Why do a music festival?

Two of my students, Bella and Lucy, recently participated in Richmond Performing Arts Festival. This is an annual festival of music, drama and dance, and is very well supported in the local community. To make my students feel they weren’t doing it entirely alone, I also entered two senior piano classes.

I last took part in a music festival when I was about 12. I played Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor K.457, and I still cringe at the memory of the event: the hot, stuffy hall at the Girls Royal Masonic School in Rickmansworth, the nasty upright piano with very plasticky keys, and the adjudicator’s comments on my performance, “spirited”, which was code for “try again next year”. Needless to say, I didn’t win anything.

My friend and piano teaching colleague, Lorraine, who runs a busy and popular piano school in south-east London, regularly takes part in festivals in and around London with her students, with some impressive results. This encouraged me to think about trying some festivals this year, as an opportunity for my students to experience playing to a different audience in a new venue.

Performing is a crucial skill for any musician: it builds confidence, which can be transferred to other aspects of one’s life, as well as reminding us that music is for sharing. What is the point of all those lonely hours spent practising the piano if you don’t allow others to hear what you’ve been working on?

Although I organise regular student concerts, at which my students willingly perform (some with the flair of the born performer) festivals are a great way of gaining performance practice. They also offer students the chance to hear other repertoire and, hopefully, be inspired by other young performers.

Bella is about to take her Grade 3 exam. She’s been working on the syllabus for nearly a year, and is well-prepared and ready for the exam. She played a lovely piano reduction of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Both Sides Now’; it sounded very pretty on the grand piano in the hall, with some very nice highlighting of the ‘song line’ of the piece, and the adjudicator had some very positive feedback for her. This is perhaps the most useful aspect of taking part in a festival – the comments after the performance, particularly for students who are about to take exams. Here is Bella in a recording we made at a recent lesson:

The rather less pleasant aspect of the festival was the high-proportion of ‘Tiger Parents’, competitive parents whose eyes are set only on first prize: nothing else will be good enough. The standard of some of the playing of the offspring of these parents was very high, and probably quite daunting for my students, but I’m afraid I did not feel that many of these children actually enjoyed playing the piano, which is a shame.

Having said that, the festival was, overall, a positive and enjoyable experience: later in the afternoon, I took part in the Bach/Beethoven/Brahms class, with the Adagio from Bach’s Concerto in D minor after Marcello BWV974, which forms part of my LTCL repertoire. I did not play to win, rather to have the piece heard by someone other than my teacher and, like Bella, I received some very positive feedback which will provide useful food for thought as I continue my study of this piece.

Lucy, meanwhile, gave an enthusiastic performance of ‘Bah-ba-doo-Bah’ by John Kember, one of the pieces she played in her Grade 2 exam last winter (and, as the adjudicator said, one of the most popular pieces in the current ABRSM syllabus!). If she takes part in another festival, I will enter her in one of the graded classes (she was in the class for her age group, 11-12 year olds), where she will be playing with students of a similar standard.

More on music festivals here

UK Federation of Festivals website here, with A-Z list of performing arts festivals around the country, details of adjudicators and other useful information.

Richmond Performing Arts Festival website