Student adjudicators: Mock piano competition hones student skills [Printables]

Even if your students are experienced in piano competitions and music festivals, plan a performance class or group lesson that simulates the competition atmosphere. There are many advantages to adding this lesson format to your schedule. 

Piano teachers must balance many factors. One is insuring our students know what to expect in competition and that they’re ready to perform. Another is the basic need to balance our schedules when students miss lessons due to weather or illness and need make-up lessons. At times we find ourselves in the situation when many students need lessons to be rescheduled (if there is a snow day, for example) but we don’t have the time to work so many extra lessons into our already-busy week. 

The answer to both, competition preparation and rescheduling missed lessons, is to plan a performance group class that recreates the atmosphere of a piano competition. By scheduling several students at once, you consolidate the time it takes to make up missed time, and you give your students a unique opportunity to prepare for an upcoming performance. The interesting thing about this workshop format is that it makes it possible to schedule students of different levels at the same time.

Feel free to adapt the following details to the needs of your own students, but here is a template for a lesson plan to get you started. 

Prior to the lesson, plan a suggested piece or two for each student to play, music you feel they can play well enough for a performance class. It may even be a piece that you are preparing for festival or competition, though the student will learn about the experience in principle with the performance of any prepared piece. 

Lesson Part I: The Jelly Bean Gallery

Preparation. What do you like about playing in the music festival/competition? How can you prepare? What should you do the night before? What should you not do the night before? What can you do the ‘day of’ to help you focus?

Encourage your students to offer their thoughts on these questions for discussion. If you have a mixed group of levels and some students are new to piano competitions, the students who have experience can help explain things to help them know what to expect. 

To encourage participation, you could put out a jam jar with each student’s name on it (regardless of the age of the student), and for each comment, drop a jelly bean or Skittle in their jar, to be bagged up and sent home with them at the end of the lesson. With jelly beans on the line, students will be more likely to speak up. That’s why this portion of the lesson is called The Jelly Bean Gallery. 

Students earn a jelly bean or Skittle for each contribution to the discussion.

You will hope to hear some thoughts on piano competitions and music festivals that sound like this: 

  • It gives us a reason to polish a piece and play our very best.
  • We get to hear other high-level performances. 
  • We receive remarks on our playing that will help us develop as musicians.
  • We should practice regularly at home and come regularly to lessons. 
  • We could pretend to perform at home, play at church or in recital or for fellow students at workshops like this one.
  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before, don’t stay up late.
  • The day of, eat a good breakfast.
  • Play slow run-throughs, but don’t play the piece at speed (save our first a tempo performance for the competition).
  • Arrive early at the hall so we can be relaxed.

Waiting Your Turn. Where do performers sit? What is it like while you wait before and after your performance? If someone else plays the same piece as you, what do you think? Who is the Adjudicator? What kinds of things do you think the Adjudicator might say?

Performing. (The following questions may be asked, but the students who answer may also wish to demonstrate, with all students invited to try.) How do you approach the piano? What kind of performance piano will there be? What kinds of things should you think about before you play? What happens if you make a mistake? How do you finish the piece with a professional touch? How do you bow at the end?

These discussions should only take a couple of minutes total, before getting to the real fun of the lesson when students get to try their hands at adjudicating.

Lesson Part II: Adjudicators Aplenty

Distribute the Student Adjudication Sheets, which can be printed for free from my Printables section, and cut in two. Each student adjudicator will complete a half-page form for each performer. 

Review the sections of the adjudication sheets and talk about positive feedback. Point out some of the suggested words from the Word Bank that might help them think of things to write. Talk about listening closely to the performance. Ask your students to listen for dynamics, expression, staccato, legato, etc., and think about musical interpretation.

One by one your students will perform, going through the formalities of competition, like going to the piano when their name is called, moving the bench as they sit, thinking before they play and bowing at the end. 

As one student performs, the others will adjudicate.  Give time for the adjudicators to finish writing their thoughts, and then have a group discussion on some of the things they wrote. You, as the teacher, may wish to fill in a form, too, because often your words will be very encouraging to your students.

The first section is, “Something I liked about your performance was…” This starts the commentary off on a positive note. Students are very smart in this section, finding insightful things to say about each other’s playing. This is followed by, “Something to work on…” and it is always very interesting to hear the thoughtful and encouraging comments students come up with. “Stage presence…” is also fascinating, for students learn to coach each other to improve their stage deportment. (And yes, I use the word ‘deportment,’ for it is a nice stately word that enriches my students’ vocabularies with a word fitting the formal setting of a piano competition.) 

At the conclusion of the lesson, staple the adjudication sheets for each student into their dictation books. It’s a sweet little package of peer feedback, complete with their fellow student adjudicators’ handwriting and signatures. 

Bella’s comments on Clara’s performance.

By the conclusion of this performance class, students will have had a role-playing experience both as performers and adjudicators. The exercise of writing thoughts on their peers’ playing helps attune them to the spirit of piano competitions. First, to want their friends to play well, and then to find the words to encourage them to continue playing and improving. 

Whether or not you use this type of class to make up missed lesson time, you will have offered your students a unique lesson in which they are the ones working hard to teach each other. It can be a moment of pride for you as you watch your students put into practice all the teaching you’ve done. 

To follow up on this class, you may also wish to send them home with the Home Adjudication Kit, which can be printed from my Printables section and cut in two, which tasks your students to ask two individuals to listen to them perform and write comments. Through repeated experiences like this, students will become accustomed to performing and will come to understand the value of receiving feedback from others. 

By the time the real music festival or piano competition comes along, your students will understand the role of the adjudicator, will have received several rounds of feedback from different people, and will be ready for the day. These steps will help build their inner confidence to have good stage presence and for polished performances. 

Student after her Music Festival performance.

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