The Feis Factor: Laura Gilsenan

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Since its inauguration in 1896, the Feis Ceoil ('Festival of Music') has remained at the heart of Ireland's vibrant music tradition. A bastion of excellence in the promotion of education and performance, the Feis has played a significant role in the lives of many successful musicians, actors and writers. Famous prizewinners include John McCormack, James Joyce, Bernadette Greevy, Hugh Tinney, Philip Martin, John O'Conor, Finghin Collins, Ann Murray, and Orla Boylan, to name but a few. The Feis Ceoil, with the support of ESB, has now expanded to more than 180 competitions, covering all ages from 7 years upwards. In celebration of the Feis Ceoil Association's 120th year, we met with CEO Laura Gilsenan to discuss her relationship with the organisation.

Growing up in Athboy, Co. Meath, what did the Feis mean to you?

There was only one music teacher in the town, so you had the option of either learning piano or not! It wasn't until I went to boarding school at Loreto on the Green [Dublin] that I became aware of the Feis. We all sang in choirs and I was also conscripted into the school orchestra as a viola player—learning on the job pretty much (and not very well I might add...). Before long I found myself in Middle Abbey Street at the Feis Ceoil orchestra competition. It was then that I became aware of what was going on in other schools, and got some sense of the scale of the Feis.

How did you find your way into music administration?

By devious route! I had been working in Human Resources for a number of years but had always been involved in singing, since developing a love of choral singing in school. A life-changing event gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life and I promised myself not to spend another day doing something that I didn't love. I went back to the RIAM as a mature student to do a diploma in performance and teaching and while there, met Dearbhla Collins who needed some additional administrative help on the Veronica Dunne International Singing competition, so I offered to come on board. I really loved it and found I was reasonably good at it. After that came a project with the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses, during which I heard that the administrator job for Feis Ceoil was about to be advertised. When it was, I applied and here I am!

Taking into consideration the reality that the worlds of education and the performing arts have become part of the greater business community—a fact illustrated by the Feis Ceoil's change in structure from an organisation to a company in 2007 — how does this alter the overall outlook of the festival?

The change from organisation to company hasn't altered the outlook of the festival really at all. The changes were implemented in order to provide a recognisable structure within which the Feis could operate as a professional organisation. Given the role of third-party sponsorship in Arts organisations and the considerable responsibilities of organisations with charitable status, it is very important for us to maintain the highest level of professional standards and accountability. However, on a practical level, the aims and objectives of the festival are largely the same as when the Feis was set up.

Take us through a day in the life of the Feis Ceoil's CEO.

There is definitely no 'typical' day! Now that most of our information is available on our website, quite a lot of time is spent updating information or working on back-end systems to improve the user experience. Apart from coordinating all the artistic aspects of the Feis and managing sponsor relationships, I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the company, so I could be writing up Board meeting minutes, making sure we comply with the requirements of the CRO and CRA (Charities Reg. Auth.), updating our accounting package with financial information etc....

We also have a Members Programme which requires attention at certain times of the year, and of course we run a Gala Concert after the Feis and a further series of concerts in September—all in the National Concert Hall—so there is plenty to be done on that front too. I think people may have the idea that we shut up shop after the Feis for a few months, but in fact we start planning for the next year almost immediately, calling together our music sub-committees to discuss test pieces for the following year. Given the size of the event—with 5000 competitors for nearly two hundred competitions over a two-week period—an enormous amount of advance organisation and planning is necessary behind the scenes to facilitate its eventual smooth running.

How would you describe the 'Feis experience'?

I think there are as many 'Feis experiences' as there are competitors! However, I would hope that the over-riding experience is that of a warm welcome, a fair playing-field, honest feedback and leaving with an increased passion for music-making. Inevitably, some people will experience disappointments and frustrations, but we do our best (in the areas that we have some control over) to keep these to a minimum.

Adjudicators play such a fundamental role in a competition of this size, how does the Board go about selecting its judges?

We have a number of music sub-committees, each representing a certain discipline (Piano, Strings, Vocal etc...). After each Feis, these meet with our Music Secretary to review the previous Feis, set the next year's test pieces, and submit a list of individuals who they agree would be suitable adjudicators. I then make contact with those people and figure out the logistics.

When choosing repertoire for competitions, what criteria is factored into the process?

The biggest challenge when choosing repertoire is to set pieces that will be accessible to the target group of competitors, but will stretch them just enough. If a piece is too difficult it will alienate some; too easy and it does not accurately represent the Feis standard. Of course the repertoire also has to be attractive enough so that competitors actually like to perform it...no mean feat!

Why is it important to the festival to have so many competitions under its umbrella?

We try to represent as many aspects of classical music as possible, for as wide an age profile as possible, across as many instruments as possible. By definition this is going to result in a large number of competitions. However, it is important that we constantly review the competitions we have in order to avoid excessive overlap and to ensure continuing relevance. Occasionally, we have amalgamated competitions where appropriate, and even discontinued some while introducing others, such as the recent Orchestral Conducting competition. It is a constant process of review and refinement.

Aside from the ESB, from where does the Feis source funding and how difficult is it to attract advertisers/sponsors/donations each year?

As you are well aware, funding for Arts organisations is very difficult to source. We are extremely fortunate to have forged a very strong relationship with ESB over the past eight years, without whom, in the absence of any State funding, Feis Ceoil would have long since ceased to exist. The fact that there is no government funding for our organisation comes as a great surprise to many people, but as the Arts Council does not fund competitive organisations, and the arts allocation from the National Lottery is administered by the Arts Council and therefore subject to the same criteria, there is simply no other available State revenue option.

Next to our title sponsor, our largest source of funding is competition entry fees. Other than that, our members make an annual subscription and we receive some donations. We are lucky to have a loyal group of advertisers whose contributions go towards the printing of the Programme, which is extremely expensive to produce, but which provides a valuable and comprehensive record of the event.

We are also very fortunate to have a number of prize fund sponsors/donors, who make monetary awards available to certain competition winners each year. Increasingly, we are seeing that the more senior competitors are more interested in competitions that carry a monetary award, rather than ones which may just have silverware!

What are you enjoying most about this year's competition?

When it gets to competition time, I love just dealing with what's in front of me every day. The preparation is all done, every possible scenario has been pre-empted and provided for, and then it's just a case of seeing what each day throws up. Things that we suspect might go wrong very often don't, but then something crops up totally out of left field that you didn't see coming. A calm disposition and a good sense of humour go a very long way! I don't get to attend many competitions, as it is a very busy office, but I love meeting competitors who come in to the office to collect their certificates, parents, members and volunteers who come in for a chat and to tell me about the stunning performances they have heard.

Going forward, what's your vision for the Feis?

Ideally I would like to see secure funding put in place for the Feis so that long term plans can be realised. I think that the Feis is currently very healthy, but there are always things that can be improved upon, both on an artistic and organisational level. Having said that, the core aspects of the Feis that have remained largely unchanged in its 120-year history should also be cherished. That is one of our objectives in putting on this exhibition on 120 years of Feis Ceoil — celebrating recent innovations while respecting the foundations on which the Feis was built.

The exhibition on 120 years of Feis Ceoil will run from 28 April at the Little Museum of Dublin.

To find out more about the ESB Feis Ceoil see: http://www.feisceoil.ie/

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