Last week I had the opportunity to travel up to Taree, on the Mid North Coast, to do some adjudicating at the local Eisteddfod. I was born in Taree, and spent much of my youth traversing the Pacific Highway between Port Macquarie competing in this very Eisteddfod.
Sometimes I question the relevance of an Eisteddfod in this era of political correctness. Is the purpose of a competition like this one just to celebrate the brightest and most talented? What I found returning to this country Eisteddfod was the opposite, a community teaching tolerance and diversity in all music genres, and the privilege it is to get up on stage and play for an audience, and what we learn about ourselves in the process. The event felt more like a local Festival (true to the meaning of Eisteddfod in Welsh), or an opportunity for a community to showcase the varied ecosystem of its musical community.
I was judging the instrumental section at this eisteddfod. ‘Instrumental” meaning the usual suspects: eg clarinets, flutes, trumpets, keyboard. But in this case also the occasional ukulele ensemble and bagpipe ensemble. Hell, I’ve played the rubber glove bagpipe before with Ensemble Offspring! Some performers were under 8, others approaching 10 times that age.
The Eisteddfod was run by the masterful convenor Tanya Brown (also a former local competitor) who has the gift of making everyone she meets feel like they matter. Alongside Tanya were a team of inspired locals: Tanya’s family at the forefront who all chipped in to make the event a success. These type of community events rely on the donation of time from many individuals. There were pencillers, presenters, music collectors, stage hands, the sound team, canteen staff, chefs, to name but a few.
Most sections had such diversity I felt like I was flicking radio stations. How do you compare a rock drummer and a Grade 2 flute player? But actually the fundamentals are really the same: who is making a good sound and playing with good rhythm, alongside presentation and who really moves you.
What I was really impressed with though, was the calm and resilient nature displayed by all 500 or so people who graced the stage over the week, whether in a solo, pop group or band. There is something about kids from the country and the way they hold themselves and show respect for each other. Not once did I witness anyone losing the plot, or displaying a bad attitude. Every single performer got up and brought credit to themselves, and then took any feedback like a sponge. It reminded me what I was like as a boy growing up on the Mid North Coast. When anyone took the time to come from the city, we listened!
Of course there were some really talented musos in this crop who performed with aplomb. But also what really moved me were some of the infants and primary ensembles. Some of these schools are far from privileged, and just the act of getting to the Manning Entertainment Centre was an achievement. Yet children got up with handbells or homemade marimbas and played them like their life depended on it. They were all led by music teachers who understood they were making a difference. At the end of the day, it’s about seeing the potential in every child for making music, and the benefits this bring to each child.
So I return to Sydney and my usual performing projects and teaching with a bit of a glow from what I witnessed in Taree. This is why we become musicians, yes to achieve excellence at times, but also to engage with each other, and celebrate our existence with music making.