American Singer Judging: How to Stay Out of Hot Water
(more tips from the Frying Pan School of Judging)

by Judy Snider

First published in the American Singers Club newsletter, July 2001.

Dear American Singer Judge trying to learn the ropes:

Regarding the judging of American Singers, here are a few pointers that the 'old-timers' passed along to me when I was just starting out. Some of these pointers I have learned the hard way, some from watching other judges, both seasoned and new:

1. Avoid all systems that involve intricate use of numbers, split downs of rendition scores, etc. The more you keep your head down looking at your papers, adding columns, etc., the less you will see and hear. I've watched judges who use these numbers and they judge like robots - with a dash of hypocrisy thrown in. When the numbers don't add up the way they like, they erase and erase until they have them jimmied to pick the bird they like best, which is what they were supposed to do in the first place, proving that the sum of the parts is much greater than the total of any system ever invented. They are also maddening for secretaries to copy and interpret and are often fraught with many math errors that might potentially unsettle scores later on. Our own noble score sheet has numbers enough without adding any subset of numbers.

2. American Singer judging is comparison judging. You are judging each bird against each other (in that class) as well as against the best bird you heard that day. In addition, you are judging it against the 'ideal' Singer, wherever he may be, dead or alive..

3. Conformation and Condition are important since we want our birds to look sharp and to be healthy, but don't spend too much time juggling these numbers either. When I started out, I agonized over the conformation column. I would give a great bird an eighteen, a real wretch a twelve. You don't have to be this severe to make a point. Remember that when all the numbers are added up a single half-pint is all it takes to knock a bird out of the first-place spot. I do conformation first since it saves time and I've learned that birds are more likely to sing for me if they see me up close then I back away and sit down, as if the 'pressure is off'. I call this 'The Reverse Stew-Pot Effect'. I give good conformation a nineteen, fair an eighteen and a very small or snaky bird a seventeen. Fanciers get the point without being insulted or having their bird unduly penalized if he turns out to be the best singer in the show so that he still has a chance, as he should have. He can still be a contender if he sings to knock my socks off. I have been known to give twenties to really outstanding birds. This always generates excitement when the score sheet comes out of the room, which is what you want to do - make people debate the merits of the bird you thought was special. Judges who never give out twenties or perfect tens for condition are stingy and lack imagination. They are afraid someone will find fault with their picks - rather insecure, don't you think?

4. Under condition I write a word or two for obvious faults, dirty tail ('tail'), missing toe, long nails and so forth. Just because you called attention to a fault does not mean you have to deduct for it. It all depends on the bird and the day. You are trying to educate, not whip the bird or the fancier to death with stern judgments.

Now back to song, and you must remember, as Janet Commons used to say, 'the song is the thing'. No one will remember what a bird looked like, but they will be trying to outguess the song picks you made five years afterwards. My philosophy is that the best singing male (on that day) is going to win, no matter what I have to do to make sure that happens. I don't care who bred him or what other judge picked him or if he will ever be picked again. I want the records to show that I picked the very best singers in descending order, and that is that.

5. I divide the sixty points allotted to song into three parts:

tone = 30 points (half!!!)
variety = 20 points
smoothness and overall effect = 10 points.

I never jot these numbers down or do any adding. While I am scoring freedom, which is entirely separate, I am gathering an overall impression of tone and smoothness and showmanship. If I hear an unusual note, I jot it down under the corresponding bird in case he stops singing in the rendition period. You think you'll remember, but you won't, especially late in the day. And think of how unfair it would be to give the wrong bird credit for an outstanding or new note!

Also, it is totally unethical to deduct for lack of freedom under rendition. Any bird which sings only seven times is already out of the running. Your task then is to let the fancier know how great his bird was - a potential Kellogg winner maybe so he will start training harder. Judges who mark off or worse (ee gads!!!) fail to give rendition scores for lack of freedom are absolute morons and accomplish nothing except prove how lazy they are. You are trying to communicate helpful information to the fancier, not punish his bird. Only ten or so birds will go home with trophies, but your responsibility to the other one hundred and something other birds in show is to communicate with their breeders information that will eventually help in their breeding programs. Remember, these breeders should not go home empty-handed for all of their trouble in supporting the American Singer Fancy.

I place an emphasis on quality of tone because I think this is what sets our bird apart from other breeds. Without it, a bird is lost or is certainly not one of ours. Think of making a beautiful coat out of an expensive, rich material. Then think of making it out of burlap. Get the picture? Tone is the song fabric.

American Singers have more variety than they used to, and I give a point or two more credit to birds singing new notes, though only a point or two. A note you found charming in the morning can prove irritating in afternoon after you've heard it in twenty or so classes. For birds with lots of variety, I listen carefully to see how they weave it all together. It is overall effect I'm interested in. Sometimes it's nice if you can make up your own names for notes and describe them for the fancier, especially useful in the case of novices. They really do read those score sheets. Try to avoid sarcasm or scathing remarks. They really do no good. There are ways of pointing out sour notes or defects without making the fancier mad.

Now I'll describe the major pitfall beginning judges make - that is, they score all the birds too low, as if they are saving those high scores for birds later in the day. Believe me, I fell into this trap, too. At my first big show in New York the winning bird ended up with a total score of 76! Those fanciers were certainly not happy. It used to be stylish for judges to do this, but I think you really have more to say to a fancier if the winning birds have scores in the nineties. It also makes an average score more relevant, which would then be 15-20 points less. Try to picture how your range of scores would end up looking on a graph, which more and more fanciers construct from their score sheets. Red Factors have scores in the nineties, budgies, lots of other birds. Think of what this means when an American Singer goes up against these birds for best in show! How tacky that our best birds should only be getting 'C's' and 'D's'!

To give a winning bird a score in the nineties, this is what you have to do:

Excellent bird: Rendition = 55 (at least)
Good bird: Rendition = 52

For some reason new judges never suspect that the winner of the show could be lodged in the very first class of the day. Believe me, it can happen. Out of thirty some shows, three of my bests in show came out of the very first class of the day, which is about statistically predictable. Don't make the dangerous assumption that there will be better birds later on. Birds tire from being on the bench.

For this reason, I do not try to make my shows exactly consistent with each other. There could easily be a five-point spread for the same bird I've judged twice. Adelaide Walo years ago told me that judges who try to keep their scores consistent do two things:

  1. They fail to be consistent since the birds aren't
  2. They end up with ridiculously low scores.

My method:

If the first class of the day is young and there seems to be a decent bird in there (not good, just average), I give the winner a song score of exactly 50. He is the basis upon which I will judge throughout the day. If the first class of the day is an old class, and the winner seems like an average old American Singer, he gets a 'watermark' score of 52. If he is better than average, why then I give him a higher score. Try to avoid decimals in the very beginning. You will need decimals later on to 'sandwich' birds. (And please, please, do not ever use pluses and minuses - they mean nothing and have been the source of some very hard feelings as fanciers, secretaries and judges try to sort them out later.)

3. You know, with decimals you can easily sandwich fifty birds in between, say a 52 and 53. But why use such hair-splitting techniques if you don't have to? Don't be afraid of jumping two or three numbers at a time. Spread those babies out so that the top scores will be differentiated from each other!

Not wanting to use decimals any more than I have to, after the first class is judged, be it young or old, let's say the next class has a bird that is just a little bit better than the first class winner. Some would give the bird a 53 if they gave the first bird a 52, but why be this stingy with the numbers? Instead, I skip a number and try to do this with the next better bird as well, be he young or old. This way you would have birds with scores of 50, 52, 54, etc. Lots of room!

If its a beginning type of show out in the boondocks with lots of novices, you might be grateful for these spreads later on, especially if you find yourself looking at mostly average or slightly better birds when you have to begin wedging birds in to remain accurate..

Always keep a 'cheat sheet'. You should be keeping track of the top twenty birds you are picking and keep them in order, complete with visual descriptions so you remember exactly how they are ordered. Judges who write lots of notes to the fancier have a distinct advantage when they have to wedge, and this is what separates the good judges from the great judges, who never get the order wrong. Remember, you are rewarding singing!

I keep a small magnet board for this purpose so I don't have to erase or recopy, which is when higher-scoring birds are lost. All of this is for your eyes only, not even for the eyes of the under stewards. And another thing - once a score goes out of the room, it is final. I have watched judges change their minds later on and ask for score sheets back after they were copied over, and fanciers quickly learn to what sort of judges they are. Personally, I won't secretary for a judge who changes his mind. His impression while he is listening to the bird should decide the score then and there.

How to avoid ties:

No judge needs to have ties, which makes everyone nervous and unhappy. The way to do this is never to give out the exact song score to any birds who could be in the top twelve. Just number a sheet of paper from 30 (an inferior or undeveloped song) up to 60 including all the decimals in between of 30.25, 30.50, 30.75, etc. As you award a score to a bird, circle that score on your columns of numbers and this tells you you've already given out that score and have to write out a decimal in between, such as 30.3, etc.

As a judge, you already know that two birds with the same total score do not have a tie if one has a different song score, which will always 'break' the apparent tie.

Judges should not make overly critical remarks while judging. (Any remark ever made by a judge will be misinterpreted unless it is unmitigated praise.) Be patient with your stewards since they are probably learning too.

You'll always have the fanciers on your side if you seem to be rooting for the birds to sing, eager to hear what they can do. You are the only real authority at the show who has to be listened to, the only one with unclouded vision as to what is fair and just. If something is wrong with the way the birds are handled, keeping them from singing, it is your job to set it to rights so that the birds that come later on will sing. Why do we have American Singer shows in the first place if not to hear glorious song?

Don't smile at anyone for the first few hours. If fanciers annoy you, make them leave the judging room. They have no constitutional right to be there and may remain only so long as they do not distract you or the birds in any way. Always be polite, soft spoken, but remember that your word is law. You have the power of the American Singers Club, Inc. behind you, which will always back you up in any decision you make for the good of the show and for the fancy - as long as you follow the Constitution.

Attitude is what separates the great judges from the merely good.
Yours in the fancy,
Judy Snider

Copyright © 2000 Judy Snider. All rights reserved.

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