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Judge for yourself…
By Howard Snell

Is there life after contesting? You bet! But I still logged asap onto 4BarsRest early on the National Saturday evening to find the result and was delighted to see that Fairey with Alan Withington had won. Or should it be the other way round? The Band’s whirlwind musical chairs have now stopped and come to rest with top quality all round the stand. And Alan, pound for pound spent on players, over the last few years is clearly the leading contesting conductor anywhere. (Should there be a handicapping system based on each Band’s wages bill for players?) While Fairey can certainly go on a great run in the immediate future, without a doubt the current Band of the Moment is Cory: they are crowding the top at every contest. Bob Childs, who served a long and patient conducting apprenticeship in Yorkshire, is now reaping the benefits of his accumulated skills, served up with lashings of Welsh hwyl. (That’s the stuff that the Welsh football team has found that the rugby team lost about twenty years ago. Sven’s never heard of it.) Anyone who remembers the heady days of Cory with Arthur Kenney must expect a thorough testing at every contest in future. All English bands will have to be at the top of their game to survive the Cory assault.

I recently experienced a very different contesting situation during a conducting assignment in Austria. As a side dish to my conducting I was asked to join a wind band judging panel for a local contest. (Actually it was called a ‘Festival’ as wind bands are posh and don’t like to call these events anything so vulgar as Contests!) We, the panel of four sat at the back of a medium sized hall, in the open, and were required to give marks for ten categories, including subjects such as intonation, ensemble, balance and interpretation. We could talk or not as we wished. We were asked to hold up cards at the end of each band’s performance to give our marks (out of ten, with 0.5s in between … why not out of twenty, only God knows … although why brass bands don’t mark out of thirty, when no-one ever gets below 70 or 170, again only God knows.) Obviously this reveals at once what each juror has thought. The marks for each category are then totalled and divided to give a precise mark down to two decimal points. Yes, there was also ‘artistic impression, just like in ice skating.

The only guidance received from the organiser at the start was that the first band was not one of the best and not one of the worst, which is approximately what happens in the standard brass band ‘blind’ situation. (You know the sort of thing …. however well band No1 plays ‘there’ll be a few good ones along later’.) And please mark ‘no lower than 6’ and generally ‘no higher than 9’. So I started off as requested, marking around about the 7.5 mark, and tried relate to this level throughout. Two of my three colleagues started off at 8.5 and stayed up at and above 9 throughout, ignoring the organiser’s recommendations. (Which reminded me of the occasion I judged at Brass in Concert when the entertainment judges completely ignored the organisers sensible guidance as how to mark in relation to the music judges.) The third colleague was middling, while I was consistently the lowest. The open situation was excellent and allowed clear and natural audition of the bands, not the starved, mono sounds heard in brass band boxes.

What did I take from this experience? That judging is not an exact science ….well, we all knew that, didn’t we? …. that marks for segments of performance such as intonation, gives the whole event a pseudo-scientific impression. (Achtung! We haf vays of maykink you judge!) In effect the whole thing was just as chaotic and random as the banding equivalent. In fact more chaotic, when I remember that some bands played a set test piece, but then again some didn’t. Nobody seemed to care, and no explanation was forthcoming. This rather spoiled the effect of exactness carefully created by all those decimal points!

So where do I stand after this new experience? Well, much the same place as before. I enjoy judging, but prefer to do it by myself, in the open, and to take the performances as whole pieces, without carving them up into little dead bits. Then I know where I stand and the bands know where I stand. No nonsense. Naturally with those views I don’t expect to be judging much in UK until organisers hand out paranoia pills to all competing bands and conductors. They’ll need an articulated lorry to carry that many. (They’d suspect the pills anyway.)

Oh! The result of that little contest in Austria? Just like the Nationals where (I hear) the best band won, the best band won.

© Howard Snell 2002 [© 4BarsRest]

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Howard Snell

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