Editorial ~ 2003: March & April

31-Mar-2003

This month we give our views why we think there is a need for a complete re-grading of bands, the need for the Europeans to tell the English what to do, and why the Nationals have shot their feet off (once more) by not picking a proper


Time for a Re-grading?

When the First Section was set up way back in 1992, one of its primary objectives was to provide bands who would otherwise struggle against the top championship outfits in their areas with the opportunity to compete competitively at a level which more accurately reflected their abilities.

It was meant to provide bands with a final stepping stone of higher quality contesting against rivals of commensurate potential those too good for the old Second Section, but not quite good enough to be consistent contenders against the very best bands at the Championship level. It was also meant to release those "top bands" to compete in a smaller Championship Section where quality not quantity was the major factor, whilst those bands in the lower sections could gain promotion to a more accessible level without overreaching themselves.

Eleven years later, it seems that what started as a well thought out idea has become something of a bloated division of mediocrity. The bands themselves are not really to blame they can only compete at the level at which they are graded on the basis of the Regional contest, but after hearing performances at seven of the eight regions this year there is little doubt that the vast majority of bands that compete here now find themselves in a section that has started to lose its relevance especially in relation to its initial aims and objectives.

What has happened in the last decade is that the First Section has become a bottleneck; a division that is over subscribed by bands that have no realistic potential (or ambitions in many cases) to get into the Championship Section, whilst the top level itself has not seen the overall improvement in quality that was envisaged when the First Section was put in place the number of real top quality Championship bands hasn't increased. What it has also meant is that the Second and Third Sections have now become almost indiscernible from each other in terms of quality and standard of performance - divisions that are no longer as clearly defined as they should be.

The time has therefore come to readdress the imbalance and return the Championship and First Sections to their rightful positions - and the only way this can be done is for a complete re grading of all bands from Championship to Fourth Section. Many bands will of course be peeved that they would have to be "relegated" to a lower section, but unless it is done, and done quickly the overall standard of brass band contesting will become more and more bogged down in abject mediocrity.

It may sound that we are advocating what many may see as an overall "down grading" of bands, but the reverse is the case. By "upgrading" the quality and standard of bands that compete in the top two sections, the effect will also be to improve the quality of the sections below them. It will of course mean more bands in the lowest Fourth Section, but surely that is the way in which the overall structure should be based.

If we are left with less bands in each of the top two sections, but a Fourth Section that may need to be split into two parts due to the increase in numbers then so be it. We have finally got to get away from the assumption that quantity equates to quality. After a decade of the First Section, that has been seen to fail miserably.

WDYT?

The Europeans must tell the English what to do.

The recent decision by the Champion Band of Great Britain, Williams Fairey not to compete at the forthcoming European Brass Band Championships left the contest not only with the immediate problem of finding an adequate replacement, but has brought into focus the very weakness that could ultimately undermine the long term existence of the competition itself.

The essence of the European Championships is that it is a contest between the "Champion" bands of each country and to a degree that is the case. The Celtic nations have decided how and who represents them based on the result of their Regional Championships (not perhaps the greatest way, but still a clear and easily understood method) whilst the other countries base it upon their own National Finals.

The problem is with the English, and as has been seen with the withdrawal of Fairey's the way in which the "English" representatives are chosen borders on the farcical.

Many will point out that the crux of the matter is that the English bands themselves do not belong to any sort of "English Association" unlike the Welsh or Scots, so picking the band that comes highest at the National Finals is the only fair way of choosing a representative. That argument no longer holds any credence.

As we have said before, and we no doubt say again, the easiest and fairest way of ensuring an English "Champion Band" is invited to the European Championships is for the European organisers themselves to insist that they will issue an invitation to the winners of the "All England Masters". In addition they will still invite the winners of the National Championships of Great Britain, but that invite could then cover any British band that wins that contest.

The Masters is a private contest but so too are the Nationals, and to make things completely fair for all English bands the only real change Mr Biggs and Franklin would have to make would be to ensure that an automatic invitation is given to the winners of the seven English Regional contests to compete in Cambridge. That would mean that all Championship Section English bands would have the initial opportunity to qualify.

There is no point hoping that the bands themselves will organise things to propose the change that needs to take place apathy towards administrative change is endemic within the banding movement. No, the change must come from the top and the European organisers must insist that the change take place.

It would give the winners at Cambridge over a year to raise the funds to make the trip (something that Fairey's complained about in that they only had six months) plus it would give the English bands two opportunities to gain a place at the Finals instead of the one they have now something that would draw them into line with the Scots and Welsh.

The current criteria for qualification have been a disaster waiting to happen for too long. Having to ask the English bands who came 3rd, 4th and then 5th at London if they could take the place of a band that dropped out undermines the credibility of a contest that must be seen as the premier brass band event in the world. The European must be a contest between "Champions".

Let the Europeans set the agenda and let the English bands agree. It will sort out a problem that is fast becoming a possible root cause that could undermine the existence of the Championships themselves.

WDYT?

Spot the Ball

Given the chance to celebrate one of the brass band movements greatest composers, the organisers of the National Championships for 2003 in the Championship Section have once again taken out the proverbial twelve bore shot gun and pointed it directly at their feet. (After "Prague" you wonder if they have anything left to soot off though)

They should be whole heartily congratulated for the decision to celebrate the life and work of Eric Ball and the decision to use his original compositions as test pieces for the National Championship Lower Section Finals in Dundee, but when it came to the Championship Finals themselves what do they go and do?

They pick a piece that wasn't even written by the man himself that's what. Who on earth thought this was a good way of celebrating the life and career of perhaps our greatest composer?

Not to pick an original piece by him takes a bit of understanding, but to pick a piece by Edward Elgar which has been arranged by Ball, and then insist that the original arrangement cannot be used beggers belief. Add to that the fact that the "new" arrangement will in fact be a "condensed" version that will only have 8 variations and in fact has nothing at all to do with Eric Ball, it becomes laughable.

After the problems with "Prague" you would have thought someone would have ensured that the celebration of Eric Ball's music would go on without a hitch but no. Isn't the original music of the man good enough to test the bands anymore don't think so - just ask the bands all over Europe who struggled to come to terms with "Kensington Concerto" this year.

It is a decision that that undermines the great man's place at the top of the pedestal of brass band composing by people who should have known better. Eric Ball composed many of the very best works for brass bands that have been enjoyed by players and audiences alike over 60 years, compositions that still test the very best players and conductors alike years after they were first composed.

This decision has the feeling of "commerciality" about it, when all along it should have been a decision that had the feeling of a true celebration of a man and his (not anyone elses) glorious music. They should be ashamed of themselves.

What do you think?
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Alan DuguidAlan Duguid
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Conductor, Composer, Adjudicator (ABBA)