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June 2019
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2003-01-28 "Baritone" Nelson takes second prize at feis

"I am going to award you 2nd prize Mr. Nelson, as I feel you are actually a baritone!" This was said to me in the late 1980s at the Hawk's Well theatre in Sligo by a Feis adjudicator from Northern Ireland whose name escapes me!


Even the date is a little blurred as I found the whole experience a rather negative and even damaging one at the time. What he had failed to recognise as an adjudicator was that as a young singer my top was insecure and lacking in confidence, and that I had a strong lower register - many tenors have a baritonal lower register, like Mr. Domingo for example - basically, I was `a tenor with a good bottom' (steady now).

As a young singer starting out on the lowest rung of a musical ladder one puts one's life, and larynx, into the hands of singing teachers, but also into the hands of competition adjudicators. Because of this I have mixed feelings about the merits of competition and `Feiseanna'.

In hindsight, I think that if you go in with the right attitude and see it merely as a means of gaining performing experience, then I think competitions can be a positive and character-building exercise. As has been well-documented already (mainly by me), I won the `Tiny Tots Trophy' for piano solo at `Feis Sligigh', but also several piano prizes at Sligo Feis Ceoil around that time too, my flawless performance of "The Minstrel Boy" at Sligo Town Hall scooping me another 1st Prize! In Dublin Feis Ceoil, I won First Prize in the "Lieder Bowl" (for German song) and the "Percy Whitehead Trophy for Interpretation" .

On the day, I was `the sound' that that adjudicator was searching for. An adjudicator often has a particular vocal quality that he/she thinks is suitable to a particular genre, and that's that really. I have seen a singer on occasions winning five or six First prizes in a Feis, and the overall award, purely because the adjudicator liked that particular vocal quality.

Some singers also suit competitions, but it by no means follows that if you win lots of competitions you will have a world-class career. Good competitors don't always make good performers later on. So it is all a bit of a lottery really, and aside from all of the above, many other things can influence a competition performance such as nerves, your accompanist, vocal and musical preparation, health, and simply one's general demeanour on the day. Exams are much the same situation. The examiner can have a `preferred sound or style'.

The examiner can be a particularly stiff marker, but at least with this, everyone is in the same boat. Some see exams and competitions as a sort of `necessary evil', but so long as you have prepared well and you view it as a means of bettering your performance, then I think exams, whether they be Associated Board, Royal Academy or whatever, can be a positive exercise too.

I worked through all my `Grades' in Piano and later Singing, and was never really the best in exam situations, sometimes I have to admit partly due to insufficient preparation on my part. In the `Percy Whitehead' competition for English Song in Dublin Feis Ceoil, I was one of only three singers recalled, and was forced to withdraw as I had only prepared one of the two necessary recall songs.

And I still won the "Lieder Bowl" despite repeating the word "busen"(sounds like boozin') over and over in the final verse of "Der Musensohn" by Schubert - you see, I wasn't always a swot? Then I learned the phrase "To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail" and from then on, I fully realised that there was no point in putting myself in positions like this again.

I think the `pushy mother syndrome' can be most damaging of all, and this I have witnessed at competition and exam level, at Stage-schools, and at its' very worst in those hideous and unnatural American beauty pageants for toddlers - one of my top `miscellaneous dislikes'!

So all of this aside, if you are prepared and use competition as a way of getting out there and performing in public - go for it! And if you lose - what the hell!