Is Subjectivity OK in Judging?

Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, A Cappella Blog contributor takes a look at both sides of a controversial issue in collegiate a cappella. Please note that the views expressed by columnists do not necessarily represent those of The ACB as an organization, nor do they necessarily represent the view of individual columnists. The purpose of this piece is to explore issues and further civil, intellectual debate.

Following the 2012 ICHSA and ICCA Finals, CASA posted this article discussing reactions to the shows. A number of controversial points came up, particularly in the comments. Among the biggest questions that came up was whether it was acceptable for judges to be arbitrary in adjudicating major competitions. Some said it wasn’t right. Some said that it was not only fair, but inevitable. In this edition of Measure for Measure, we take a look at both sides of the statement:

It is not acceptable for judges to subjective in major competitions.

True: Groups who reach the highest levels of competition deserve to be evaluated in fair and unbiased ways. The winners of competitions should be those who best meet the criteria of a given competition. The scoring rubric is wholly musical, without consideration to visual presentation, then the judges should be able to evaluate with their eyes closed, and dismiss choreography and transitions as extra dressing for the entertainment of the audience. If elements like intonation, rhythmic precision and blend are the most valued aspects of a performance, then judges should operate on an objective scale—a ten means perfection in a given category; a nine means a group missed only one or two notes or that the arrangement, or that the group was particularly ambitious and that just about pulled it off.

As soon as judges start imposing their personal preferences on songs, the entire rubric is skewed. After all, if a semifinal judge docks a group because she doesn’t like choreography, but it’s that very same visual presentation that was the difference maker in helping the group emerge from quarterfinals, what kind of mixed message are the judges sending? It shouldn’t be a group’s responsibility to research individual judges before a competition—they should plan their set to best address the established, objective scoring rubric.

False: Until the a cappella community can arrive at a universally agreed upon standard for what does and does not work, and to what extent, can program such standards into a computer program and install that computer program at the site of every a cappella competition, we will never have complete objectivity in judging. And for that matter, would we really want it?

Organizations like Varsity Vocals select qualified judges for their expert ears, discerning eyes, and perhaps most importantly, their aca-intuition to discern just how good any given act really is, both on its own merits, and in relation to the other acts in a given night. Indeed, the Varsity Vocals score sheets are designed for subjectivity with select groups earning significant points for their respective placements on each judge’s scoring sheet (30 points for each first place placement, 20 for second, 10 for third).

I, like many others, disagreed with several aspects of the outcome of this year’s ICCA Finals, but I’m not going to claim that I know any better than Ed Boyer, Peter Hollens, and co. They made their judgments based on what they observed an interpreted from each set, and they, quite justly, crowned the champions who they saw fit. Those of us who disagreed have our proper place to do so in blogs, comments and the Twittersphere. I don’t think anyone’s trying to say that a judge’s word denotes universal truth; it’s just the best-informed opinion, which, as such, we trust to determine who wins the community’s most meaningful prizes.