adjudicating 101

Written By Shannon Coates

On 11th February 2018

one pesky issue you will inevitably encounter when adjudicating … and how to not piss off the entire room as you handle it

I pretty-much love adjudicating almost as much as I love teaching. Seriously, what’s not to love? Singers of all ages and stages performing their hearts out, excitement of not knowing what you’re going to hear next (I actually LOVE this part the most; I mean, IT COULD BE THE NEXT PAVAROTTI UP THERE! (what? IT COULD)), the chance to encourage young singers and support other teachers, and, of course, the opportunity to run your own little comedy show for a captive audience while you do all the other things (okay. yeah. I might love that part the most).

Cat, Feline, Animal, Domestic Animal

Staring-into-your-soul-grey-tabby cat would like you to know that, contrary to what I just wrote in the opening paragraph, IT IS NOT ALL SUNSHINE AND ROSES OUT THERE IN ADJUDICATING LAND.

Staring-into-your-soul-grey-tabby cat is absolutely correct on this point. There are a few sticky situations that come up when adjudicating … And I’m here to help you not make enemies of the people who hired you to adjudicate (or the singers, and/or their parents, and/or their teachers), while still doing the job they hired you to do.

sticky thing the first*: inappropriate repertoire choices

Domestic, Cat, Little, Cute, Kitten

I-did-nothing-wrong-ginger-tabby kitten doesn’t realize that she’s too young to read Stephen King’s The Shining, because, even though it may be great literature and even though *technically* she can read all of the words in the book and understand what they mean? She is not emotionally mature enough to handle the subject matter and will be scarred by it for the rest of her life. [Not that I am speaking from experience with a certain set of Freddy Krueger movies that I may or may not have watched at a birthday party in eighth grade. THANKS A LOT EIGHTH GRADE FRIEND]

So, yes. You will encounter a whole lot of inappropriate repertoire choices at singing festivals. It’s just … a thing. And – I GET IT – we all have that one student (especially when we’re starting out) that we make little deals with against our better judgement: I’ll let you, dear ten-year-old student, sing “Let It Go,” even though it’s written for a pro adult belter to sing. AND IN EXCHANGE, YOU WILL SING A LOVELY LITTLE FRENCH FOLK SONG FROM THE RCM LEVEL 2 LIST. YES YOU WILL.** Ahem.

But, understanding WHY these things happen doesn’t negate the fact that it’s the adjudicator’s job to give constructive feedback about the performance … and whether the repertoire is working for the singer is part of that feedback.

There are a lot of ways that repertoire can be inappropriate for a singer (White teenager dressed in tennis gear singing “Summertime”, anyone? yeah. I saw that. Or how about the eight-year-old dressed in full sequins, doing a Fosse-inspired dance routine to “The Gospel Train”? yeah. I saw that too. I’ve also seen young teens doing “All That Jazz” which: your moves aren’t sexy enough but PLEASE DON’T BE SEXIER; YOU’RE FOURTEEN. #SOAWKWARDFOREVERYONE), but right here and now, let’s just focus on the kind of inappropriate that is encapsulated by anyone under sixteen singing anything written for the adult voice. And what to say in response.

Kittens, Cat, Cat Puppy, Rush

Five tabby-kittens-of-varying-colour-schemes would like to know WHY? WHY CAN’T THEY SING “SOMEONE LIKE YOU”?!?  THEY LOVE THE TUNE AND THEY CAN SING ALL OF THE NOTES.

Okay friends, three reasons anyone under sixteen likely shouldn’t sing rep written for adults:


The obvious one: the actual song is written for the actual adult voice. This applies to music theatre, pop, rock, classical, and pretty-much ANY STYLE YOU CAN THINK OF. And because young singers do not have the physical coordination and anatomical development of an adult, they will not be able to sing a song written for adults and sound like an adult. And this can lead to all kinds of annoyingly-difficult-to-correct tension patterns and vocal production issues. Not to mention: it just sounds wrong.  (The number of times I’ve heard / read people state that Jackie Evancho sounded “just like a real opera singer” when she performed in America’s Got Talent …? Honey: NO REAL OPERA SINGER SOUNDS LIKE THAT. AND IF THEY DID? THEY WOULD NOT HAVE A CAREER. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT A CHILD WITH A CHILD’S PHYSIOLOGY AND MOTOR COORDINATION WHO IS TRYING TO SOUND LIKE AN ADULT OPERA SINGER SOUNDS LIKE AND NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR THAT AT THE OPERA HOUSE.)


It’s just plain awkward when young singers sing about experiences that they are physically too young to have had. If you are fourteen years old (AND I KNOW THAT YOU ARE FOURTEEN YEARS OLD BECAUSE YOU ARE ENTERED IN THE “14 AND UNDER” CLASS AT THE FESTIVAL), I do not believe you when you tell me that the man you married had an affair and then told the public about it so now you are burning all of your correspondence and hoping that your husband burns too. (That’s “Burn”, from Hamilton … in case you were wondering***.)  On a purely physical level (and leaving aside point #1, above), you do not look like a woman who has been married, much less married long enough for your husband to have had an affair and to have gone public with that affair. I mean, when did you even get married? AT EIGHT YEARS OLD?


And on an experiential level, dear fourteen-year-old, I HOPE you do not have anything in your life from which you can draw to present mature subject matter with integrity. There are reasons (I mean, beside point #1) that only my adult students sing “Climb Every Mountain”. Are there any lyrics in this song that might be objectionable for a young singer to perform? Obviously not; this is super-dooper wholesome Rodgers and Hammerstein, we’re talking about! However, it feels pretty awkward taking life-advice from a twelve-year-old, #amiright?

Cat, Cute, Mammal, Animal, Fluffy

Super-philosophical-grey-tuxedo kitten gets it, but would like me to get to the part about how to talk about this without ANGERING ALL THE PEOPLE the next time he adjudicates.


Right! Here are the basic scripts I use pretty regularly (feel free to commandeer for your own needs):

ON THE PAGE: Great song! Be sure to continue exploring the repertoire written for your age. Have you looked at [insert name of appropriate rep that is similar in style or message or character] yet?
IN PERSON: I can see why you love this song – I do too! Are there other songs you’re working on that have a similar style [message | feeling | character, etc.]? I wonder if you’ve looked at [INSERT SONG] before? The problem with singing songs that are written for older singers now is that you have a limited window of time to sing the songs that are written for your current age. You know what song I WISH I could perform? “Naughty” from Matilda. But I don’t get to because I am too old. YOU still have time to sing this rep. But in five years? You won’t be able to.  You’ve got a solid thirty years (if not more!) of being able to sing “History of Wrong Guys” but the rep that’s written for the young voice? Very limited time. So don’t miss out on the awesome rep that is written JUST FOR YOU!

ON THE PAGE: The subject matter may be a little mature for this young singer but sung today with great enthusiasm [passion | engagement | feeling]!
IN PERSON: Your love for this song is so evident and you already have a great start on the emotional commitment required to present it with integrity. So … you’ve done a lot of things for love in your life, have you? [Referring here to “What I Did For Love” … and delivered with a HUGE GRIN ON YOUR FACE] At fifteen years old, you’ve lived long enough to be able to look back on your love life and say that you didn’t regret what you did? WELL THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT! Seriously though; see where I’m going with this? I love the things you’re working on in the song, now see if you can find those things in a song that you can relate to even more immediately.

French Bulldog, Summer, Smile, Joy

SEE HOW HAPPY THIS FRENCH BULLDOG IS TO DELIVER THE NEWS THAT THIS STUDENT IS SINGING INAPPROPRIATE REPERTOIRE!? THAT IS THE FACE YOU CAN USE, TOO! (There are no pictures of cats with this face because cats say everything with disdain (and also: EFF YOU). AND THAT IS NOT THE LOOK WE ARE GOING FOR AS ADJUDICATORS. (Although, I can’t control what’s happening on your inside face.))

ON THE PAGE: What a [poised | elegant | enthusiastic | engaged] delivery of this song’s message! Be sure to come back to this song in a few years when you have greater depth of experience to draw on to make this performance even more impressive.
IN PERSON: What a wonderful song choice; I can see that you connect with the meaning of the text and are invested in communicating it. Pinky-swear with me that you will sing this song again in ten years and then in twenty years and again in thirty years. I guarantee that as you gain life experience, you will find greater and greater depths of meaning in this song and that those greater depths will propel what is now an engaging performance to absolute KILLER performances that will touch our very souls.


You can adjudicate your face off … I can help.

ps soooo …. there’s a lot of ALL CAPS USAGE in this post. I’m Canadian so I’m going to apologize for that. BUT I’m also going to mention that I’m not actually yelling.  I’M JUST REALLY REALLY PASSIONATE ABOUT THIS STUFF. #werestillokayright?

pps I wrote an adjudicators’ cheat sheet a while ago and I feel like … if you made it through the madness that is this entire post, AND THE POSTSCRIPTS? THIS IS YOUR REWARD. (I mean, if you want it. #nopressure)

* There are many sticky things in adjudicating land. Like, at least five that I can think of off the top of my head. But I’m saving those for other blogs. Because I wouldn’t want to run out of material, #amiright?

** Okay. I don’t actually talk to my students this way. (I mean, in my head, maybe.)

*** AS IF any of the voice teachers reading this blog don’t know what song and/or musical I’m referring to here. #butjustincase


  1. Althea Di Gregorio

    Hi Sharon
    so great to read your ‘blog’, ‘notes’ on adjudicating! thank you…we met several years ago at Kiwanis Fraser Valley when you were adjudicating (brilliantly, I might add) some of my students…as parents and teachers, we’ve all experienced ‘those’ adjudicators who bring nothing new to the table – BUT NOT YOU!!! your comments and how you handled sharing them and addressing the ‘kids’ were so valuable and well received…I will remember your style and caring and educating when I am adjudicating Popular Voice in the upcoming Kelowna Kiwanis Music Festival…THANK YOU!!!

    • Shannon Coates

      SO KIND! Thank you Althea!! And have FUN adjudicating!!

    • Althea Di Gregorio

      well aren’t I hilarious! SHARON – REALLY!!! sorry Shannon – I have SUCH disdain for typos, and then to mis-address you…I know you have a forgiving nature!

      • Shannon Coates

        HA!! no problem at all Aretha! <3

  2. Kyra

    You are hilarious. I hope my students get you as an adjudicator. Thanks for the wonderful ideas! Xo

    • Shannon Coates

      Awwww … sure thing!

  3. Sara @ Sara's Music Studio

    There is so much goodness in this post. Looking forward to more!! Or should I say, I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO MORE! #notyellingjustpassionate

  4. Cassandra Bourne

    Brava Shannon! Great article. Thanks for sharing!!

    • Shannon Coates

      Glad you enjoyed it, Cassandra!

  5. Melissa

    Bahahahahaaaaa ??? dying of the hilarity over here!

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