A Judge’s Guide from the Field to the Press Box

A Judge’s Guide from the Field to the Press Box
Being young doesn’t mean being inexperienced. By taking the right steps, being a judge could be the next stop in your marching journey.

At the age of 21, I received my first payment for judging a field competition, which most likely marked me as one of the youngest marching arts judges in the nation at the time. After my high school marching band and drum corps performance careers, I never would have guessed to be on the adjudicatory side of the activity so soon.

Was it too soon? Some say yes, and others say no. I agree with both. I am sharing part of my story and advice, not from a place of self-praise but rather to help inspire others who may face similar circumstances.

Early Retirement = Early Career

Because I was unable to march during the last three years of my drum corps eligibility, I dove headfirst into instruction and design. Writing drill and choreography allowed me to empathize with those I would later come to evaluate. I suppose you might say that not marching paved the path for me to judge at an early age.

Eventually during the next couple of years, constant exposure to various aspects of the activity as a front ensemble instructor, marching instructor, visual designer, movement tech, and percussion/visual caption head led me to apprentice for a local circuit. After being certified as a judge for that circuit, one thing led to another, and I was able to expand my work to additional organizations a little at a time. Through more field trials, mentorships, networking, instructing, forming interpersonal relationships, and building my resume along the way, I eventually found myself judging in various states.

Personal Challenges

Although cliché, one of the largest obstacles in my way at that young age was myself. The first fallacious assumption I made was thinking that I knew what judging was all about with only a few shows under my belt. I think there is a timespan for most marching members, after graduating or aging out, when we become overconfident with our expertise. I was not exempt.

That illusion led to a handful of very humbling and embarrassing experiences of my own causation, leading to periods of very low self-esteem. In hindsight, those low points told me exactly what I needed to hear. They acted as strong wakeup calls for me to stand back up and get to work.

Another personal challenge was being the youngest judge on every panel during my first few years. I felt a lot of pressure to prove myself among my fellow judges. I felt others were less likely to give me the benefit of the doubt during discussions, score review, and critique, due to my age. This stress, combined with occasional side remarks about my age, led me to second guess myself every now and then.

Younger judges should be information sponges but also show that they can bring value to the organization and serve its stakeholders. Although additional years of age can bring more years of insight, I feel an adjudicator’s eligibility should be based on his or her ability to carry out the job at an exceptional level according to the sheets, no matter the age. I’m only where I am today because I started so early, and everyone has to start somewhere!

Could I and those receiving tapes on the other end have benefited from waiting a couple more years? Absolutely. On the flip side, here I am now, serving students and staff a few years earlier than I would have otherwise—with many years to grow.

I worked hard to get to where I am now, but I still have much to learn. I’m grateful to all of my instructors, peers, and mentors for their guidance along the way. I don’t regret beginning my judging career when I did. It wasn’t the easiest road to take, but I continue to love every second of being at the destination.

Advice for Aspiring Judges

1. Expand Your KSA’s (knowledge, skills, and abilities). Start by instructing, then practice writing drill even if no one will use it. Attempt to teach both small and large bands. Cross-training in other captions that aren’t your forte and familiarizing yourself with how they operate can prove invaluable. For example, try sitting in on a couple of color guard rehearsals or a battery sectional.

The more tools that you have in your toolbox, the more diverse the feedback you can bring to your commentary. Take a trip to an art museum to analyze color palettes and become comfortable with abstractness, observe staging used in theater and plays, listen to a new genre of music, take a dance class, or watch a foreign film.

On top of that, do whatever you need to do to solidify your musical competency, regardless of the caption you wish to work in. Music is the foundation upon which the marching arts is built. Check out areas such as indoor winds, indoor percussion, winter guard, street percussion, drum corps, parades, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, etc., that you might be unfamiliar with. As judges, increasing our range of experiences provides us with a wider perspective to pull from when viewing groups.

2. Be Proactive. Depending on how much experience you have and your age, opportunity won’t always come knocking. Take it upon yourself to get where you want to be. More and more resources in terms of judges’ training and education can be found online. Although the Marching Roundtable Judges Academy is no longer operating, the site still offers hundreds of podcasts filled with great information. Additionally, there is Marching Arts Education, multiple wgiCertify courses, and social networking groups/forums to get advice from experienced staff and judges from around the world. Research local circuits, their prerequisites to judging, and get in contact. It’s never too early to start training. Be able to market yourself with confidence!

And if you ever suspect being treated differently because of your age, I find it best to let your work speak for itself rather than let organizational politics get in the way of your progress.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Fail. Judges in training will most likely go through multiple field trials or apprenticeships under a mentor before being certified, especially at a younger age. You will make mistakes. Sometimes your numbers will be extremely off compared to everyone else’s, or you may freeze up while making a tape. Don’t get discouraged when times become difficult or by the length of the road ahead. Errors are a part of learning, so take advantage of the opportunity to make mistakes while you can.

Hold true to your honest judgment when rating and ranking groups; take a risk! The further along you go in your journey, the more that you will discover to learn. The only time you will truly fail is if you give up on your dream altogether.

Always be humble and hungry to grow as an adjudicator, no matter your age. View your life’s course as a never-ending process of ongoing improvement even when you reach your goal. You can learn as much from the ensembles you judge as they can learn from you. Remember to welcome all feedback as a contribution toward your professional development and embrace giving back to the activity that gave so much to you.

About the Author

Ryan R.J. Lee is an active instructor, adjudicator, and drill designer from Sacramento, California. A graduate from C.K. McClatchy High School and California State University, Sacramento, Ryan has experience working with more than 30 programs at the middle school, high school, collegiate, and independent levels. Although primarily a percussionist, he marched trumpet, baritone, and euphonium with the Mandarins Drum and Bugle Corps. He currently judges in the visual and percussion captions for several local, regional, state and national competitive circuits.

Photo courtesy of Ryan R.J. Lee (center) with two former students from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California, who were competing at the Northern California Band Association Indoor Championships in 2018.

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