Competitions and School music Festivals

So I put my singing students in for eisteddfods and competitions. Sometimes they put themselves up for comps without my knowledge. Whatevs. They want to compete, good on them. I’m not going to stop them performing. This weekend I was one of the many adjudicators for the Queensland Catholic Music Festival, which has become bigger than Ben Hur. Some 400 ensembles take part. I was assessing the choral sections. Because it is not supposed to be competitive, I felt free to make some pretty challenging comments to the top groups today. I’m glad to say I escaped with my life intact, although there were dagger stares from some choirs.

What I did say was that the standard of all the groups was high. That the students themselves were outstanding musicians. And that the students would do what the conductors asked. So if there were some problems with entries and cutoffs and little things, then the conductors themselves had to assess what to do to make the musical performance better. Interestingly, what they mostly lacked was nuance. I’m talking about phrase shaping and dynamic contrast and articulations here. Most of the groups had very solid intonation, good rhythmic precision, lovely tone colour and good blending. It became about the little things that make a performance better than average. And which in many cases wasn’t seen today. But it got me thinking about musical competition. We seem to make such a big deal out of these comps, when, really, it’s just a chance for everyone to perform to a high standard. To excel. It’s no different in music than in sport, except that what we are looking for is that elusive magic of artistic expression, realised in the performance.

It was such a wonderful few days, with some truly magical performances. Some of note: the Thursday Island Catholic school – a stand out of authentic, real music making and big, open voices. St Francis’ College with a beautiful first time performance of their new choir, a bunch of gorgeous Samoan singers making extraordinary music to an unprecedented high standard for a first time choir. St Laurence’s College: boys engaging with music in the most sensitive, delicate, joyful, unfettered way. It’s at times like these I’m reminded of why I do this thing called music, and why I care so much about it. Even when I have to be the mean person making comments about the group and exhorting the conductors to work even harder than they already do, poor things.

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