Interview with Ögmundur Þór Jóhannesson about music competitions and judges

How is the music judged in competition? Many people are maybe curious about what the judges were talking about in the courtroom and how could they decide which competitor was better. Therefore, how can the judges themselves explain us this problem? Check out the following explanation of a professional guitarist and competition judge, Ögmundur Þór Jóhannesson.

Baca artikel ini dalam terjemahan bahasa Indonesia : “KETIKA MUSIK HARUS DINILAI”

Even a month since December 6`th last year, Valerio’s 8th classical guitar competitionwas held virtually.

However, what remains curious about the competition itself is the judging and how music is judged in the competition.

Because by knowing about these things, participants can better know how they have to prepare for this year’s competition. This time we have the opportunity to interview one of the members of the jury from the last Valerio competition, namely Ögmundur Þór Jóhannesson. What are his views and explanations, as well as tips for dealing with the competition? Check out below.


Q. How long have you been in your music career especially as a classical guitarist and judge?

In terms of career and other themes, it’s sometimes hard to determine a specific timeline, as they many times tend to overlap in one’s life. Even as arly as in my formative years, I was a guest artist at festivals and concert series. I started playing classical guitar when I was 11 years old and have maintained it as my primary focus ever since. I’ve been more regularly a member of jury panel of various festivals since my Asia chapter began in 2013.


Q. How can you say that participating in music competitions (such as the Valerio’s guitar competition) is important for musicians? (If you think it is important indeed).

This is a very interesting question, and a large topic of discussion actually. I will try my best to keep the answer short.

Throughout music history, there has been a lot of debate on the purpose and “correctness” of participating in music competitions, if it is really possible to “compete” in music or not? Béla Bartók, one of the titans of the 20th century, famously stated that competitions “…are for horses, not artists”. Despite that perhaps humorous yet sincere remark of the Maestro, as with such a discussion of philosophical nature, it is indeed difficult to come to a definite or objective conclusion. Perhaps it would be easier to discuss the pros and cons, and form an educated and individual decision?


Most would agree however on some points, which are an obvious advantage to the students who are aspiring to become a performing artist. Regardless of the final result of becoming a prize-winner or not, they get a chance to showcase and share their skills and experience in a diverse form of learning and valuable feedback, which they might not otherwise have access to outside of that environment. Through their hard work required for preparation, enhanced discipline and expansion out of their comfort zone, their permanent level of skill and endurance will inevitably be raised in direct proportion to the prior-invested work. Especially through trial and error, and repeated experiences, the soul and endurance of an emerging artist is forged strongly, like a steel sword in the blacksmith’s fire, especially in terms of performance abilities. Competitions allow the students to test out their creative ideas, compare and meet other colleagues, and form friendships that can last a lifetime. Ongoing learning and self-motivation are further investments towards success as a musician and competition attendance will help to instill these habits.


I know a friend, who once attended a very grand international competition. He prepared excellently, but unfortunately didn’t pass to the final round; however, one member of the jury was so impressed with him (who has considerable weight in the guitar world, network and resources) that he helped set up a concert tour for him. That tour furthermore showcased his ability, and through that tour, more doors opened up for him!

The positive effects of winning a prize is obvious. However, it should only be considered as a delightful extra bonus; an ornamentation, an extra feather, a cherry on top of the cake, but not the cake itself. The cake is the substance and corner stone no-one can take away from you. It is your intellect and spirit; your skill and ability which you will share forever with the world.

That cherry on top of the cake can easily become a placeholder for something even more exciting, especially in our today’s world. The advent of the Internet has brought personal branding and more possibilities former generations couldn’t even dare to dream of! Many players of today boast an excellent career and online presence and fame, even without any notable prize from any international guitar competitions!



Q. You’ve been a judge a few times in Valerio guitar competitions. What do you think about the participants who joined as competitors from the first time you were involved as a judge until now?

I’ve been very privileged to witness the growth of the guitar community in beautiful Indonesia, and I’ve witnessed very exciting developments! The overall level has improved greatly, and I’m especially happy to see the young generation of Indonesian guitarists, especially for this edition of Valerio International Competition, programming 20/21st century contemporary (atonal) music repertoire into their submitted programs, a very important and explorative era in music history, mostly associated with Europe, USA and Japan, more rarely in rest of Asia. However, in recent years, I have seen some developments in Indonesia, especially in Java for the contemporary niche market, including chamber music, which is very positive for cooperation between guitarists and composers, enriching the market, both for domestic and international level, sparking off concert series and new festivals! We know that some sub-genres of atonal music are hard to digest for the general public, however there are types of contemporary music which are more palatable, and can be cleverly sandwiched between more tonal music. I personally fell in love overnight with contemporary music, when I was 20, when I listened to a whole recital from legendary pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard performing music of Olivier Messiaen.


Continuing that subject, if there would be one development I would like to see more in Indonesia, from the bottom my heart, is that I would like to see the guitarists take inspiration from performances of other instruments, chamber music, orchestra, vocal music, opera, and all music genres, especially for their current repertoire! So, for example, if you are playing pieces from Ferdinando Carulli, please have a listen to the music of W.A Mozart, as you will experience the same phrasing and articulation and apply the template accordingly. If you are playing the music of Mauro Giuliani, listen to the operas of Gioachino Rossini. If you are playing Bach, the best is to intend to make your own transcription, based on original sources, and not to directly imitate another guitarist’s renditions.

Listening and “imitating” is not a bad thing, this is how the history of music evolved! Imagine 300 years ago, you didn’t have YouTube, or any recordings, Potpourris from Giuliani were literally composed for people who could not make it to watch the operas of Rossini, or could not afford it, they came to the salon, and listened to miniature versions of the opera. J.S Bach, in the autumn of 1705, aged twenty-year old, decided to walk between 430 to 450 km, between Arnstadt to Lubeck in Germany, at a time where there were barely any roads in Europe, to hear the greatest organist composer at that time, Dieterich Buxtehude. This young Maestro influenced all subsequent generations of composers, up to jazz musicians today! This was the level of commitment people had for experiencing music, which was performed live and many times only one time, sometimes notated from memory of the enthusiastic listener/composer.


Today however, we live in another universe literally, over-exposed with an over-abundance of content with less attention span and focus. Young guitarists are listening to versions on YouTube, most of which are over-xeroxed copies of a very poor standard of other erroneous xeroxed copies, I can literally listen to this trend through recognising distant versions and interpretations of young guitarists.

This, in itself, you may say it‘s not bad. However, if aiming at the highest international concert level and participating in international competitions, we must act as curators and archeologists of former art periods in history, and study it accordingly. I understand that european art music (main bulk of the standard concert and competition repertoire) is more relevant for european people who are surrounded with the architecture, and familiar with art and cultural history, therefore I will soon be creating music appreciation courses especially to bridge that gap for my students and everyone interested in Asia, please stay tuned for that!


I want to suggest another route, which is harder, yet infinitely more rewarding (furthermore, it is vital for the classical guitar standard, as our instrument has too many technical permutational possibilities): I suggest going back to the drawing board, back to the blueprints, back to ground zero and do like a conductor of orchestra would do: Study the score without the instrument, and without any recording. Do solfege and sing through the lines, conduct the rhythm, feel your way through the phrases and make a mental image, exactly how you want the piece to sound. Listen to contemporaries of that composer. Listen to quality performers! If someone is curious to know more where to take their listening journey, please DM me personally. I really mean this, I will happily answer and assist. It is also noteworthy that in Europe, guitarists that graduated from universities where conducting was obligatory, convinced more international juries and received more first places, as they structured their pieces more accurately!


Another thing which I would be delighted to see improved in general, is the sound from the right hand. It is the producer of sound, the paintbrush which we use to paint on our canvas. Like the Steinway artist who is dependent of meticulous workings from the mechanics of his piano keys for a precise sound production and articulation, like the violinist who is dependent on the precision of his bow and the bowing technique which is literally helping to shape his phrases; how the bow is communicating with the strings… why should we be less attentive with the movements of our right-hand fingers, nail shape, and finger planting on the strings? Work towards a round beautiful basic sound which is full and compact, allowing the string to vibrate in a circle (it really does with the right touch!) and therefore our guitar (top) to literally vibrate at its fullest, projecting fully into the concert hall. This is a cornerstone attribute for a successful competition candidate.

Another last comment for the competitors this year, please be careful with the score, even if you are playing contemporary music, I heard several reading errors, for clarifying, I would like to invite the finalists to DM me for corrections, as luckily, I am familiar with the repertoire they played. In fact, the 20th century compositions which were performed in the final, are considered almost as “Mozartian” classical repertoire of the 20th century, and too many reading mistakes with wrong notes affect the internal harmony of the pieces greatly, and many jury members are very familiar with this repertoire! Also, study well, which editions you are playing from. There are more relevant manuscript editions appearing today, with the original blueprints of the composer, providing a way better working material!



Q. Talking about judging competition, how do you (along with the other juror) come to a conclusion when determining which participant is better than the others? Can you explain a little related to the assessment parameter?

This is a very interesting question, as it hopefully will assist for the preparation checklist for any competition, if competitors seriously take note of this, and prepare better for next time (especially repertoire)! Evaluation criteria systems vary between competitions and jury panel members, as are the point systems used. However, if the jury members are thorough, they will use the following parameters more or less for their criteria systems:

  • Technique
  • Musicality
  • Sound
  • Repertoire
  • Appearance

The category of sound production is perhaps the most interesting one, perhaps the key to the heart of most jury members, especially mine In many competitions it’s not a separate category but combined together with the technique category. However, I think personally it should definitely be a separate category of its own. Because the problem arises, that a particular competitor may have great finger agility, and impressive display of fingerings and speed, but lacking a beautiful round tone from their fingernail, planting and finger movement.


Then sound production starts to musically relate into resonance, therefore the choice of fingerings and finger placement is becoming a more important step towards elevating the guitar from its basic dry resonance, and for displaying more harmonies, and the ability to play legato on one string.

At the calculation of points, usually either a 25 point system is used or a 100 point system, often with 60/70-100 scale, as was used in Valerio competition. For optimal algorithmic result, the highest and lowest points are usually omitted in the final calculation from all the points from jury members, to avoid any possible bias.

Regarding repertoire, it’s a very important assessment point, as varied repertoire will demonstrate contrast, and also an ability to render different stylistic periods of music. Even if not asked for, I suggest to play from different music periods, and not only 20th century, as the bulk of our entire classical guitar repertoire is composed entirely in that stylistic period alone, despite the next-to countless subcategories of that period alone. This means, have enough repertoire from renaissance, baroque, classical and romantic periods to balance against the 20th century, and keep short pieces in handy, as many first rounds are short. Also beware of editions and transcriptions which are not optimal working material. All my respects to Maestro Segovia, and the wonderful performing style and stylistic musical world he created around the repertoire composed for him, but for example, I would not regard him as a leading authority on J.S Bach music. For Frank Martin for instance, I would choose to work from the original Leeb manuscript, and not the Universal edition edited by Karl Scheit.



Q. What is the difference between playing music for competition and playing music for the concert?

In simplistic and ideal terms, there should be no difference as far as possible, in regards to artistic integrity, if we are dealing with a competition in musical performance on stage, as the aspiring artist in question is being audited by a jury, including his artistic personality on stage.

In general, however, competitions are generally notorious for being academic and rather conservative. Sometimes however, a shining artistic personality will trump the accurate and academic musical rendering, depending on jury members and jury panels each time, as each jury member will carry with them their set of artistic and pedagogical integrity, value systems and order of importance. So you see, the computation can get complicated right there, it can get, as many complain, “political”. As any assembly of human society can behave “politically”, why would a competition jury be any exception?

There are former legendary multiple prize-winners on their “tour de force” eras, such as Marcin Dylla or Zoran Ducic that managed through trial and error, to diplomatically please each and every jury member with accurate and academically pleasing renderings, sound production (again important point), with the “ground” dynamic being a healthy mf to f, or otherwise put, strong projecting extrovert (loud) sound towards the end of the hall, yet round and not broken or thin, balanced repertoire with pieces of different musical eras (even if not asked for) and especially contrasting musical character.


Talking about contrast, it’s the number one currency in displaying your ideas in 3D with confidence and clarity to a jury member, as most music is about contrast, equals interest; display contrast in repertoire choice in every round, display furthermore contrast in dynamics, mood, character, structure (especially rhythmical), color, articulation, etc.

Eventually, graduating from the purgatory fire, being an accomplished artist, you will feel more as a captain of your ship without the need of pleasing everyone or even… anyone. The audience will come to you. After all, we know how hard it is to please everyone’s taste, so better focus on building your own character and niche market, especially possible today through online presence. Art is a mirror of the human consciousness, therefore infinite variety is possible, and indeed desires to be manifested, be it your unique interpretation, transcription, composition, collaboration, style, fusion, niche, etc. ad infinitum.

Of course, you may (and should) show your true persona in competitions, making you stand out! However, perhaps it has to be done… as J.J Quantz and Leopold Mozart put it in their 18th century treatises for certain ornamentation “…with taste and more sparingly, for greater effect”. Many memorable 1st prizes are given for unique attributes, be it an interesting transcription, fingering, stage gesture, but within a diplomatic and academic frame.


Abstraksi Magazine ini memuat wawasan mendasar tentang pelaku-pelaku musik, khususnya pendengar dan pemain musik, serta hal-hal yang mereka lakukan dalam kegiatan musikal.


Q. Which one is more important: the perfection of the technique, or the expressiveness of the music conveyed by the musicians in the case of music competition?

In short answer; both. And you may ask why, the second short answer being, technique and music are interrelated and inseparable.

Claude Debussy once famously said “music is the space between the notes”. Equally therefore, we may state that “technique is the space between the notes”. If we put our finger movements, especially the planting of the fingers of both right and left hand put under the microscope, we find that the equation matches itself.

Technique is a vehicle in order to achieve musical expression, therefore both are equally essential.


Q. If the competition participants would like to hear some advice or tips from you, what would you like to say for them?

If there is one thing I would suggest, in light of earlier conversations regarding the advantages of competitions, is simply to focus more on the journey rather than the end goal, and enjoy every single step of the way. No matter what happens, your personal experience will be enriched without fail! And that is what you will contribute to your students and to the musical world. My fondest personal memories are from the days of the preparation for any competition, the motivation, and excitement, that came from the choice of participating, regardless of the result. My delight was the obligatory pieces, to see how I could bring them to the highest level I knew was possible from a fresh experience and vantage point.

And for the very last point, I know it’s easier said than done, but the secret sauce to this game is to drop importance, as paradoxical as it may sound. Letting go of the tension regarding the importance of winning, your body will then relax accordingly, your interpretation and technique will loosen up, and you will perform at your optimal …and win the game?

This is the ideal we want to be working towards. In reality, there will always be mind-traps, and mind conditioning, even around the very word “competition”. Our job is to either dodge them, or peacefully ignore them, let them pass us by, as we keep our relaxed focus. Read the Inner Game of Barry Green, at least the first 100 pages.


I remember my teacher Marco Tamayo always saying in our technique class, “speed is a consequence” and letting us ponder, of what? From watching his hands move effortlessly with every movement and corresponding fingerings, with a perfect economy of movement and effort, I could see him being …relaxed. Many players also concur that speed is a consequence of relaxation. So many guitarists desire speed, and desire it with all their muscles clenched, trying so fervently. Oops. It’s coming from the other side, of the relaxation, between every movement. We have time. Between every note. Relax.

Don’t be attached to the final outcome, it will yield itself to you through the seeds that you have already planted for yourself, and through every step you take, and through every choice. Therefore, it is important to have laid a good technical and musical foundation with a systematic study. The subconscious mind is very powerful, it learns like a computer, and reproduces patterns effortlessly, with the minute precision that you give it. Take advantage of it, and program it accordingly.

Panduan ini memuat wawasan mendasar tentang latihan beserta langkah-langkah penerapan cara berlatih yang efisien dan efektif untuk memperoleh keterampilan musikal yang optimal.

Dukung kami untuk menghasilkan konten-konten berbasis pengetahuan yang berkualitas.

Abstraksi musik adalah start-up media musik yang berfokus pada pemberdayaan dan pengembangan ekosistem musik di Indonesia.


Follow Abstraksi

© Abstraksi Musik.