How many people remember the dreaded music exams that often took place in a dingy room with a stern faced adjudicator saying, ‘right, when you’re ready’? For me, this was enough to instil a fear of performing in public that has remained with me ever since. Having prepared Diabelli’s ‘Lesson in C’ from memory (I can still play it!) and knowing that I could play it with real joy, made the misery even greater. All the preparation, treasuring those lovely louds and softs and remembering to put my thumb underneath so that I could play a scale evenly, seemed to me to have been a complete waste. The only way I could retaliate was to whizz through the aural tests with a smug sort of ‘told you so’ expression on my face.
With these recollections, it occurred to me that there must be hundreds of highly talented young instrumentalists and singers longing to express themselves but who never had the opportunity to play in front of people just for the fun of it. So I decided that this was something the festival could address by creating a competition set up specifically to give these gifted children and teenagers the chance to perform in front of an audience and in a large space.
Essentially the competition is run on conventional grounds. The big difference however, is that we look for four winners as opposed to one. In addition, we offer a masterclass as part of the audition process. We ensure that the surroundings are congenial and do so by having informal (and sometimes quite flippant) conversations with each candidate, The final touch is everyone is offered a chocolate at the end.
There are two rounds with a panel of four professional musicians at each. The winners each receive £300 prize money as well as share a concert in the main festival.
One of the keys to success we have discovered, is the remote location of the auditions in the depths of the Devon countryside. As parents are not allowed to ‘sit-in’, being offered coffee at the same time as admiring the view are an added attraction. Bearing in mind that some people drive long distances to get there, it is vital that we make the day out worthwhile for all concerned.
The most significant aspect is the masterclass that is given to each candidate. There is never any negative criticism. There could be comments on where to stand; how to bow and how to enter the room; how to project the sound and much more besides. Quite a few candidates have never played with an accompanist before – something that comes with a shock. The panel might comment on the height of the piano stool; similarly the stand. Sometimes they suggest having a go from memory. It’s amazing to see the joy on the faces of some of the performers when they find adjusting one little thing makes all the difference to their playing.
The standard of the competition is extremely high; in some cases comparing favourably with finalists of BBC Young Musician of the Year. Many festival’s winners go, with scholarships, to the major conservatoires in the UK as well as, on occasion, to the States. A good percentage go on to Oxbridge and some of the younger ones might end up attending Junior College or being offered a place at a specialist music school. Interestingly, the spread of entries between the state and private sectors is usually fairly even.
As Artistic Director, it has given me huge joy to follow the progress of previous winners. Clarinettist, Jordan Black is Guest Principle of the Philharmonia; double bass player, Toby Hughes was a Strings Section Finalist at the Royal Overseas League; soprano, Charlotte Hewett studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and cellist, Joseph Pritchard is now a major scholarship holder at the Royal Academy of Music.
A competition at this level is a prized commodity and as such, needs to be organised with immaculate skill. To this end, the administrator, Sarah Fletcher, works tirelessly. Visiting schools and talking to teachers are only a small part of what she does to make the event the success it is.
I think it’s fair to say that the Competition gives these exceptionally talented young people the chance to realise that appearing on a concert platform is not a daunting prospect but one that can give an immense thrill. It is their innate musicianship that they are willing to share with other people that makes them so special and remembering the audience is there to enjoy themselves.