Robert’s Ramblings: facing the frights of festivals

TMF 2016 PHOTOGRAPHS BY: ALAN PEEBLES

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On Sunday morning, I was driving back from a gig the previous night in Tobermory when it occurred to me that it was, of course, Mothers’ Day.

I immediately skipped a track or two on my iPod to find Calum Kennedy’s famous rendition of Mo Mhathair (My Mother). This was appropriate on two levels because the song’s writer, Neil MacLean, was originally from Tobermory.

The song’s lyrics never fail to set the mind wandering back to the days of one’s own upbringing. On reaching my flat in Glasgow, I phoned my mum to see if she had received the card I had sent the previous week, after my annual (and very handy) Mother’s Day reminder text from my Auntie Margaret.

My mum, who retired from primary teaching a few years ago, had spent her week volunteering at the Lochaber Music Festival and, consequently, we ended up having a long, nostalgic reminisce about my schoolboy years competing.

When I was in primary school, I received great help and motivation from the festival’s founder, the late David Maitland, without whose passion and commitment the music festival would never have existed. Over the years that I competed, my singing was aided by the expertise of Rachel Walker, Christopher Josey and the late Heather Moore.

As with all such competitions, my mum came across a couple of very young competitors last week who were suffering from nerves before they were due to perform. It is over a decade now since I last competed at the Lochaber Music Festival, but I can still very clearly remember the mixed feelings of nerves and excitement as the adjudicators would look up from their papers, peer over their glasses, and utter the fateful words: ‘When you’re ready, Robert.’

I remember in one of my first music festival performances, I buckled under the pressure and ran off the stage. I sat with my head in my hands in the corner of the hallway wallowing in a mix of disappointment and embarrassment. If memory serves me correctly, the adjudicator that day was a particularly lovely lady called Dorothy Howden.

Dorothy left the competition immediately in order to come out and give me the kindliness and encouragement I required to return to the hall and finish the song – which I eventually managed to do, albeit through nervous sniffles and hiccups.

The following year, I was able to sing to Dorothy with a great, big, confident smile on my face. If she hadn’t brought me back into the hall, I may well have run away from music forever.

That story epitomises the music festival. It is not ultimately about competition. It is purely about encouragement – something all the committee members and volunteers dish out in abundance.

Now and again, before an important gig with the band, the nerves come flooding back to me and I employ exactly the same coping methods I was taught all those years ago: taking deep breaths from the diaphragm, and releasing tension in the shoulders by allowing the arms to fall loosely by my side.

If the nerves are truly unbearable, I still adopt the method taught to me by the late Margaret Cairns, who used to accompany me on piano while quietly lending her inestimable wisdom. This method is not particularly scientific but it always works: to imagine the whole audience are in fact cabbages.

Nerves at the music festival are certainly not caused by the atmosphere in the room. The committee and the volunteers always offer a wonderful welcome when competitors arrive. Yet, no matter how supportive the audience are, nerves are such a natural part of performing that they can never be completely avoided and they will never totally disappear. They will, however, prove a much smaller issue if they can be conquered at such a young age.

There are three examples I can bring to mind of severe nerves I have had in recent years. The final of the Mòd gold medal was probably the worst. It is followed closely, however, by the Pan Celtic International Traditional Song Competition in Ireland last year (at which I was representing Scotland), and also by Tiree Music Festival two years ago when Skipinnish finished off the whole festival filmed by two separate television companies for three separate TV programmes.

Anyone who has seen the Skipinnish documentary from that year will know all about my attack of nerves before we took to the stage.

On all three occasions, I was able to come through the performances – thanks, I am sure, to the valuable lessons I learned at the Lochaber Music Festival when I was very small.

In this phone call to my mum, I recalled my nervous states as the car pulled up at St Mary’s school, or the Ben Nevis Distillery if it were a night competition. The competitions at that time felt like the be-all-and-end- all. Sometimes, I would be lucky enough to come away thrilled at the result.

When the competitions did not go my way, I would leave feeling I had to do better next time. Both situations inspired me to practise more and more.

Looking back now, I was really winning every time – even when the victory did not manifest itself in silverware. The true result was far more profound than a trophy on a mantelpiece. For every moment on the stage at the Lochaber Music Festival, I was developing control over troublesome nerves; I was gaining an ability to accept defeat as graciously as triumph; and I was gleaning musical experience to last a lifetime.

The Lochaber Music Festival captured my imagination as a youngster and made me believe that being a musician was possible.

Over a dozen Mothering Sundays later, I find myself eternally grateful for all of this, and I hope that many of those who competed this year (whether they lost or won) will reap their own rewards in the future.