Fiddle contests have been a big part of my life over the last 25 years. I have played in more fiddle contests than I can count, have judge plenty of them, and even directed a couple of them.
I will be the first to admit that Fiddle Contests aren’t the end all/be all of playing music, but they are an important part of the fiddling culture, and they are a great excuse to get together an play music with my friends.
Since I have been around fiddle contests for so long, I have had a number of opportunities to help others get contests off the ground. And, if you have ever considered putting on a fiddle contest, I have put this post together for you.
Here are the big things I have learned about putting on a fiddle contest successfully:
Judges are Key
If you don’t have good judges you don’t have a contest. You must hire judges that fiddlers will respect, or you will have trouble getting good fiddlers to show up for your contest. And, your judges represent the standard of integrity that you set for your contest. If you don’t care to hire competent, respectable judges, don’t bother putting on a fiddle contest.
Your judges must be competent.
You generally want the kind of judges who could compete in the contest and place in the top 3. If your judges can’t play the fiddle, you should probably consider getting new judges.
Your judges must be respectable.
Your judges must be honest and above board. The last thing you want is a judge who is rooting for a contestant, and throws the contest. We all have stylistic preferences, but you really don’t want a judge that has a serious stylistic axe to grind. You want judges that will give all of your competitors a fair shake.
Have a diverse panel of judges.
The goal here is to have multiple stylistic preferences on the panel so that there isn’t a bias in one direction. I also always make it a point to hire at least one female judge. There are plenty of qualified women fiddlers out there, and I think that they are still under-represented in contest judging. Girl fiddlers need role models, and there’s no good in being a “good old boys” society. I also recommend hiring judges that are outside of your area. This makes it less likely that they will know the players, and who is “expected” to win by the locals.
Give your judges the final say.
If there is a question on a rule in the contest, the judges need to have the discretion to be able to make a ruling. This is their job. You should include in your rules: “Decisions of the judges are final.”
Swap your judges annually.
It’s a good practice to have new judges every year. This way, if a fiddler thinks that one of the judges scored them unfairly, they know that they have a fresh chance next year with a new panel of judges. There are plenty of competent judges out there, so there is no need to repeat judges any more than once every three years.
Closed or Open Judging: Choose One
One important question that you must answer is whether your will have your judges sequestered, or open to the audience and contestants. There are a number of pros and cons to each of these options, and there’s no “right” answer. You just have to choose the option that works best for you.
Closed Judging Pros:
It decreases the audience perception of bias. If the judges can’t see the contestants, there is less risk of audience members claiming bias in the judging. The reality of the situation is that good judges are often familiar enough with the players and their style of playing and repertoire that they can pick out players by ear, but the audience is unlikely to know this.
It may decrease actual bias. When you see a cute little girl with pigtails and a cowboy outfit playing you are likely to have a different perception than a teenage boy wearing flip flops, shorts, and a t-shirt who happens to be in the same division.
It allows your contest to be Weiser Certified. The national fiddle contest requires closed judging as a stipulation for a contest becoming certified by the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest. Being a certified contest lends a bit of extra credibility to the contest, and supports the National Old Time Fiddlers Association. It also allows your winners free entry into the National Fiddle Contest. Details are available here.
The judges can relax. When you are in a closed judging environment as a judge, you can relax because the audience isn’t watching you. You don’t have to worry about how you look as you are judging. Worrying about appearance can be a distraction as a judge.
Closed Judging Cons:
It costs more money. At a minimum, you have to enclose the judges in a simple enclosure with drapes surrounding them. More likely, the judges are sequestered to their own room or trailer. To do closed judging right, you have to run sound to the judges room. This adds to the cost of your sound system as well.
The judges miss out on seeing physical expression. As a judge it’s nice to see a contestant’s expression as they play. You can see how much they are enjoying the music, and their technique and posture. With closed judging, you are only judging based on the sound coming out of the speaker.
Open Judging Pros:
The audience can see the judges. The audience has an increased connection to the judging of the event, and everything is “out in the open.”
The judges can see physical expression of the players. It’s nice to see the players’ technique, posture, and level of oneness with the music. Open judging allows the judges to increase their level of insight into the players.
It’s simpler and cheaper. All you need to provide is a table and chairs for the judges as a bare minimum. They can use the house sound, so no fancy wiring or rooms are required.
Open Judging Cons:
The audience can see the judges. The potential downside here is if one of your judges uses their phone to text, or even adds their scores using their phone, or talks with another judge. This can be misconstrued by an audience member as the judge being inattentive. If you have open judging you should discuss this with the judges to heighten their awareness.
There can be the appearance of impropriety when none is present. Audience members (particularly parents and grandparents of contestants) can make assumptions about judging based on appearances of players or even their own assessment of the contestants. This can be exacerbated by the fact that the audience can see the judges. Especially if a judge looks away, appears disinterested, looks at their phone, says something to another judge, or even yawns during their contestant’s round. If their favorite contestant doesn’t win, it’s easier for them to justify claims of favoritism. My grandma always kept her own score sheet, and I always won on her score sheet, even when I didn’t win the contest. 😉
Have an alternate judge (or two.)
It’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility (eventuality) that one of your judges will have to cancel at the last minute. It’s always a good idea to have a contingency plan in place. It’s customary to provide lodging for your alternate judge(s). If the other judges show up, the alternate can compete, and if you have a problem you are covered. I use this position to bring in a good fiddler or two who live outside of the area that would normally be represented at the contest.
Have the judges play for the audience.
If the audience can see that the judges are great fiddlers, they are less likely to question the results of the contest. And as a bonus, if you hire great judges this is good entertainment for the audience.
Pay your judges what they are worth.
If you want to get judges that are competent and respectable, you need to expect that you will pay them accordingly. I recommend paying them what they would make for 2nd or 3rd place, plus cover their accommodations, including travel costs if necessary.
Treat your judges kindly.
Have one of your volunteers be the caretaker of the judges. They can make sure that the judges have notepads, and refreshments. They can even prepare each of the judges a small gift basket with goodies to make their day easier and more fun. Make sure you feed them well while they are judging.
What’s the fun of a fiddle contest without an audience? Here are a few tips for getting an audience and keeping them happy.
- Get a local radio or TV station as one of your sponsors. They might interview you, promote it on air, and even do a live remote or broadcast some of your contest on the air. And, they might provide an MC for you.
- Have your contest as part of a bigger event. Events that have to do with folk arts and culture are often a good fit.
- Have a good MC. They can help you set the tone of the contest, keep the contest moving along, and keep the audience smiling.
- Contact all of the local media outlets. Let them know about your event and try to get them to interview you about the event.
- Mix it up. Try adding some fun divisions, such as hot fiddle, swing fiddle, cross-tuned, twin fiddle, gambler’s draw, band scramble, etc. The audience gets bored if they have to listen to too many rounds of breakdown, waltz and tune of choice in a row.
- Have some entertainment in between rounds. Get a local Suzuki group or school program to provide a half hour of music at lunch or on a morning or afternoon break. This is a great way to expose new musicians to the fiddle contest as well.
- Listen to your audience. Ask for their feedback. Get them involved if you can. I usually have the audience judge the hot fiddle contest. It’s supposed to be an entertainment event anyway. It might as well be judged by the people we are entertaining.
You REALLY need volunteers. You REALLY don’t want to run the contest by yourself. I’m NOT kidding here.
You need to make sure that your contest prize money and judging stipends are covered before the contest ever happens.
One common way to do this is via sponsors. Sponsors can be either cash donors or in-kind sponsors. Cash donors are great and can be rewarded by advertising on the flyers, on the radio or TV, in the program, on banners or from the podium at the event, and any other way you can think of.
Some services I have had provided in-kind by sponsors include:
- Host hotel – Feature them on the website and flyers as the host hotel in exchange for hotel rooms for the judges.
- Radio Promotion – Get a radio station to do live remotes, interviews before the event and public service announcements before the event to get out the word.
- Graphic Design and Printing – Put the printer and designer’s logos on the printed materials in exchange for their services or a portion of their services.
- Website Hosting – Give them a link on your site in exchange for the web hosting.
- Website Design – This works well if you have a musician friend who is good at website design. Give them a sponsorship package in line with the work performed.
If you put on an educational or concert event as part of the general event, you may qualify for an arts or culture grant. Be aware that the grant funding process is slow and that you often have to apply a year in advance. In general, you cannot use grant funding to pay contest prize money or judging fees.
You can use grant money to pay performers or clinicians at fiddling workshops. And you can have your clinicians or performers judge the contest as part of their responsibilities.
I highly recommend having an educational component to your event. Passing on the musical traditions and the love of music are more important to me than the contest.
Get the Word Out.
If you want to have contestants and a good audience, you need to get the word out as quickly as possible.
Here are some practical ways to get the word out:
- Go to other music festivals and fiddle contests to hand out flyers. (Ask the event director before handing out the flyers if it seems appropriate.) Most of the time they are happy to help you promote your event.
- Ask for an announcement of your event from the MC at these other festivals. It never hurts to ask, and most the time they are happy to help you out.
- Leave flyers at music stores around the area.
- Call private music teachers and tell them about the event.
- Contact orchestra directors in the area and give them flyers if they want them, (and see if they want to do any entertaining.)
- Contact Suzuki Clubs in the area and give them flyers if they want them, (and see if they want to do any entertaining.)
- Put up a website with your event information.
- Submit your event information to any other listings of fiddle contests and festivals that you can find online. Make sure you update these annually.
- Submit your event to any community calendars in your area that you can find.
- Contact local TV and radio stations with a press release about your event. Ask them if they would be willing to be a sponsor in kind.
Make it an Event.
If you have more going on than just a fiddle contest, you are better off in so many ways.
- You will have a bigger audience.
- You can qualify for grant funding.
- You can educate the audience on the importance of the folk traditions.
- You can increase the level of musical knowledge in the contestants.
- And more.
Here are some options for making it more of an Event than just a contest:
Have music workshops.
I highly recommend doing your workshops in conjunction with another local or regional education group. If you get a local University involved, sometimes they will have a fund that could allow one of the contest judges/or workshops leaders to put on a workshop at the University. This is a great opportunity to help the University be more diverse in what it offers its students, and to get more audience and participants to your event.
Some of the things that can be taught in workshops include:
- Fiddling for Violinists
- Practical Music Theory
- Twin Fiddling
- Playing Fiddle In a Band
- Song Workshops (For any instrument)
- Learning to Improvise
- Stylistic Workshops (Swing, Celtic, Jazz, Old-Time, Bluegrass, etc.)
The same thing is true with other local music clubs. There are lots of associations who support traditional arts/music, bluegrass music, or even string music in general.
Here are some types of clubs who might be interested in partnering with you on a workshop:
- Fiddle Clubs and Associations (Old Time, Scottish, Irish, State or Regional, etc.)
- Suzuki Clubs and Groups
- String Teachers Associations and Groups
- Music Teachers Associations
The more people you get involved in your event, the more momentum you can create.
Planning is Important.
Running a fiddle contest is a lot of work. You will need to plan out the day(s) in as much detail as you can as soon as possible. You need volunteers to help you run the contest (or you will never want to do it again,) and you probably need sponsors to help you fund the contest.
Here are some of the things you will be useful for you in planning a fiddle contest. They are the templates I used when I was running the Indiana State Picking and Fiddling Championships. You have my permissions to use the content in these templates except for using the name, or logo of the Indiana State Picking and Fiddling Championships.
- Flyer – Single Sheet
- Sponsor Request Letter
- Judges Contract
- Contest day Checklist
- Fiddle Contest Rules
- Gambler’s Draw – Tune List
- Signup Sheet – Division
- Signup Sheet – Contestant
- Tune Sheet
- Scoring Spreadsheet – Fiddle Contest
- Award Certificate
Finally, Good luck! Do the best job you can. Have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.