this brave new world of music festival adjudicating

I love adjudicating. I love the travel; the chance to evaluate the results of keen and dedicated work by students and teachers; the opportunity to say encouraging things (along with perhaps a few corny jokes); watch proud parents; get to know the kids who play more than once; find the best coffee in town; check out the local bookstore; agonize over award choices; breathe the spring air (it’s almost always spring); explore a town that’s new to me, or one I’ve been to many times before.

I just finished adjudicating, from home, a very fine music festival in south-eastern BC. It was a rather different experience, as you can see. But minus the coffee shops and the evening walks (often snatched from a crazy schedule) a couple of things remained the same.

The kids were great. I couldn’t see them as well as I would have in person — I couldn’t watch them walk to the piano, or notice who welcomed them back to their seats afterwards. I couldn’t enjoy the buzz of the audience, or the kibitzing with my secretary. But the dedication that went into their performances was clear; and, behind the scenes, the determination of their teachers, the encouragement of their parents and friends. They still dressed up to perform. Many of them still bowed after they played.

When I recorded my video adjudications, I couldn’t adjust what I said based on the expression on their faces. I couldn’t ask them questions. But I could pretend they were there in front of me. Though I probably won’t find out what they thought of it all, perhaps “being in the Festival” was one kind-of-normal thing in a difficult year.

Adjudicating another competition a few months ago, I had the opportunity of brief Zoom meetings with each performer afterwards. Then too, I was moved by their dedication, and the directness of their response when I asked “how are you doing?” Sometimes it was clear that “not good” was the answer.

It’s our young people who may have suffered most from this calamity, a year old and still not done. May those of us who can, find ways to help them get their lives back.

all i really need to know i learned at the music festival*

When I was a young piano student, spring was always Music Festival time. “Everything memorized by Christmas” was the rule; then the subsequent three months were a crescendo of practising, extra lessons, and anxiety. Students, teachers, parents were all involved, to the extent that ‘life after the Festival’ sometimes seemed to be a mirage.

One of the greatest humiliations you could suffer was to be ‘pulled’ from your Festival class by your teacher, for lack of preparation — or, as in the case of a fellow student of mine, because you went skiing the weekend before the Festival, instead of staying home to practise. Even the threat of being ‘pulled’ was enough to inspire renewed commitment in those last stages of polishing your pieces. Competition was intense. My piano teacher took tranquilizers before heading off to listen to the Festival classes. On the way to the Festival, one parent — trying to relieve the tension, of course — wondered whether they could arrange to break another kid’s fingers. Everyone laughed.

But it was also the era of the great adjudicators: true piano pedagogues such as Phyllis Schuldt, Sandra Munn, Boris Roubakine, and especially Robin Wood. It would be standing room only when Dr. Wood got up to adjudicate.

Fortunately, music festivals in recent years have begun to downplay the stress-making aspects. We refer to players as ‘performers,’ rather than ‘contestants.’ The adjudicator doesn’t ring a bell when it’s time for you to start playing. Marks are not usually announced any more, and class placings have become gold and silver instead of first and second. We want to honour excellence while still recognizing everyone’s personal achievements — and that’s a good thing.

Last fall, I was delighted to be asked to adjudicate — remotely, of course — the British Columbia Registered Music Teachers’ annual competition. Aside from the utter enjoyment of hearing such fine playing, the result of much dedicated teaching and learning, it gave me an opportunity to think again of my philosophy of piano-playing, and of competitions. Here’s some of what I wrote:

I want to congratulate, first, all of the performers. You were each worthy to be chosen by your local BCRMTA chapter, and all of you gave performances that impressed me with your technical skill and preparation, and moved me with your musical interpretations. I was impressed, too, by the quality of the videos you submitted. Knowing how to use technology to capture your performances has always been important, but now more than ever. I also congratulate your teachers, for the hours of expert guidance and never-ending encouragement they give to you; as well as your families, your friends — all those who help you find the time to practise, and who support you when you need it most.

I was glad to see, reading your biographies, that many of you have a wide range of activities beyond playing the piano. We pianists can be a solitary lot, if we’re not careful, and you are all doing well in making sure that, although piano is an important part of your lives, it’s not the only important thing. Several of you are finding creative ways to share your music with others, and to explore interests beyond music, too. Bravo for your imagination, your energy and your enthusiasm.

The results of a competition are always just a snapshot of one moment in your musical careers. In any contest, if you don’t win the award you were trying for, know that there are always more opportunities, should you choose to take them. And of course, in the long run, it is the joy that music brings to ourselves and others which is most important, not whether we have won first place.

Thanks again for including me in your music-making. Most of all, I hope that I am able to hear you in person sometime.”

Dr. Jamie Syer – Bergen, Alberta
*with apologies to Robert Fulghum

words about music

Maybe we musicians are just too particular, but have you noticed, as I have, that even the best writers of fiction have trouble creating believable prose about music and musicians? Especially about classical musicians? Perhaps because we have our own ‘lingo’ which is easy to get just a little bit wrong. Or maybe it’s because the world of the classical musician is difficult to translate, by someone who’s not part of it.

Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions. One of the best writers about music (and musicians) is the Canadian author Robertson Davies. In his professional life he was deeply involved in the world of music (he wrote an opera libretto, among other musical projects); and when music is a big part of his novels, he makes things utterly believable. The two outstanding examples are A Mixture of Frailties and The Lyre of Orpheus.

Vikram Seth gets a B+ from me for An Equal Music. He produces a compelling description of the life of a professional violinist; though I find the premise of a pianist losing her hearing but still able to successfully perform Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet a little sketchy.

If you want to combine a fascinating musical story and outstanding historical fiction, you can’t do better than Music & Silence by Rose Tremain.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann contains a wonderful passage where the character of Wendell Kretschmar gives an inspired lecture on Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111. I confess to having been inspired by this fictional creation to improve my own lectures! And E. M. Forster’s description in Howard’s End of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony stays in your mind for a long time: “the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end…”

Among more recent authors to have successfully tackled the “music and musicians” quandary , I must commend Erin Frances Fisher: a pianist herself, a former student of mine and then a colleague at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Read “Da Capo al Fine” in her remarkable 2018 collection That Tiny Life — and then read all her other stories, too.

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blog posts Jamie

practising beethoven with a dog in the house

waiting for Beethoven

You know the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

We musicians have a strange relationship with practising: we know it has to be done, but we develop a wide range of strategies not to do it. Procrastination is one of the most effective, but anxiety over the fast-approaching performance is usually sufficient to overcome the inertia. Strangely, the gift of an empty day with ‘nothing to do but practise’ is sometimes less productive than a concentrated hour or so snatched from a busy schedule.

Gary Graffman, the concert pianist, wrote a memoir called I Really Should be Practicing. I recently saw a flow chart posted near a music studio— a sort of list of activity choices. No matter what you chose, the result was the same: “Go practise.” Artur Rubenstein was well known for choosing partying over practising; and Fritz Kreisler had to be ‘encouraged’ by his wife and friends to open his violin case. He sometimes said he’d check, shortly before a concert, to make sure it still had four strings on it. Jascha Heifetz was more disciplined: “If I don’t practise for a day, I notice; two days, the critics notice; three days, everybody notices.”

I have a partner in my practising: our resident Border collie. At first he seemed only to notice violin music, but now he’s expanding his repertoire. Just about any music, but particularly Beethoven, provokes not only howling, but warbling, keening and vocalizing of impressive range. I can hear him warming up ahead of his favourite passages.

It doesn’t stop me from practising, and I sometimes feel a responsibility to keep both of us in shape. For more about dogs and Beethoven, see Billy Collins’ hilarious poem Another Reason I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House.


I’m glad you’re here.

This site is a place for me to share some things I know about playing and teaching classical piano. And a place for me to work through things I’m still learning, too — because this business of piano playing is never ‘finished.’

My intention is that the videos, blog posts, and whatever else shows up here is useful not only for piano students, but also for piano teachers. In fact the idea of helping teachers through the thickets of classical piano is something I’ve been involved in for quite awhile: ever since I was in charge of the “Teacher Training” program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. That program was begun by two peerless teachers: Winifred and Robin Wood. I had the great privilege of working as a colleague with Winifred Wood during my eight years in Victoria.

I’ve been influenced by many other fine teachers, as well. And although we all pass on to our students the best of what our teachers have given us, we also pass on ourselves; each of us is unique as a teacher.

Even if we consider ourselves students, rather than teachers, the idea of being “our own best teacher” is one of the ways towards real progress as a piano player, as a musician. I think that the best is to be some mixture of “student” and “teacher” and the audience I have in mind are piano players who are interested in both — even if our primary, or only, student is ourself.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. You’ll see we’re just getting started, with lots of content still to come. I’m open to your comments and suggestions, too; after all, it’s always nice to know that someone out there is listening.