Perspective - The state of New Zealand Banding

19-Dec-2010

Leading New Zealand musician and administrator, Kevin McMorran, provides an in-depth consideration into the current state of New Zealand banding.


One indicator of a healthy organisation is the ability to review progress and adjust to meet changing demands.  Naturally there are many others and the reason for this article is not to discuss aspects of management theory but the future prospects of banding in this country. This is a report on our progress from my perspective.

When I first started playing in the A grade there were eleven A Grade Bands all essentially thriving.  There was the odd instance of a professional player being used and overseas players were virtually unheard of.  The B Grade was strong with significant numbers. The C Grade and D Grade competitions were keenly fought with good numbers in each grade.

The reality today is that to a greater or lesser degree a lot of Bands of all grades are struggling.  The number of bands competing has dropped particularly in the lower grades.  C and D grade Bands have historically been the nursery of emerging talent.  Many are now struggling to survive let alone produce players of potential.  Many A Grade Bands require overseas players to fill gaps.

I need to make it clear that having overseas stars has been a boost for all New Zealand Banding and in no way am I opposed to their participation.  It is just that now they are not icing on the cake but essential ingredients.

My intention is to look at various aspects of the Band movement and try to give an objective view of how we are doing and what the future may hold. I will also try to offer some thoughts as to how some problems may be rectified.

These aspects can be broadly categorized under the following headings:

1.    Youth development
2.    Leadership
3.    Contesting
4.    Financial management/Funding
5.    Attitude/apathy

Youth Development

Youth activity has received quite a bit of attention over the last few years and there have been some very positive and successful initiatives.

The National Youth Band is still on the scene. I say “on the scene” instead of “flourishing” because there have been major difficulties obtaining funding to allow the Band to continue and audience support has been poor. This is no reflection on the Band itself or the musical direction. It may be that we need to think of changing the timing of the course as obtaining audience support in the summer months will always be problematic at least in terms of the concert hall. The support of local bands for the youth band has been generally pitiful.  Perhaps it is the time of year but at the very least we need to help ourselves.

The funding difficulties are more concerning. It is surprising, though, that more funds could not be obtained as Youth initiatives are very popular with funding agencies.  

The secondary schools Band is a relatively recent addition. By all accounts this has been a huge success giving the best young secondary school players an opportunity to develop and receive some excellent tuition. Those involved deserve congratulations.

The advent of the Director of education role has also been excellent with some very high calibre individuals making a significant contribution.

However in terms of general teaching of youth our record is nowhere near as good. Most Bands do little in the way of youth teaching. There are exceptions and some areas, especially Nelson, are doing superbly.  In the past we have been able to rely on schools doing the job for us. Unfortunately there are now real issues with brass teaching in schools. It is an extra expense for the school in an unforgiving fiscal environment and some brass teachers are anti Bands.

This is an area where we all can make a contribution.  There are now cheap, quality instruments available for hire or purchase.  Every Band should be looking at setting up a junior group and encouraging youth participation. Not everyone taught will continue and most won’t reach national honours but they may turn out to be hard working dedicated members of a Band who will labour long and hard to ensure the future of that Band. They will also enjoy the pleasure that comes with being part of a musical group whatever the standard.

It is very simple. We need more players. Otherwise in twenty years time there won’t be a band movement.

Leadership

I don’t want to use this article to belittle the national executive but I have had real concerns over the performance of this group in the last few years.  It would appear that they are bereft of any financial ability at all and each year operates at a loss hopefully to be rescued by the contest surplus.

We are often held up as a model of excellence. Listening to the standard of debate at various national conferences over the last few years one can only be horrified. Many remits reek of self interest and the standard of presentation is often abysmal.  This is followed by a procession of mainly ill informed, confused comment often from both sides!   There is little or no strategic consideration and decisions are made with little thought to future impacts.

This is where we desperately need leadership. Simply continuing with what we may have done in the past will not succeed.

For example should the national contest be run solely by the National association who then have the whole profit to address the funding shortfall?   

Why do we attract so little government funding?

Given the current Prime Minister’s knowledge of his local band (Kumeu) and honorary role in that Band have we made any attempt to meet with him?

Why is our rate of funding application success at national level so poor?

These are important questions. There are many others as well. We need carefully debate our future alternatives. This debate must be rational, intelligent and involve meaningful leadership from the executive.

Do we have a corporate plan? I am not promoting that we adopt a purely business/profit focused agenda but we need to plan for the future. The alternative is to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Leadership may involve having to challenge the status quo or to confront out of date attitudes.

As an aside the Norwegian Band movement did not exist in 1980 but they now have over 80 bands with approximately 40 full time paid administrators. Each year we have fewer bands and can manage one part time administrator.

The Norwegians are only one example in the rapidly growing European brass band scene. Perhaps we should ask them how they operate.

Contesting

Contesting is our life blood. There is no doubt about this. It should be a key focus for all bands but only as part of a wider programme involving public engagements and concerts.

Generally things have worked quite well although this year’s contest was affected by poor organisation at various times. For instance the B Grade test could not start on time as part of the music stands couldn’t be found. Some secretaries are still waiting for details of the Street March cancellation. This is simply unacceptable.

There are questions that need to be asked to ensure the future of this event.

Why is the sacred item part of the aggregate? If it was removed from the aggregate should we even retain it?

Why are some solo selections so unsuitable? For instance the Flugel section (one of the strongest) was given a junior standard solo. The Bass Trombone solo was picked for the event as it was in the bass clef. The fact that it was a tenor trombone solo apparently escaped notice.

Perhaps it is time to have the solos at a different time of year as has been tried in the past. The entries are now a fraction of what they used to be. The answer may lie with a radical reorganisation perhaps using the British model – preliminary rounds followed by a finals round.  

Can the contest be condensed to save costs?

What is the future of the street march given the increasing cost to adhere to regulations governing street usage?
There is one myth that needs to be dealt with – the Street March will not attract paying customers to Band events.  The standard is dropping and quite frankly it is obvious that some are simply going through the motions.  There is no point in making the event voluntary but if we are to continue then there needs to be a change of attitude.

The invitation slow melody is an excellent addition to the contest. Unfortunately it has never really been clear as to how you get invited. Should each regional winner be given automatic entry? There could still be some wild card spots. This may encourage participation at regional level.

One of the best developments of recent times is the number of young capable conductors emerging.  This is tremendous and I salute those people.

Overall these are relatively easy issues to deal with.  The contest is a chance for all Bands to perform at the pinnacle of their ability.  Let’s take away any barriers to achieving this aim.

Financial Management/Funding

Arts funding in New Zealand is a disgrace. There are many reasons for this and at least in the short term the arts will remain the poor cousin of sport.

Most Bands rely heavily on “Pokie” grants. Unfortunately while the pot is getting smaller the racing industry, in particular, is getting more and more of the cake. A higher standard of application in now needed to increase the chances of success. This is knowledge that can be shared which will benefit all Bands.  While relying on gambling money is not necessarily a great thing I am surprised at the lack of uptake by many bands.

Corporate sponsorship has declined markedly and one only needs to examine the contest programmes of twenty years ago to see this change. This reflects our growing minority status.

Some Bands have developed innovative ways of being financially self sufficient.  Again these ideas should be shared.  We need to think about how the Band movement can flourish not just our own individual groups.

It is clear that at National level we cannot sustain on going financial losses. We have an excellent and highly capable Treasurer. Regrettably this position is not automatically part of the executive.

It is my view that we are overdue a complete re-evaluation of our financial management.

There are several highly competent people with extensive financial acumen who could undertake a proper review of our financial situation.  This at least would be a first step. Putting the finances of the association on a solid footing will allow future planning to be undertaken with some degree of surety.

Apathy/Attitude

When considering the changes over the last twenty years the single most significant difference is the loss of passion or enthusiasm. Who contributes something back to their Band other than attending rehearsals? Who willingly will fund raise? Who is prepared to work hard to improve the lot of their Band?  The answer sadly is very, very few.

A question posed recently by someone I respect immensely was “why have we lost the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the passion for progress?   

This is really the crux of our problems. Perhaps it is a reflection of wider trends in society. However there are plenty of examples where other artistic mediums are progressing well. We all have challenges financially but these can be overcome.  It is far more difficult to confront our own attitudes and accept that as a musical entity we have to change.

It is always relatively easy to identify problems. It is considerably more difficult to identify the causes and extremely difficult to formulate solutions.

What can we do?

1.    Always be professional when in public – what does your group look like when in front an audience? If in doubt ask for some independent views.  You may not like the answer.
2.    Teach some young people to play. Don’t worry if think you aren’t qualified – there will be plenty of people who will help. However they won’t help unless you ask.
3.    Send your best people to the annual conference and openly debate any issues/remits raised
4.    Everyone contribute something extra to your Band
5.    Develop some goals for your group – can you plan to attend a national contest in the near future?
6.    Try and support other bands if you can
7.    For higher graded bands – make contact with the lower grades near you. Perhaps have a combined rehearsal. Lend them a hand. Don’t use it as a recruiting drive.

There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says every great journey starts with a single step. It certainly doesn’t start by kicking yourself in the backside.

Summary

I want to see a financially secure, musically successful Band movement where all ensembles have surplus players. I also want to see Bands being an essential component of the musical life of their communities.

This is achievable. However are we prepared to acknowledge the problems facing us and to develop meaningful solutions to these problems?

In my opinion if we do nothing then we will become an increasingly small minority interest with little public relevance until we finally disappear.

Kevin McMorran

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