Open Letter to Festival Organisers
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.