguard and see a phrase that catches me off guard and in my brain I'm thinking, "WTF was that! I mean seriously. Did they just levitate a girl while spinning sabres with their eyelashes?" Openly, I'm trying to critically analyze whatever it is I just saw. Internally I'm thinking, "Wow. Just wow!"

Sometimes, the smallest team can bring a tear to our eyes just because the freshman who has dropped the solo toss all season, finally caught it and the look on her face is all we needed to bring us to our proverbial knees.

FACT 2: Some Are Great, Some Are Good, And Some...Not So Much

Yep. It's true. Some judges are fantastic, while some are not. It's just like any profession out there. Some are great, some are good, and some...not so much. As an instructor in this activity, I sometimes like the lesser known judge far better than the big name. The lesser known judge seems to have a vernacular I relate better to. That's me, though. Some people only like that national folks. In this activity, we often times (a lot actually) get caught up in the "who" vs. the "what." There have been days, where I listen to the commentary of a judge and I'm like, "What language are they speaking! Is this English?"

"As I look over at the stage left flags, my eye is drawn to the propulsion backfire of the neuroplasticity in the sensory input patterns."

Some know exactly what they are talking about, but speak so technically the average person can't possibly understand them. Sometimes I hear a tape and wonder if the judge was actually watching my show. Some judges are ineffective because their tone seems condescending. Others simply don't have the experience as judges or expertise as instructors to help me take my show to the next level. Some are great, but their perspective is off, because they don't see the same level of groups often enough to offer a comprehensive view. In the reality of the activity, there are some judges who are dated; lost in a different time. Some haven't stepped foot in a competition arena for over a decade. Most can't do what the kids are being asked to do. Some are so arrogant that their information gets discounted in their smugness and false presentation of their name. However, it doesn't make them wrong. It might make them the person you just don't like to see on a panel, but really need to see on a panel.

The mistake many instructors make is discounting the feedback from the lesser known judge or giving to much value to the national name when it comes to internalizing the information. It's difficult to distinguish the good from the bad, but my belief is that every one of them offers something of value. Even if all they do is catch the one kid in the back of the field whose shoulder orientation is distorting the form; a performer you've never paid attention to, then that piece of information is enough to warrant your time.

FACT 3: It Is Stressful

For me, it starts on Thursday night when I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to wear all weekend, how I'm going to duck out of work early to catch a flight, all while helping my son with his homework. Throughout the week of the show, I review the caption I'll be judging, the teams in attendance and the pertinent information such as flight schedule and show times. It's more than that, though. A good judge will tell you that as a human being they feel some level of stress going into a show, just in the idea of putting the right numbers down, getting the teams in the correct places, and making sure the information is accurate, positive, and critical. I would be lying if I said that I didn't get stressed out when I see some unit at the show that medaled at nationals the year before. "What am I going to tell them?" "Why do they want my information?" I once knew a judge that threw up before judging WGI finals, in just the thought of screwing it up.

When it's all over, the show doesn't really end for a judge, any more than it ends for the unit being judged. There are emails as to the "Why?" "Why did you put us 5th instead of 3rd?"

"What did you mean when you said that you didn't understand how the girl levitating and spinning a sabre with her eyelashes didn't make any sense in a show about the political dominance of the blob fish?"

We fuss over recaps after it's over, hoping beyond hope that we weren't the lone judge that kept a team out of finals. We are given the unwritten instructions that Box 1 and 5 are off limits and secretly wonder why in the hell those boxes actually exist to begin with.

Then there is critique.

"Oh dear God," we think. "I gave the super duper wonder team and collector of gold medals THREE TENTHS LOWER THAN THEY GOT THREE WEEKS AGO! THEY WILL CHOP MY HEAD OFF! I WILL NEVER JUDGE AGAIN!"

In reality, things usually turn out fine. No one ends up decapitated and cocktails are had by all after show time, but the stress we put ourselves under is real and often terrifying. The catch 22 of judging is that we are all judges. Every last one of us. The instructors judge the judges, while the judges judge the instructors. We are all judges in this world of pageantry and the stress is shared equally.

FACT 4: It Is Exhausting

As I sit in the floor here in the Dallas airport, Sunday morning, recovering from a 12 hour day of judging on this three hour layover, my body is screaming at me to slow down and grow old like a good little middle age mom should do. I missed Halloween with my son, to be on a plane headed to Tulsa. I felt guilty...very guilty. Before I started judging about 12 years ago, I use to be the person that said, "I don't think the judges have any idea what it's like for performers anymore."

That statement was lost in arrogance. The physical and mental aspect of being a judge is often times over looked as many people see a group of people sitting on their rumps talking into recorders, acting as supreme beings of pageantry. The mental toll of numbers management, emotional investment of the commentary and physical toll of travel can wipe a person out until Wednesday of the following week. I have never met a judge who didn't take their job seriously and most as seriously as the unit directors take theirs.

FACT 5: We Still Have A Job To Do As Part Of The Game

There are 6 major stakeholders that make the pageantry world go round:

Performer, Instructional Staff, Support, Governing Bodies that set the rules and plan the shows, Paid Audience Member, and Judge.

One simply can't exist without the other and we can't discount any one part of the formula, yet we do it all the time. We as designers forget that sometimes the shows lack any connection to the audience, thus pushing away the financial and emotional aspects of the activity. Sometimes our governing bodies forget that their job is more than just to make money and host a good show, as some have lost the mission and original vision of the activity. Sometimes judges forget that their job is to not just engage in numbers management, but to also foster that first year band director with only 35 performers. Sometimes the audience forgets that their job is to cheer and clap, regardless of whose team is on the field. One does not work without the other and is a combined effort that must work in harmony with the other.

The judge has a job to do. They must pick a winner and pick a loser. Someone will walk away with a trophy and someone will just walk away. They must be fair. They must be knowledgeable. They must be humble. The reality and fact of this statement is that most are. All of them at some point in time have sat on the other side of the table and walked away without the trophy. They know what it's like to lose and their personal experience with that disappointment helps guide their hand when they know there is a choice to make between someone who will go on and someone who will go home.

I've been so lucky in this activity to sit on both sides of the table. I've learned to humble myself in the hard work of the performers and I sit in awe at the new designs that test the limits of our imaginations. I often question my relevance and wonder if my offerings of information will be useful to the units I judge. As a judge, you can go all season and never hear how teams have used your information, if they used it at all. If we do hear anything, it's usually for a clarification on a comment or a complaint on a score. There is no winning judge and we don't walk away with a score. So my advice. When you hear a comment that you found insightful, useful or helpful, drop a quick note to the judge and thank them. If you enjoyed how they spoke directly to a part of the show no one else had, then tell the show sponsor so you see that judge again. When you find that someone has created a tape that the kids can listen to and in turn you can respond in rehearsal with, then send them an email. You would be surprised how incredibly happy it will make them.