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Nationals Headaches?

The National Finals under the microscope

To the general public, the most important title any band can win is that of being crowned the "Champion Brass Band of Great Britain". Brass band aficionados themselves may baulk at this suggestion, and would most probably suggest the title of "British Open Champions", but the truth is, that even though the Open has the history and the tradition, it doesn't have the cache that being the "Champion Band" has. In the eyes of Joe Public, it is the band that wins at the Royal Albert Hall in October that is "The Daddy".

The contest itself has remained somewhat unchanged for many a year and the format for qualification has been much the same since 1945 when the "Daily Herald" newspaper and the indomitable John Henry Iles instituted the Regional Finals and the contest itself found its home at Kensington. So what's good, bad and due for a change at the National Finals.


The Strengths:

1. The Venue
2. The Qualifying Regional Championships
3. Organisation
4. Test Piece selection

There is little doubt that the venue itself is the most impressive feature of the National Finals. A bit like when the Rugby League Cup Final went every year down to the capital to showcase its product, the Albert Hall remains the most potent reminder that brass bands belong on the same stage as the biggest performers that can be found at the "Proms". The Hall is still being refurbished (and about time too) and it will be interesting to see what the final result will look, and more importantly, sound like, but to be truthful, nowhere else has the same ring to it does it?

The Regionals remains for us the great strength of the National Finals. Some may carp that not all the best bands get to the Finals, and that some areas are weaker than others, but that's the beauty of the contest - it is a National, not Yorkshire/Lancashire Competition.

The Finals themselves are also run on a very professional basis with new innovations being tried out (the overhead screens) and older traditions being resurrected (the Gala Concert). It seems to work at present and the Gala Concert has been a tremendous success. There is always scope for more new ideas being tried (a pre draw perhaps), but overall the organisation is of a high quality.

The past few years have seen a healthy selection of works being used at the contest, and long may it continue. Some may not have found favour with the punters, but then you won't please everyone all the time will you?

The Weaknesses:

1. The Venue and facilities
2. Venue costs
3. Accommodation costs
4. Too many bands
5. Prize money
6. Position of adjudicators box
7. Media and Press Coverage

There is also little doubt that the venue itself is also one of its greatest weaknesses. A bit like Wembley Stadium before it was closed, the Albert Hall has lived on its reputation for far too long as a premier concert hall. It never was, and never will, as it's acoustics in relation to what can now be offered at such venues as Symphony Hall in Birmingham, are third rate to say the least. The facilities have also been Third World as well, with no warm up room for the bands, toilets that date to the Crimean War and catering that did an injustice to the word itself. The changes cannot come soon enough, and given the cost of hiring the Hall for a day, the banding movement hasn't been getting value for money has it?

London is just too damn expensive a place to spend a night for 28 bandsmen, librarians, committeemen, supporters and conductor. £6000 doesn't buy you much in the way of comfort, food and rehearsal facilities and this more than anything is becoming the one factor that bands are finding harder and harder to come to terms with each year.

Just like the "Open" the simple fact of the matter is that there are too many bands playing at the National Finals in the Championship Section. There is no worthy reason whatsoever for 20 bands, retaining the notion of allowing the top 4 bands to be exempt, then demand them to compete at the Regionals in order that they can then be "invited" back to compete at the Finals. It is idiotic. Fewer bands mean a workable limit for so many sensible reasons.

The Prize money at the contest is in desperate need of a hike. Way back in 1982 the top prize was £2,000, whilst second place got £1,000 and the band that came third got £500. 20 years later the winners still got the same whilst second and third got an extra £500 each. Given that the value of money halves every ten years, in real terms the winners are getting something worth £500 for their efforts. "Not a lot", as Paul Daniels used to say.

The position of the box is poor and there is a need for it to be brought closer to the stage. Simple as that. It's too far away, and for a Hall that has the current acoustic properties of a Council skip, it needs to be closer to the stage.

When was the last time you read about the National Finals in the National Press - pre contest or post contest? Who is charge of promoting the event to the papers, the radio or even (Heavens forbid!) the television? The lack of coverage is the fault of the BFBB - without publicity the whole event becomes a non-event to the general public.

The Changes:

1. Less bands
2. The qualification process
3. Prize money
4. Adjudicators box
5. Facilities
6. Commissioning of test pieces
7. Press Facilities

Perhaps the easiest way in which progressive change could be made is to reduce the number of bands at the Finals. Why?

First it could mean that the contest could start at say, midday and still end in plenty of time to organise everything for the Gala Concert. This would give the opportunity for bands to make more appropriate (and less expensive) travel and accommodation costs.

In order to maintain the quality of the field by reducing the number of bands, to say 15, a new qualification process should be put in place. Each region should still provide at least one qualifying band, and the winners should of course defend their title - but the rest? New ideas should be sought in order to enhance rather than reduce the strength of the contest without diluting its "National" basis.

The prize money is in desperate need of being raised. There is no excuse at all for not raising the prize fund by a least the rate of inflation, whilst there is a decent argument for the prize money to be more equitably distributed among more of the bands. Costs have risen, yes, but surely not so far that a decent hike in the prize money couldn't have been done?

The position of the Adjudicators "box" needs to be desperately addressed. It is simple to far away from the stage. Anyone who has sat close to where the box is will know that the sound becomes distorted and muffled and detail is lost - and the box is at least 35 yards from the stage. We know you have to sell seats in the Arena, but there is surely a better balance to strike. All this, and this year you have "Masquerade" - a immensely detailed work - a move closer would surely reduce the opportunity for a "Blowers Charter" to win?

It may be not in the hands of the BFBB, but thee is a distinct lack of facilities for the bands at the Albert Hall. No "warm up" room and up to last year, some pretty shoddy changing facilities. Refurbishment has been undertaken, but will this include just some features that the "Open" has?

The commissioning of test pieces need to have a long-term focus. Is anyone at the BFBB looking at 2, 3 or even 10 years ahead? Why not find out about the possibility of getting the likes of a MacMillan or Turnage to write for the event in the future? A long term strategy should be out in place.

And finally - Press facilities. Is there a media room available for the press to use? Internet connection, interview room, photocopying facilities? Not just for us, but why not encourage the media to come and enjoy the contest with facilities that at any other cultural event are standard fare. Interviews with the conductors, players and judges without the scrabble after the results. So much more professional don't you think?

Coda:

It may seem we have had a go at the Nationals, but that isn't the case. The contest has much strength, but at the moment it does need to accept the need to modify its approach. The infrastructure is there, but if there is no change it will very quickly become outdated. A few small steps in the right direction and things will be possibly as good as ever.

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