Open Letter to Festival Organisers

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I just want to be a winner...I just want to be a winner...The local competitive festival has been part of the infrastructure of the amateur arts in the UK since the 1880s. Supported by the British and International Federation of Festivals, dedicated volunteers put immense amounts of care and effort into maintaining these annual events around the country. I want to start by saying that these are a force for good in the universe, and I am very grateful to everyone who makes them happen.

As a participant, however, I can't help but notice that they can often feel like very small occasions. I'm talking here primarily about the choral days, as - you'll be astonished to hear - those are the bits of festivals I mostly experience. There are often only one or two choirs in each class, and very few people in the audience.

Now, there are several things you want from participating in a festival. One is the performance goal of an event where your accomplishments will be held up side by side with your local peers to see how you're all doing. At the last three festivals I have taken a choir to, we have come home with a trophy. I'd feel prouder of those trophies were there more people to be compared with in order to win them.

Another thing you look for is the chance to hear other choirs. You want to see what they're good at that we need to work on, to see what we've been working on that we do better than they do. You learn by listening both to those of your peers who are better than you, and those not so skilled - and especially from those at a similar level with somewhat different skill profiles. So, the fewer choirs you hear, the less valuable the experience.

Third, you want to sing to people. That's why we have a choir - singing with each other is nice, but sharing the joy brings a whole new level of meaning. Singing to a mostly empty hall isn't so fun.

Fourth, you're after the feedback from the adjudicator. This is really the only aspect that you get the full value from when participation is thin. The adjudicators really put the effort in to make everyone feel welcome and affirmed, and to give positive, constructive feedback. Yay to them! But they have a hard furrow to plough in the midst of these other obstacles.

So, I have been thinking about ways festivals could deliver more of what choirs (and, one imagines, other competitors) are after, so as to enhance the experience and therefore encourage us to keep coming - and indeed to encourage some of those who used to come but have stopped to come back. It strikes me that the model these events work to would be exceedingly effective if each class were getting 6 or 8 competitors, but with smaller numbers becomes much less effective.

Definitions of classes

Having lots of different classes and stringent definitions to qualify for a class are measures you need to manage large numbers of applicants. When that isn't your problem, it may be worth amalgamating classes together to make a more meaningful competition. Adult (mixed), adult (female) and adult (male) choirs can compete quite meaningfully together when there is only one or two of each.

You might also want to consider how you define the classes - do you really need at least 20 singers to count as a 'female choir'? That kind of obstacle can start to become counter-productive if you're seeing participation drop.

Information available to competitors and other potential audience members

At a recent festival I attended, the adjudicator said in every adult choir adjudication that they should have come earlier for the youth classes and made a morning of it. That would have been a great idea! But the competitors had only been sent information about their own specific class. Neither was the information on the festival website. Even the festival programme only included the order of classes on the day, not the timings.

There is a real opportunity being missed here to give competitors one of the things they want - i.e. the chance to hear other choirs. And indeed for those other choirs to have people to sing to. Again, in an era when participation was high, you probably only wanted choirs in the hall for their own class because of shortage of space, but this is not the current problem.

Never mind all the opportunities for profile-raising of events that social media might present, simply making information available in the channels you're already using would generate more engagement from participants.

Logistics on the day

The traditional way to organise these days is to programme each class individually, with a bit of time in between classes. Again, with half a dozen or more choirs per class, this works fine - you get to hear a good chunk of music, and then are ready for a break.

If there are only one or two choirs in a class, though, there is no sense of momentum. You end up hanging around for as long as you are being sung to. Previous competitors and the audience members they bring wander off and go home rather than staying on to hear what others are doing.

You also sometimes have the situation where the only choir competing in one class is actually warming up while the only choir competing in the previous class is performing. The earlier choir feels deprived of listeners, and the later choirs misses having been sung to. When there is an award across classes this is particularly problematic - you really do want to have heard the choir that has beaten you!

The suggestion above of amalgamating classes would be one way to deal with this. Another might be to run groups of classes together, so they all hear each other's performances before the adjudications and results for them all. This will not only give more a sense of occasion, with more people participating together, but will also make better sense of the adjudications. Part of the fun of the event is comparing your own opinions with those of the adjudicator, after all.

You wouldn't need to decide the groupings until after the applications are in, and most festivals have application dates a good three months before the performances. So there's time to consider how to build a more coherent and rewarding experience for participants and their camp-followers within the space constraints of auditorium and warm-up facilities.

The original plan for this post was to send as some feedback to a festival I have participated in recently. And then a couple of other thoughts crept in relating to other festivals I've been to in recent years. So eventually I decided to share it with the world, and I'm pretty sure these comments will generalise beyond my recent experience.

If there are festivals out there that have been succeeding in overcoming these issues and/or are continuing to keep up a level of participation that makes sense of the traditional form of logistics, please to tell us about them in the comments. These institutions are - I repeat - a force for good in the universe, and anything we can do the share ideas to keep them alive and well-supported would be helpful.

HI Liz,
I am pleased to say my local festival – the The Bournemouth Music Competition Festival – usually has a dozen or more choirs competing. Lots of these are barbershop choruses but there are usually plenty of other choirs too. There is occasionally a problem with individual classes being rather undersubscribed but generally the day runs well with good sized audiences for all classes. There is often 2-300 people in attendance and the standard can be very high.
The choir day is held in the Pavilion Theatre, which has a very special feel about it and a lovely acoustic. This year the event happens on the 25th June and you can find more details here:


Interestingly, Dyrck, that one seems to attract a lot of entrants from outside the locality - I have worked with at least two groups based in London who have participated. I imagine it is the combination of a reputation for high standards and good participation levels, as well as the classy venue, that keep people coming? Interesting instance perchance of success breeding success.

Any other factors involved in its attractiveness do you think?

I'm going to take some credit. When I first moved to the Bournemouth area the festival only attracted two barbershop choruses, sometimes only one, which, as you mentioned in your article, rather reduced the satisfaction of winning the class. So in year two I emailed every barbershopper, chorus and quartet I could find an address for and, lo and behold, about 10 choruses turned up on the day and a similar number of quartets. I still remind people via the Britonet and email (must do it soon) but it has become somewhat self sustaining. The only downside is that it's much more difficult to win these days!

What a most interesting article. As a festival organiser I can assure you that every single point you have made has been chewed over many many times. We would absolutely love to know why a choir chooses to come to us one year, and not (say) the next. Is it the ambience? The competition? The classes? The location? The free (or not) parking? The hotels? Maybe it's our stewarding. Choirs are full of interesting and funny people. We only wish that the members - not just the bosses would seek us out and talk to us, either on the day or at any time by phone or email. Be assured that we spend all this time and effort - and considerable sums of money - to put on a festival that everyone will enjoy and want to come back to again and again. Way back in the '70's I took part in 'Godspell' and a local vicar made a wonderful speech which included the lines "If the church is to remain timeless, then it must also remain timely". The same MUST be said about our festivals. Please help us to stay timely!!

Thanks for your thoughts Kevin.

You know, it occurs to me that none of the festivals I've been involved with have had any mechanism for collecting feedback from participants - not a huge sample to be sure, but still enough to start generalising from. It's the kind of thing that is routine in training events, and can be a bit of a pain at the time, though if the questions are designed to be quick to answer on the way out, they do flush out what is foremost in people's minds at the time. Or there are methods other than the exit-questionnaire. But it occurs to me that I might not have felt the need to write this post had I felt that anyone involved in the festivals I have entered was asking participants directly.

On re-reading my last comment it's all about me (must have been having a particularly egotistical day). Of course I should have mentioned that the most important thing is the superb organisation. Without the enormous amount of effort that Kevin and his colleagues put in there wouldn't be a festival to attend. My focus is on just one day but the festival runs for two weeks with hundreds of classes in various venues and I'm sure that the quality of the organisation is equally high throughout.
I know Kevin listens to feedback from the competitors – this year's choir day has been subtly changed to make things even better. It should be another great day. Thank you Kevin and please pass my thanks on to your colleagues.

I could not agree more with your observations in this piece. My chorus has revisited this year a previous decision to support some of the choral classes in local (Cornwall) music festivals, both "ladies choir" and "barbershop" classes - on the basis that if you are travelling you may as well sing more than 2 pieces and make an evening of it. At least one such entry was in direct respose to an appeal from the secretary that "unless more adult choirs support the Festival we may have to reduce its scope" - and we didn't want to let that happen. We experienced exactly the conditions you describe: small classes, scanty audiences, devoted organisers, and enthusiastic, brilliant and encouraging adjudicators. It would have been lovely to have had a choral session and to have listened to a whole range of competition pieces. Contrary to appearances, some of us barbershoppers love other kinds of choral music too! and appreciate the effort that goes into their preparation. Exposure to different genres would be good for everyone.

There are two local Music Festivals (held in Saltash and Torbay) which have enough entries for the barbershop classes - choruses, quartets, octets - to make an entire evening of it, and the organisers over the years have found them sufficiently entertaining to want to schedule them to "round off" the end of the festival with a burst of energy. We all enjoy that - it's a bit of a mini-convention for us. But it's really sad that there are no other kinds of choral music in the mix. We are singing to each other - all good; but only half the story, somehow. I would like to lend support to your request and will pass it around, to see if the snowball grows. We can't let these festivals, with their remaining outlet for amateur choral music, die away.

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