The Strad, November 2002 Vol. 113 No. 1351 page 1312
Vice-president of the Violin Society of America Joe Regh has devised a system for judging instruments without bias, even when the violins stick to the tablecloths.
I run the biennial instrument and bow making competition as part of my work as vice- president of the Violin Society of America. My initial involvement in the competition was in 1982 when I first entered a violin and didn’t win: after all that work I would have liked some feedback from the judges. Flying home, I sat next to the VSA president, Norman Pickering, and we discussed the possibilities of using a computer to assist in the judging process.
It took two years of hard work to develop a computer program; a professional programmer was hired to do the coding. When the program was finished I tried it, simulating many possible problems. I thought it would work although I was so concerned about mishaps that I arranged our schedules in a way that the programmer would be on standby by phone at the critical times. The tension was high but everything went smoothly and now the system works extremely well.
This year we are expecting about 400 instruments and bow entries in the competition and we have six workmanship and nine tone judges. In the first round three workmanship judges will look at and score each instrument and bow considering elements such as the setup, carving of the scroll, archings, purfling, varnish, edges, f-holes and overall impression. They have a data sheet for every instrument and give a rating from one to ten in each category. This produces a lot of data, which is fed into the computer and the ranking from the highest to the lowest scores is tabulated.
We feel very strongly about anonymity; we require all labels, seals or brands to be covered. If a judge recognizes someone’s work, he or she will not judge that instrument or bow. To assure independent opinions, the judges do not consult with one another during the first two rounds and no individual has the power to sway the outcome.
For the second round the judges take a closer look at the instruments and start to determine which are worthy of medals. Three musicians in each instrument category play the instruments to evaluate tonal qualities and decide which should move up the rankings. During the second stage of tonal judging each musician plays to the other two in the group. The third round is a consultation between the judges to determine their recommendations for awards. To receive a gold medal, an instrument must have at least a certificate in one category and a recommendation for a gold medal in the other.
The logistics of such a big competition are a huge undertaking. Shipping and customs regulations are often complicated: customs clearance, duties and return postage have to be paid. At this end a VSA member with a violin shop near the convention city has to receive, transport and unpack the instruments and bows when they arrive.
In order to accommodate so many instruments, long tables are set up. Covered with white linen cloths. As I unpack the instruments, assign numbers and place them in rows, sometimes it is obvious by their fresh appearance that they must have been varnished recently, even the day before shipment. When the judges pick such a violin off the table, imprinted on its back is the pattern of the cloth’s weave or, even worse, linen fibers.
Much of my time since the last competition two years ago has been spent working out lighting problems in the hotel’s ballroom, which serves as the judging and exhibition hall. The room has fluorescent lights that render the instruments’ varnish pallid, without the vibrant colors that natural light releases. To solve this problem I had stations rigged up at the edge of the room with bulbs that simulate natural light so that the judges could take the instruments over for closer inspection. The public couldn’t do that though and we had lots of complaints, so this year a lighting specialist will convert the room to natural light by erecting special stanchion lights around the edge of the room.
At the conclusion of the VSA competition, when a contestant wonders ‘How did I do?’, they receive a comprehensive results – the competition has become an educational experience.
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