Feis Doire Colmcille

Composer Philip Hammond reflects on his experience adjudicating the traditional Derry music competition

Isn’t the arts world all about self-expression without the distraction of judging your artistic achievements against those of another artist? In an ideal world, perhaps. Unfortunately, people like success and success is often built on whether or not you can do something better than someone else.

When I was asked to adjudicate at the Feis Doire Colmcille in Derry in April in my head I rehearsed all the old arguments about the morality, the efficacy, the political correctness of the competition. I knew I wasn’t going to face the same sort of cut-throat ambition which you often see in 'reality television' – the sometimes less-than-enlightened competitive spirit of shows which are more about entertaining the masses than seriously celebrating talent.

Of course, the invitation to adjudicate reminded me of my own childhood, when music competitions were part of growing up. Back in the 1950s and 60s music competitions in Northern Ireland were still a vibrant and vital part of the local music scene. There was an atmosphere of excitement, of expectation, I recalled, as I debated whether or not to accept the invitation to adjudicate.

As it turned out, those memories still appear to be valid. My experience in Derry led me to believe that there is much still to be gained from taking part in the music competition – as long as competitors are aware of certain caveats.

On the whole, private music tuition was a very middle class practice when I was young. Money for music lessons was thought to be money well spent and music teachers in my day used competitions as a public shop window. We the pupils didn’t consider whether it was cool or otherwise to be in competitions – it was something you did because it was expected of you whether you liked it or not.

As something of an extrovert, I enjoyed the whole process, but my brother hated it and went through untold misery in the lead up to and the execution of competitive platform performance. The discipline, the pursuit of prim perfection (which we took for granted back then) has long since found other outlets.

The people who organised these competitions were also largely middle class, well meaning amateurs who willingly and enthusiastically gave their time to encourage young people in what they saw as a sensible, life enriching pastime. Nowadays I think the middle classes have shifted their time and energies to charitable work of a more obviously social nature. The 'doing good' factor is so much more attached to the national or international dimension rather than the local.

Having said that, it was immediately apparent in Derry that there is still a strong body of support which stems directly from the middle classes there. The Feis wouldn’t have a hope of surviving if it weren’t for the army of volunteers who man the admission desks, the doors, the platform stewarding and all the other little tasks which have to be done.

This support has grown steadily since the Feis began in 1922, but I noticed that there were signs of the times. Most of the older trophies were solid silver whereas the modern ones were forged from electro-plated nickel silver – gone are the days of real gold, silver and bronze.

Cost is central to running a music competition and inevitably this brings some compromise. The Feis Doire Colmcille is an entirely independent and private organisation - they rely on no public subsidies. This leads to a certain amount of well-founded resentment. Doesn’t the Feis co-operate across communities, encourage young people, increase mutual understanding, provide opportunities to bring the arts to a wider audience? Yes, it does, but the arguments to date have apparently not been persuasive enough for the local council to offer financial encouragement. 

In reality, the Feis subsidises the council by paying for the council-run Millennium Forum Theatre for a complete week. That also means that the theatre doesn’t necessarily have to worry about programming for that period. The Feis helps to open up the venue to an audience which may well not visit there on other occasions.

My own feeling about public subsidy these days is that there are so many restrictive rules and regulations, compromising terms and conditions attached to the funding that if it is at all possible to do without, organisations should do so. Keep your independence, keep your control.

Feis Doire Colmcille was originally founded as the Irish equivalent of another Londonderry Festival competition, which it has now replaced entirely. Central to its ethos is a desire to celebrate Irish culture in the form of the Irish language and Irish dancing. The entry numbers for the latter provide the subsidy for the 'high art' classes. If you’ve ever been faced with a foyer full of fiercely competitive, young wig-enhanced girls - and, more pertinently, their mothers – you’ll understand when I suggest that to interpret this exercise as a promotion of Irish culture requires a large leap of the imagination.

My week at the Feis Doire Colmcille was marked by the warm hospitality of the people of the Maiden City, and my own recognition of the talent that continues to reside in all of our small communities in Northern Ireland. I was impressed by some of the musical performances of the teenagers; amused by the antics of some of the younger performers; intrigued by the dogged determination of the less gifted entrants; and sorry that I couldn’t give everybody a medal of some description just for taking part.

I hate to say it but I am reminded of the old motto of 'community arts': process not product. In a festival competition, inevitably the product is what you take into account as an adjudicator. But for the aspirant performer the process of learning, of coming to terms with difficulties and overcoming them, and of achieving a performance in public, is not something which comes naturally to everybody. 

Yet each one of the many competitors at the Feis had chosen to be there, to take part (with or without parental encouragement) and that is where process becomes equally important to product.

In the world of arts performance, nothing is ever predestined. You can be good one day and not so good another. Practice and more practice gives you the chance to be 'perfect', but not the certainty. The other caveat is that it is sometimes easy for talented people to become big fish in small pools.

Everyone who made an impression in the Feis Doire Colmcille deserved recognition – yet out beyond Derry there is another world filled with talent, and instant recognition is not a given. That doesn’t mean that performers shouldn’t go there but it does mean that they have to see themselves in perspective - and that there are degrees of success.

For what it is worth, my adjudication experience at Feis Doire Colmcille made me think that the old world of the music competition still has lots to offer young people in our modern world. Long may they continue.

Philip Hammond