Festival Memories

We’ve been having a clear-out and I have unearthed some musical memorabilia, so this week’s blog is an unashamed trip down memory lane.

I have three certificates from the Newcastle-under-Lyme Music Festival.  They are all from my very early childhood – the first being from 1970, when I was five years old.  There’s a photo somewhere from the local paper, with all the children who played in that “8 years and under” class and the formidable adjudicator, Miss Winifred Law.  I remember the photo but nothing about the event.  

When I was a little girl, a music festival was not Glastonbury, or Latitude, or even Trowbridge Folk Festival.  It was a competition for musicians of all instruments and ages, sometimes including drama classes as well. Festivals were one of the things you did if you had piano lessons. They were taken very seriously. You wore a Sunday-best dress and a ribbon in your hair, and were allowed out of school to compete.  Some people did not go back for the end of the school day but my mother was a stickler and unless it was within ten minutes of the bell, back to school I went.

Newcastle Festival, the most well-established in North Staffordshire, took place in the Walter Moberly Hall at Keele University.  This was a red-brick mid-20th-century building with tall windows down each side and a parquet floor.  Every March it welcomed the parade of children, parents and music teachers who came and played the pieces they had been practising for weeks or months.  We sat on rows of hard metal-legged chairs on the shiny pale wood floor.

I went in for two classes every year. For each age group there was a “Set Piece” class and one called “Own Choice”.  It never was my own choice, of course.  Miss Hughes told me what I was going to play, and it was usually something I was going to play for an exam later that term.

Looking at the certificate when I unearthed it from the filing cabinet in the cellar this month, I noticed the date for the first time.  It’s a very familiar date – because it’s the day my sister 

Alison was born.  I had a sister already, who would have been two. Who took me to Keele? It was about half an hour’s drive from our house.  Mind you, my mother was very matter-of-fact about pregnancy and followed the school of “Carry on as normal till labour starts”. Maybe my sister wasn’t born until the evening. 

All my certificates are the pale blue second-class ones.  First-class certificates were a lovely yellow colour, pale gold almost.  I never got one of those.  I remember seeing them in the hands of a pair of sisters who both had thick, dark blonde plaits. I have an amalgamation of memories from all the years I went there, years of watching the same sisters win the classes I entered.  I didn’t mind.  I had very little concept of performance – I just knew it was harder playing on a different piano in front of lots of people. If I got to the end of my piece and off stage again I was happy, and I waited to get my inevitable blue certificate.

Next week I will stay on this topic and reflect on the place of competition in musical education.