Saturday, April 21, 2007

Competition - the nature of the beast

I arrived back in Shetland on Friday morning to discover that Martha (12) was due to compete in the Shetland Young Fiddler of the Year competition that morning. Now she's quite a good fiddler, is Martha. Last year, she won the Intermediate/Traditional section of the competition, I thought deservedly, though obviously I'm biased. Watching her play last year, all alone, in Lerwick's Garrison Theatre, facing an audience and three impassive judges, was one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever undergone. I'm used to performing, have been getting up on stage since the age of 11, but the nervous energy and adrenalin is always spent by the act of doing whatever it is you have to do: singing, talking, broadcasting. Watching Martha, I had all the nerves, all the blood-pumping fear, and nowhere to put it but applause.

Anyway, last year she won. This year, ineligible for the Intermediate/Trad category (unaccompanied Shetland 'listening' fiddle tunes) she entered the Intermediate Young Fiddler section, which demands piano accompaniment. And during her second tune, Debbie Scott's rather demanding but beautiful 'Fiddle', it all went wrong.

There was a misunderstanding between Martha and her accompanist and the performance simply fell apart. To say the least, Martha was upset. I couldn't find her afterwards and it took ages to discover that she had been waiting, alone, backstage.

I tried to explain that all of us face experiences like that in our lives, that failure at this level did not mean she wasn't a terrific fiddle player. I told her the story of my band's crucially important performance at the Greenbelt rock festival in 1982, when a capo on the wrong fret turned our first number into an excruciating cacophony of screeching horror, from which we never recovered. In front of 10,000 people.

But what I wanted to say was that I have always felt uneasy about these public musical competitions for children, this parade of prowess, mainly for the benefit of teachers and parents. Although it has to be said that Martha was the one anxious to take part in this year's competition. And I was knocked out by the quality of many performers yesterday.

However, this is not what music is, or ought to be about. I hate the snide comments passed by one or two fellow competitors (at least last year). I hate the look of naked fear you get on some children's faces.

I felt all of this last year when she won (though goodness, I was proud of her) and this year when things went wrong. However, after yesterday, I did try to tell her that it would be wrong to pull out of the senior traditional competition she was entered for next day. Years younger than the top players taking part, she knew she had little chance of winning or qualifying for the final three. In her shoes, I'd have been flouncing off. I'm a good flouncer. And very experienced at it.

But Martha didn't. She shrugged off her disappointment, practised, got up this morning ready for whatever the day could throw at her. Then she stood up on the stage and played. Not perfectly, but very well indeed.

I couldn't have been more proud of her. Some of the other youngsters who played were stunningly good. I loved the music.

But still, I couldn't help feeling it was the wrong context. Music is about telling stories, about dancing, about fun. Competitions are about terror and the risk of defeat. Yet I know that next year, Martha will want to have another go. Maybe she's just a whole lot tougher than I am. As well as more talented.


Unknown said...

What a star! Kids are amazingly resilient. Let's hope life doesn't knock it out of her and Martha will grow into a strong confident young woman, I'm sure.

David said...

I know the fear children go through all too well. It wasn't that long ago it would have been me up there (not playing the fiddle, and usually never on my own, but in front of an audience none the less, which always terrified me).

There were various points of the year I dreaded...

March/April was always music festival and drama festival.

Christmas time was always school play and Sunday school performance.

Bizarrely now when I wouldn't mind getting up and speaking in front of people, I never do anything like this... probably just as well, I can almost sense the fear coming back to me.

Tom Morton said...

Thanks for that, folks.
Sunday school was my first experience of an audience, reciting a memorised text aged five. Except I hadn't memorised it at all.Setting the tone for an entire career, I just wanted an excuse to stand at the front...