SMOKE: Child Prodigies In Cold Halls

Originally published: 26 August 2005

It's been a wintry week in Cape Town, with an icy wind and scatterings of rain, and such weather always reminds me of Eisteddfods for some reason.

From about the age of eight I started participating in them. I loathed them from the start, I loathed them all the way through and I continue to loathe the memory of them.

Appalling, man.

They always seemed to take place in cold, draughty school halls, and since I was in junior school I only ever had on shorts (a gross discrimination against boys with hairless legs).

There'd be the stage, upon which the grand piano would perch for all to see, and beneath it a table with the adjudicators. Stern old ladies and balding gents like Johan Laas of Idols fame, with nary a smile between the lot of them.

No wonder - I too would be a humourless bastard if I had to sit through day after day of pudding-fringed brats hacking the life out of the compositions of the grand masters, and having to give fair, objective criticism.

I could never stand there and tell a kid they have potential when I what I really mean is they're shockingly bad with no musical future - I'd have to tell them straight:

"You're crap, kid. Get out."

Which perhaps explains why I'm still awaiting that call to adjudicate.

[Quick aside: you do know what an Eisteddfod is, don't you? I'm just assuming everyone does, but it suddenly struck me that maybe it's an in-house term that only weird, classically-trained musicians and budding young poets and thespians know about. I have no idea. How freaky.

If not, here's the explanation (which I didn't want to give at first as I thought it would insult your intelligence or general knowledge):

An Eisteddfod is when a bunch of people of some artistic discipline (like music or drama) get together for a competition, in which you play one or more musical pieces and are graded according to medals. So you either turn in a gold, silver or bronze performance, or you just get a mark.

Your piece is critiqued in front of all the other participants and a report is handed to you to take back to your teacher. Then the next difficulty level/genre/ instrument type files in, and so it goes for days on end.]

Now that that's out of the way - I was at these damn things all the time since I played both piano and violin at the time. My brothers and sisters all played multiple instruments as well and my Mother always rounded up whoever she could to come and support their siblings.

I had no problem listening to and supporting my siblings, but I had a massive problem sitting though hour after hour of compositions I'd heard a thousand times before, and following the same tired ritual of silence, clapping, nervous shuffling and the occasional stifled cough.

It felt like church. If you coughed or sneezed during a performance heads would turn to look at you, and if you made eye contact you would be greeted by a smile - a smile that let you know precisely how much of an uncouth little bastard you were and how much you'd just broken the reverie of the saintly music and ruined the day.

I also couldn't stand the tension of watching my brothers and sisters - I spent the whole time just waiting for one of them to make a mistake and I died every time inside when they did.

My own tension was enormous - I was a nervous child anyway and although crowds and audiences didn't bother me stern-faced, disapproving Pigs did. I always felt like I'd never practiced as much as I should have, and indeed most of the time I hadn't.

Sitting up there on a stage in front of people whose lives were about music and nothing else, frauds like me were easily spotted and dealt with.

I got one or two gold medals along the way but I mostly got silver, or bronze. I'm actually starting to see a pattern here - I really have been made to pay for being the second-born, you know.

Then there were the politics, and those were the worst. You think child model mommies are bad? Amateurs, china - amateurs. True evil is to be found in the ranks of Music Mothers, as their evil is far more insidious.

Fashion Mums will just up and sprinkle jagged glass in her child's rivals' shoes - no such boorish, prehistoric thuggery from Music Mums.

They all listen to classical music and thus believe themselves more special and cultured than the next, and their evil comes in the form of deprecating little comments, snide asides, hurtful gossip and adjudicator manipulation.

They jump teachers at the first sign of a wrong note from their darling pookums and anything less than five gold medals per day they consider to be a personal insult, to be stored in the memory banks and avenged sometimes years down the line.

All the same kids would compete at all the same Eisteddfods and we got to know each other as kids in such environments always do. The same kids would always do the best and there were certain kids who everybody knew who were considered the best for their age.

I just bumbled through as best I could, freezing my bony ass off and examining the pronounced goosebumps on my forearm, or the red circles on my inner thighs which would sometimes appear for no reason.

There's only so much Vivaldi and Brahms and Mozart and Chopin a young lad with dreams can take, and just like poetry and literature teachers at school they thrashed all the enjoyment out of the experience for me.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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