July 07, 2022

Good, good, very good, excellent, good. Last. The pitfalls of performance positivity.

It’s fashionable these days to stress the positive, and, as usual, competition piping and drumming is no exception.

Not too long ago, scoresheets were often a stream of negative comments dwelling on what were technical niggles or relatively minor hiccups.

A lousy attack – in reality, a tiny part of the performance and not even “musical” – would instantly turn off the light in a small-minded judge’s already dim brain.

We all agreed long ago that judges who latch onto blooters or a bad F or poor intro rolls were taking the easy and lazy way. No one can argue with an objective mistake, so count them gracenotes and the piper who missed the fewest gets the first prize. Easy.

Judging on musical impact and the overall performance is subjective, and we all know that assessing subjectivity and expressing opinion opens up trouble for judges. Liking or disliking something invites an argument. Judges who avoid arguments at all costs really shouldn’t be judging.

Associations have worked to train and retrain judges to accentuate the positive. Reward the good rather than punish the bad.

That’s all fine and good, tra-la-la-la. Everyone’s a winner! You get a trophy! And you get a trophy! And you get a trophy! You’re all great! Isn’t competition piping and drumming splendid!

Well, yes, of course it is, but it’s a lot less splendid when competitors are left confused and dissatisfied.

We recently read another scoresheet that was constant patronization, a litany of compliments. Reading it, one would have thought the band walked the contest since the feedback was 100% positive.

The positive must be balanced with the negative, and constructive criticism accounts for a clear decision.

The trouble was, the band was placed last by the judge. The scoresheet provided no accounting for his judgment. Ultimately, every competitor wants to know how a judge came to their decision. Positive reinforcement is important, but feedback clarity is crucial for a satisfactory competition experience.

The positive must be balanced with the negative, and constructive criticism accounts for a clear decision.

Somehow “criticism” has become a negative word. We often mistake a critic for a naysayer rather than a bearer of credible and fair feedback. There is positive and negative criticism. If we respect a judge for having walked in the competitor’s ghillie brogues and done the business successfully for a long time, criticism of both kinds will be valued and respected.

A judge’s first order of business is to judge. Make decisions and, just as importantly, account for them. That means providing positive and negative feedback so that a band or soloist knows precisely what the judge liked and where they could have been better.

Some judges will say that they aren’t there to give a lesson, but in a way they are. If you had a lesson and the teacher told you you’re just great and wonderful every time, you’d look for a better teacher. Teachers provide constructive positive and negative feedback; judges should, too.

Diatribes of patronizing hunky-dory compliments might make the judge and the competitor’s mom feel better, but the lack of clarity on how a decision was made only leaves the performer confused.

All “good, good, great, good” is nice but in a competition relatively useless. Constructive criticism – positive and negative – is what’s required.

What do you think? As always, you’re invited to use our Comments feature below.



  1. I think that it’s good to have a balance of comments on score sheets. Point out critical issues that need to be addressed so the performer knows what to work on, but also include a few comments on what was done well. Helps with confidence and knowing what areas of playing are working and need to be maintained.



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