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4BR January Soapbox
Reviving the twitching corpse

Sandy Smith airs his strong opinions on the problems associated with the modern brass band entertainment contest...

Sandy Smith

Many thanks to the 4BR Editor for his recent thought-provoking article on the future of the entertainment contest. 

Unfortunately, trying to stimulate an intelligent discussion on the music we play - regardless of whether test-piece, entertainment contest or concert – is like trying to revive the apathetic twitching corpse of British banding with defibrillator paddles powered by batteries from an electric toothbrush.

Hard to jolt

Iwan Fox is right: It is going to be hard to jolt the entertainment contest back to life unless (at elite level especially) we reconnect with the very purpose we developed it for in the first place.  

He was also right to point out that the Brass in Concert Championship has become a fine showcase festival - although its beating contesting heart continues to be dangerously overloaded with unnecessary difficulties.

As a contest, Brass in Concert (and it is not alone) has lost its direction - primarily through its over-complicated marking system that rather than freeing up competitor’s artistic aspirations, has clogged up their arteries with its stodgy tick-box adjudication menu.

Marking handicap

If you are going to issue a ‘mission statement’ that tries to underpin an event’s ambition with words such as ‘free of artistic restriction’ and ‘the most current and progressive form of the genre’ - why handicap it with marking system criteria that in every way you look at it contradicts the desire.

Take as an example Martin Winter’s 2013 programme for Brighouse & Rastrick, which certainly ticked the box for new ideas and music - only to be shot down by one ‘entertainment’ judge who said that, "... one band played all new music. This just doesn't do it for me. I like things I know.”

Overused and abused

Innovation is the most overused and abused word in brass band entertainment contesting - especially when we don’t seem to know who it is actually aimed at. 

As Bram Gay pointed out so succinctly in 1971; We should be communicating with the public - not just the contest goers who are sat in the hall - and certainly not just the judges. 

If all this wonderful innovation we hear about is so good, why isn’t it getting concert promoters on the phone demanding our services to pack out their high profile promotions, or television producers banging at the door to give us a prime-time spot on the airwaves?   
 
Tried and tested

In fact, the most rewarded performances at Brass in Concert in recent years have not differed very much from the usual tried and tested formulaic approaches. 

During the last four contests, bands finishing 1st or 2nd overall have included in their programmes Mahler, Berlioz, Dvorak, Puccini and Widor - a Charlie Chaplin song, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Londonderry Air’, ‘The Sound of Music’, a Rachmaninov piano concerto (without a piano) ....and ‘Hootenanny’.

In terms of innovation or even current and progressive forms of the genre, they are not really very different from Cory’s 1971 winning Granada programme. 

Of course, you can argue that a lot of the source material from the above list are still very good examples of their respective genres, and when arranged and played well, still hit the spot - but with who? Innovatively free from artistic restriction and communicating with a wider audience they certainly are not.

Contradictory

It has also led to another contradictory musical approach - that of a plethora of ‘new’ music mistakenly designed to show that bands are showcasing ‘...their excellence as performers of high-quality original and arranged brass band music.’

I won't dignify it with the term ‘original’ as the vast majority is depressingly far from it. 

In the rush to tick the mission statement box there has been a terrible lack of quality control in some of the stuff being played; cliché ridden clones of structureless diatonic dross dressed up with spectacular titles. 

It may be new, but that is about it.

Meaningless

In contrast, anyone daring to play one of Howard Snell’s truly inventive ‘high-quality’ arrangements from years gone would be seen as being regressive.

We are also told by the rule-makers to be ‘current and progressive’ - yet invariably that means variations on tried and tested conservative musical themes - but now resplendent with a grandiose, meaningless name.  

And have we really come that far, when the perception of what is ‘entertaining’ still means the inevitable inclusion of a staid, ‘funny’ item?  Funny hats and bad comedic acting seems to be a brass band entertainment contest default setting. 

The best programmes from the era of Howard Snell and Ray Farr contained much more quality and subtlety in terms of both musicianship and presentation than is the general norm today. 

High quality source material

For me (and I acknowledge I may be on my own here) there needs to be a move back to high quality source material, whether composed or arranged. That - and playing it rather well. We also have to acknowledge that if we are ever to communicate to a general public (as Bram Gay pointed out 45 years ago) then we have to forget about playing and pleasing ourselves.

If some of my thoughts seem a little contradictory in themselves, then I will try and explain myself better. 

I have no problem at all where bands source the music they play; whether composed for brass band or arranged from another genre. A great variety of styles and genres can be entertaining on many levels. 

World class

For instance, I’ve just been listening to the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna with the world-class Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (please note the appropriate use of the term ‘world-class’) playing with verve, style and panache on a variety of music which many brass banding people may consider dated and terribly conservative in itself.

However, it was brilliantly played - and it didn’t have to rely on overhead multi-media projections, dry-ice and disco lighting, long winded compere explanations or large print programme notes re-emphasising its ‘theme’ to those who couldn’t understand what it was about either.

It was just high quality, intelligently produced, superbly performed music making. The entertainment and enjoyment of the audience in the hall, and at home, simply came from that. 

Complex and simple

The ultimate solution to the future purpose of the entertainment contest genre is a complex one, but to start we should surely ask our judges to mark on the basis of a simplified mission statement and trust in their overall judgement.

I still have a passion for entertainment contesting, but have to admit that I don't think I can get a handle on what is going on with it at present. 

If we really want to reward those willing to go out on a limb by communicating to a wider audience by producing something truly different then the very purpose of the entertainment contest must be simplified and better defined.

We can be brilliant musical communicators and fantastic entertainers without having to resort to just ticking adjudication boxes - and I believe there is a whole world of brass band lovers out there who will appreciate that too.

Finally, to those reading this, please respond with your own thoughts. Without your responses a meaningful discussion is impossible and the twitching corpse of British banding will be wheeled ever closer to the morgue.

Sandy Smith



Foden's Band - Matt Ford - Lichfield Cathedral

Friday 24 November • 19A The Close, Lichfield WS13 7LD


Lofthouse Brass Band - Pudsey Churches Together Christmas Concert

Saturday 25 November • Pudsey Parish Church, Church Lane, Pudsey, LS28 7BD LS28 7BD


Lofthouse Brass Band - Lofthouse Christmas Fair

Saturday 25 November • Lofthouse Methodist Church, Leeds Road, Lofthouse, Wakefield WF3 3NE


Enfield Citadel Band -

Saturday 25 November • The Salvation Army. 42 Clarence Road. Southend. SS1 1AN SS1 1AN


Newstead Brass -

Saturday 25 November • John Godber Centre. Ogle Street. Hucknall. Nottingham NG15 7FQ


Thoresby Colliery Band

November 22 • Sadly due to work commitments we are looking for an experienced Percussionist to join our friendly and progressive Band. The Band has experienced a recent run of good form and is currently enjoying a sensible mix of contests, concerts and recordings.


Thoresby Colliery Band

November 22 • Sadly due to work commitments we are looking for an experienced BBb Bass player to join our friendly and progressive Band. The Band has experienced a recent run of good form and is currently enjoying a sensible mix of contests, concerts and recordings.


Hitchin Band

November 21 • Due to a re-shuffle in our cornet section we are now looking for a REPIANO or FRONT ROW cornet player. We are a busy band currently at the top of the 1st section in the London and Southern Counties area. We rehearse Mon + Thurs - 7.45-9.45pm.


Neil Samuel


Conductor