Enjoyment levels were turned up to the max at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester last weekend, as 39 bands provided wonderful entertainment at the National Youth Championships of Great Britain.
From the button-sized nippers in the Beginners Section to the remarkably mature teenagers in the Blue Riband Championship event, the standard of playing was a fitting reflection of the outstanding commitment and talent of both performers and their inspirational conductors alike.
Little wonder Mike Kilroy, Chairman of Brass Bands England, proudly told the audiences that the event continues to be one of the bedrocks on which the banding movement in the UK is built — with hopes, that despite problems for some bands fitting in rehearsals during a busy education calendar, that it will continue to grow in the coming years.
Despite a lack of representation from Scotland this year, and with problems for bands from areas such as the furthest outposts of the West of England in attending, his upbeat observations certainly struck a chord with those who battled through the early morning motorway traffic to the RNCM.
Slickly run and with an eye to the future by involving the students from the excellent UniBrass organisation, each band gave of their all — much to the delight of the audiences (certainly up in numbers thanks to pre-booked on-line ticket sales) in both halls.
Wardle Blast to victory
Although there was a keen competitive element throughout the day, the underlying ethos was certainly of enjoyment and development — especially in the Beginners Section which took place in the RNCM Concert Hall.
This was a cracking contest — starting with Lions Beginners and ending with Dobcross Juniors a couple of hours later.
And whilst Wardle Junior Blast deservedly claimed the 'Band of the Day' title under MD Lee Rigg with a stunning display of disciplined choreographed playing all from memory, it was that sense of fun and encouragement that permeated every performance.
Wardle set a remarkable benchmark with a 15-minute set that featured solo spots from their front and back row cornets as well as trombone sections. They also included the classic march 'Slaidburn' — taken at a fleet footed tempo- and a touch of Beatles nostalgia for the adults to join in with in an all singing and playing rendition of 'Hey Jude'.
Love playing here
"They love coming here to play," a proud Lee later told 4BR, as for the first time all day he found difficulty controlling his players on stage as they took turns to have their 'selfie' pictures taken with the Thompson Shield Trophy!
"It's always about having fun, but learning as well with all the music we play. Doing it from memory is something that came from the players. Instead of waiting for them to find their music or fiddle about after dropping it on the floor, I asked if any of them could play one of the pieces from memory.
The next thing I knew they all did one together — and then did the rest too. Now we do it all the time — and we never have to worry about people forgetting bringing their music to band!"
Highly commended Bontnewydd
Although there was little doubting the destination of the title — with judges David Thornton and Brett Baker describing Wardle's playing in their written remarks as 'fantastic', 'just great', 'fabulous' and 'wonderfully confident', there was also a great deal to enjoy from the rest of the ensembles — headed by Ysgol Bontnewydd, who took the 'Highly Commended' award under MD Dylan Williams.
The band, whose players come from just one primary school near Caernavon, produced a super set that included everything from 'Rocky' and 'The Proclaimers' to ABBA and Snow Patrol.
With a number of ensembles featuring players as young as four years of age, and many who had only started playing since the start of the education year in September, there were plenty of damp eyes dabbed with pride by parents and family members alike as each band marched purposefully onto the stage in a great show of milk teeth smiles and furrowed-brow concentration.
Chicken Cha Cha
Lions Youth took the 'Band with Most Potential' award with a super set that included everything from James Bond to Beethoven, whilst Tewit Youth had everyone clapping along with the 'Chicken Cha-Cha'. Stockport Schools showed their versatility led by two great percussionists on 'Drums of Corona'.
Astley Youth took us from 'London Bridge' to 'Camptown Races' with the help of their teddy bear mascot sat in the back row cornets, Macclesfield Youth Training delivered a funky 'Bare Necessities' that couldn't have been bettered by Baloo himself and Dobcross Juniors rounded things off with a timely reminder of European integration with 'Tour de France.'
The winners may have been Wardle Blast, but everyone really deserved a gold medal for their efforts.
There was also a great deal to enjoy in the Junior Section contest that followed, with the remarkable Chalford Youth Band taking the honours in what was a neck and neck battle with defending champion, Beaumaris Junior Band.
The inclusion of a compulsory 'Red Book' hymn tune also ensured that each of the 12 rivals had to display their up-beat virtuosity as well as their command of good banding basics.
That was certainly the case with the top two bands — both of who deservedly took Gold Awards, whilst there were excellent 'gold' standard performances from third placed Fred Longworth High School and Lions Junior Brass.
In the end though it was the clever mix of genres and styles from the 42 players of Chalford (and the village near Stroud must have been empty given the support they brought with them) that won through — led splendidly by Steve Tubb — who smiled so much from start to finish that he must have had lock-jaw by the final note!
So mature and musical
Their set opened with 'Prismatic Light' and closed with the brilliantly appropriate 'Get Happy' — but it was the control shown in the bucolic 'Siciliano' by Malcolm Arnold and hymn tune 'Whitburn', as well as the cracking playing of 'Best Instrumentalist' Stephen Parker on 'As Long As He Needs Me', that gave judges Katrina Marzella and Paul Duffy just what they were looking for.
'A wonderful performance, 'so mature and musical', 'really impressive' and 'a top performance and band' we're just some of the glowing descriptions they wrote on their remarks.
"That makes it all worthwhile," Steve told 4BR. "All the credit goes to the children and the families who support them. My job is easy compared to what they put in. We are also very proud to represent our village and to give children the opportunity to enjoy making music together. The victory is great — but that is more important than anything else."
Although there was to be no second successive win for Beaumaris Junior, they will have returned to Anglesey proud of their efforts under their inspirational MD Bethan Lowry Evans, with a set that dancing Cossacks to Robbie Williams, a touching brace of quiet items rounded off with 'Take it the Max' that rocked the foundations of the hall.
Just behind came fine performances from Fred Longworth (featuring a brand new work from the pen of Paul Lovatt-Cooper entitled 'Jubilance'), with Lions Youth also picking up a deserved Gold Award with a set that included a smashing 'La Bamba'.
With bands featuring players up to the age of 16 — and with some such as North Manchester Youth formed just 10 weeks before the contest, standards did vary.
However, each performed works that were well chosen by their MDs — from the fanfare trumpets of Denbighshire Music Co-operative to 'Scoobie Do' by Elland Juniors, 'The Frog Chorus' of Hope Bank Juniors (who featured two 4 year olds in their ranks) and 'Blaze of Glory' that rounded things off by Stockport Schools Intermediate.
A high quality field in the RNCM Theatre gave judges Steve Pritchard-Jones and Mark Wilkinson plenty to think about before declaring Elland Silver Youth as champion ahead of the excellent 'Gold Award' winners of Rochdale Borough Youth and Tewit Youth.
Both Steve and Mark gave excellent pre-results summaries, stating that the overall standard had been excellent, with every band bringing something of real musical merit to the stage.
Mark encouraged the players and conductors to pay more attention to what was above as well as below the notes on their parts, whilst both thought some bands could have benefitted from bringing greater detail to bear alongside a wider dynamic range — especially in the quieter dynamics.
Steve was also very complimentary with regards to the solo playing on show — having a hard task he admitted in finding a 'Best Instrumentalist' amongst so many fine efforts.
In the end it was tenor horn star Grace Jeffers of Wigan Zone Youth who claimed the award for the second successive time with a stunning rendition of 'Capriccio Brilliante' which had caused jaws to drop at the British Open Youth contest in Preston in February.
In the end a deserved victory went to Elland Silver Youth, conducted by Samantha Harrison -providing a further indication that the Yorkshire ensemble continues to grow in confidence every time they take to the stage.
"I'm chuffed to bits. The band was brilliant on stage," Sam told 4BR as she was still savouring the moment relaxing with a glass of wine on Sunday evening.
"All the credit goes to the players: They've responded to everything I've been asking of them lately. We have worked extensively on balance, dynamics and rhythmic discipline and it all came together when it mattered."
There will be no time to relax though as the band now gears up for further rehearsals ahead of their appearance at the European Youth Championships in Lille in under two weeks time.
"We are all very excited about the trip and of course victory this weekend means an invite to Ostend next year," Sam added. "We've all worked hard to raise the money and we'll be working even harder in intense rehearsals next weekend now as well!"
Elland's winning programme saw them open with 'Prismatic Light' followed by a blistering trombone performance from Charlotte Horsfield on 'Bayrische Polka'. Peter Graham's 'Lady Stewart's Air' was sandwiched between a cracking rendition of 'Marche Lorraine' and the set- test, 'Funk Engine'.
Ben Dixon's Rochdale Borough certainly ran the winners close with their Gold Award set which also benefitted from Alan Fernie's tasty opener. After a confident rendition of the set-work with excellent dynamics, Kenneth Downie's 'In Perfect Peace' changed the mood before the ensemble shook the foundations with 'The Incredibles'.
There was plenty of fine playing on show from all the competing bands, with an excellent Gold Award performance from the remarkable Tewit Youth (who fielded three bands on the weekend) and the Silver Awards of Macclesfield Youth Brass and Poynton Youth Band.
There were also very good performances from Bronze Award winners, Milton Keynes Youth and Stockport Schools Senior Band and of encouraging merit from the remaining contenders.
Youth Brass 2000 underlined their high-class contest winning credentials ahead of their forthcoming trip to the European Youth Championship in Lille, with a thrilling hat-trick victory in the Blue Riband Championship Section.
Directed by Chris Jeans, they rounded off the day's events in superb fashion — continuing a hot-streak of 2016 form that has seen them add the National title to the Butlins, British Open Youth and Action Research Youth Championships already to their name.
Their stunning programme balanced an enthralling account of the set-work, 'The Mansions of Glory', with the opening theme from 'Tombstone' and a reprise of material that has already served them so well this year in, 'Scherzo for Motor Cycle and Band' and 'Marcho Brioso'.
The victory will now see them invited to represent England at the 2017 European event in Ostend, although for the time being the MD was simply enjoying yet another victory for his remarkable band.
"I don't think I will ever get tired of saying how proud I am of everyone associated with Youth Brass 2000," he told 4BR.
"Once again they have done themselves proud and the hard work continues for Lille. At the moment though I need to catch up with my sleep as I'm both elated and exhausted!"
Confidence and relief
All seven competitors produced performances of great musical maturity, with judges Brett Baker and David Thornton complimenting the overall standard on show. That was certainly heard with the engaging repertoire — from Oliver Waespi and Peter Graham to Howard Snell, as a well as a new premiere from Ian Raisbeck.
Although only Youth Brass 2000 and Wardle Academy Youth gained Gold Awards ahead of fine Silver Award accounts from Hampshire County Youth and Lions Youth Brass, each band delivered in spades — the awards a reflection of the excellent standard on show throughout — headed by the immensely impressive winners.
There was also a Bronze Award for Birmingham Schools and Oldham Music Centre.
Wardle Youth under Lee Rigg couldn't have done anything more in their pursuit of the title, but will head to Lille themselves bursting with confidence, whilst Lions Youth will also have headed home filled with pride — especially soprano cornet William Dakin who took the 'Best Instrumentalist' award for a stirring Peter Robertseque rendition of 'On with the Motley'.
With excellent comperes in both halls, the extra bonus of hearing the RNCM Euphonium & Baritone Ensemble on fine form, and a presentation of the Brian Hicks Award to Jane Stubbs, no wonder Mike Kilroy and Brass Band England can boast that the Championships continue to provide a wonderful showcase for the best emerging young talent in banding.
Next year's contest will be held on Sunday 2nd April.
It's always about having fun, but learning as well with all the music we play. Doing it from memory is something that came from the playersWardle Junior Blast MD, Lee Rigg
Set-Work: The Mansions of Glory (Jonathan Bates) within an own-choice programme of 20 minutes playing time.
Adjudicators: Dr Brett Baker and Dr David Thornton
1. Youth Brass 2000 (Chris Jeans) (Gold)*
2. Wardle Youth Band (Lee Rigg) (Gold)
3. Northamptonshire Youth (Brad Turnbull) (Silver)
Hampshire County Youth (Jock McKenzie)
Lions Youth (Nigel Birch)
Birmingham Schools (Stuart Birnie)
Oldham Music Centre (Jonathan Leedale)
Best Instrumentalist: William Dakin (soprano) Lions Youth Brass
Brian Hicks Memorial Award: Jane Stubbs (Lions Youth Brass)
*Youth Brass 2000 receives an invitation to represent England at the European Youth Championships in Ostend in 2017.
Set-Work: Funk Engine (Ryan Howells) within an own-choice programme of 20 minutes playing time
Adjudicators: Steve Pritchard Jones and Mark Wilkinson
1. Elland Silver Youth (Samantha Harrison) (Gold)*
2. Rochdale Borough Youth (Ben Dixon) (Gold)
3. Tewit Youth (Martin Hall) (Gold)
Macclesfield Youth (Louise Renshaw)
Poynton Youth (Mike Eccles)
Milton Keynes Youth (David Rose)
Stockport Schools Senior (Iain McKnight)
Cardiff County Youth (Charles Maynard)
Enderby Youth (Trevor Hounsome)
Hope Bank Youth (Simon Wood)
Rotherham Schools Youth (Jeremy Wade)
Wigan Youth Zone (John Don-Duncan)
Best Instrumentalist: Grace Jeffers (tenor horn) — Wigan Youth Zone
*Elland Silver Youth receives an invitation to represent England at European Youth Championships in Ostend in 2017
RNCM Concert Hall
Own-choice programme that must include one piece of music composed for brass band and two verses of a hymn tune within 15 minutes playing time.
Adjudicators: Katrina Marzella and Paul Duffy
1. Chalford Youth (Steve Tubb) (Gold)
2. Beaumaris Junior (Bethan Lowri Evans) (Gold)
3. Fred Longworth High School (Helen Robinson) (Gold)
Best Instrumentalist: Steven Parker (euphonium) — Chalford Youth
Lions Junior (Tom Hancock)
Denbighshire Music Co-operative (John Powell)
Elland Junior (Samantha Harrison)
Lancashire Youth (Helen Minshall)
Macclesfield Youth Junior (Tim Grindey)
Tewit Youth Intermediate (Steve Heninghem)
Hope Bank Junior (Max Lawrence)
North Manchester Youth (Thomas Ridgley)
Stockport Schools Intermediate (Owen Garbutt)
RNCM Concert Hall
Own-choice programme of 15 minutes playing time
Adjudicators: Brett Baker and David Thornton
Band of the Day: Wardle Junior Blast (Lee Rigg)
Band with Most Potential: Lions Beginners (Chris Thompson)
Highly Commended: Ysgol Bontnewydd Primary (Dylan Williams)
Certificate of Merit competing bands
Tewit Youth Junior (Dave Dunn-Birch)
Stockport Schools' Junior (Marianne Garbutt/Steve Cavanagh)
Astley Youth Training (Helen Minshall)
Macclesfield Youth Training (Liz Hudson)
Dobcross Junior (Melanie Garlick)