Sounding out new musical talent

Young classical instrumentalists and singers have been performing at the Feis Ceoil since 1896, and 5,000 more do so this week, says Carl Dixon

HOSTED by Gráinne Seoige, the Electric Ireland Feis Ceoil runs this week in the RDS, with 5,000 participants in 180 competitions.

The feis ceoil caters for a range of classical instruments and voice, and has changed little since it began in 1896. It is an opportunity for young musicians to test themselves against their peers and perform on a public stage. For the public, it is an opportunity to assess new talent.

The feis chief executive is Laura Gilsenan, who was a singer and who understands the pressures of performing. “It is quite remarkable that the structure of the competition is the same as it always was,” she says. “The numbers are actually better than ever. Classical music doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the people involved tend to be passionate about it and there are a lot of great teachers out there. The sense of camaraderie that children get as they interact is timeless, whether as part of a sports team or an orchestra or a choir.”

Laura says competing stands to the participants as they move on with their lives. “It is not like a music exam,” she says. “There is an adjudicator, but there may also be a room full of other competitors and teachers and that situation requires a measure of poise and confidence. It builds skills that are applicable in other facets of their lives. It is always good to see young, shy children who return year after year with more confidence and self-belief. These changes aren’t all down to the feis experience, but it is a contributing factor.”

The competitions at junior levels will not necessarily appeal to the public. The senior competitions are at a high standard and have considerable musical merit. “The competitions are open to the general public and it costs five euro a day,” she says. “We are always trying to raise the profile of the competition. There are groups of people that attend every year; some came to see relatives at a previous competition and decide to come back again, some competed themselves at some stage, and we get a light scattering of tourists.”

Talent competitions have been popularised by TV shows such as X Factor. Despite the manipulation, such shows have thrilling moments: the powerful and unexpected performance of Susan Boyle, for example. For lovers of classical music, the feis has similar surprises. “They come in two categories,” she says. “The first is when a young competitor blows you away with their technical ability and skill. The second is recognition of the collective talent out there, when each competitor is better than the last. You might think that it would get boring, but it never does.”

Tom Jansson is a music teacher at the Cork School of Music and has three children competing at the feis: Ellen, aged 15, on piano, Kevin, aged 11, on piano and violin, and Anna, aged eight, on violin and piano. From both a personal and professional viewpoint, he says the feis is a great opportunity. “They love the buzz but it is a nervous excitement,” he says. “Practising is one thing, but performing on the day is something completely different. The stimulation of the other people around you raises the bar and can bring out a better performance. However, for that to happen you have to harness that nervous energy. I remember feeling sick as a dog before a competition and you never conquer that completely. You need to recognise that sensation and work with it. If you don’t feel any nerves, then the music is probably no longer important enough. If you can give a good performance, even if you don’t win, then that confidence will spur you on. If you prove yourself in any walk of life, that spills over into the rest of your world.”

Despite the myriad of competing interests available to children, ranging from tennis to X Box, he says that classical music remains strong. “Certainly, the numbers auditioning for the School of Music remain high,” he says. “It is important to remember that it is not all about the competition. The feis provides a performance venue with a competitive edge, and, particularly, if they have good teachers many of the participants will come to love the music they play. You get sucked into the atmosphere and excitement, and sometimes the depth of the musical talent on show takes your breath away.”

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