NABBC Conductors Competition 2008 - Retrospective


4BR's Chris Thomas made up the numbers to witness an intriguing contest to find the best young brass band conductor of 2008.

Lets face the music: The NABBC Finalists line up for the task ahead
Picture: Chris Thomas

On the face of it, the relatively simple formula of the NABBC Conductor’s Competition could have been expected to pull in a few fee paying punters to Unity College, Northampton for the 2008 event on 21st June. 

On the first occasion the contest has been thrown open to conductor’s over the age of thirty five, six finalists comprising the first and second prize winners from three regional heats, each rehearsing and conducting substantial chunks of three popular test pieces played by a top band in the form of Virtuosi GUS should have been enough to stimulate at least a modicum of interest….or maybe not.

Poor turnout

With barely thirty people in the hall the turnout verged on the embarrassing, even though Roy Newsome and Geoffrey Brand were the eminent adjudicators and David Read and Brian Buckley were to be seen in the audience. Then again, the sparsity of that same audience was such that you couldn’t really miss them. It seems that even the competitor’s themselves were not able to summon up a great deal of support amongst their musical colleagues and families. 

Fortunately, for those that did attend there was a good deal to keep the interest maintained through the afternoon session and into the evening.

Shrewdly chosen

Robert Redhead’s 'Isaiah 40', Philip Wilby’s 'Lowry Sketchbook' and 'Diversions' by Derek Bourgeois were the three pieces shrewdly chosen to test the competance of the competitors, with a draw shortly before the commencement of the contest determining the running order and which of the three pre-studied scores each of the finalists would conduct.

With only twenty five minutes of rehearsal time allocated to each conductor, a substantial part of the challenge was to utilise that limited time effectively in terms of clear, concise communication, something that in the event some managed more effectively than others.

First up

First to the podium was Welshman Paul Jenkins, no stranger to top level banding having been a member of Cory’s trombone section and currently MD of Pontardulais Town Band. 

With the second and third movements of Derek Bourgeois’ 'Diversions' to contend with, his relaxed style with the band quickly seemed to get the players on his side, whilst a sensibly paced rehearsal strategy ensured that he did not get excessively bogged down in fine detail, something to be avoided given the time constraints. 

The rhythmic and metrical challenges of the last movement were well handled as were the tempos and a clear, uncomplicated beat certainly seemed to impress the band.


David Johnson’s progress as a conductor was boosted in this year’s area contests when he guided Verwood Concert Brass to victory in the Third Section West of England contest, whilst as a euphonium player he carried off the soloist’s prize for his performance with Jaguar Coventry Band at the Senior Cup in May. 

With the score of 'Isaiah 40' in his hand as he took to the stage, nerves seemed to play an early part although once dispelled, he settled down to guide a pacey and productive rehearsal of a piece that is far from easy to direct. As such it was technical rather than strictly musical issues that were at the forefront, although the band responded with enthusiasm to his perceptive reading of the score.

Added twist

Philip Wilby is a master of effect and colour in his scores with 'Lowry Sketchbook' being no exception. The added twist of a little Bach adds further interest to the mix and taking to the stage third, Chris Andrews struggled at times to keep it all under control. 

The slow music of the second movement progressed with little problem, even if a little more attention could have been applied to matters of balance and dynamics, but elsewhere the band appeared to struggle to keep on the end of the stick and as such, the last movement became more of a challenge than it possibly needed to be. 

Precious time

After a short break for the benefit of the band, it was Midlander Graham Jacklin that was the second finalist of the afternoon to tackle Bourgeois’ 'Diversions'. With rehearsal time as precious as it was a lengthy address to the band about the piece and a warm up of a scale played in semi quavers restricted that time even more. 

Although demonstrating a clear baton technique a slightly pedestrian feel to the final movement and what might have been seen by the adjudicators as a disinclination to break down the detail of the score could well have gone against him in the final analysis. 


With several years as the conductor of United Co-op (Crewe) Band under his belt, Jef Sparkes was possibly the most experienced finalist on the day and as such 'Isaiah 40' proved a good draw on which to ply his trade. 

That experience was immediately borne out by his confidence in front of the band, allied with an ability to communicate his wishes clearly and concisely. The band’s response was marked and of all the rehearsal sessions of the afternoon it was this one that prompted the best playing from the players of Virtuosi GUS. 

A couple of technical issues with the baton might just have taken the edge off for the adjudicator’s, but it was a polished session that left a noticeable impression on both the band and the audience.

Unenviable task

It fell to Matthew Pollard, currently the Musical Director of the Hangleton Band and a veteran of the NYBB, to guide the band through the final rehearsal of the afternoon, an unenviable task given that the band had already been playing for the best part of three hours. Whilst not a natural verbal communicator in the manner of Jef Sparkes, it quickly became clear that he knew exactly what he wanted to hear from the score of Lowry Sketchbook and more than any competitor on the day, achieved a degree of detail through careful attention to the score that immediately impressed.
It was not lost on the band who once again responded in enthusiastic fashion prior to a well earned break before the evening performances.

Not on menu

Relaxation however was not on the menu for the finalists, whose break was partly taken up by behind closed doors interviews with the adjudicators prior to their one attempt to bring together the rehearsal of the afternoon in a concert performance of their nominated work. 

Taking to the stage in the same order as the afternoon session each competitor first undertook a brief sight reading test in the form of an extract from the slow movement of Eric Ball’s 'Petite Suite de Ballet', having been given the score for ten minutes of study beforehand. Following this, a brief opportunity to talk to the audience about the piece they were about to conduct and it was straight into the main performance.


It was to the credit of all concerned that given the pressure of a one off crack at a concert performance, not one of the finalists on the night let themselves down. 

Emerging triumphant and gaining the unanimous praise of Roy Newsome and Geoffrey Brand, it was Matthew Pollard that ultimately lifted the title and the £1000 first prize. His reading of Wilby’s 'Lowry Sketchbook' admirably capitalised on the detail on which he had spent preparation time in the afternoon, the band responding with playing of touching emotion in the slow movement and genuine excitement in the last.

Taking the second prize of £500, the clarity of technique that came through in rehearsal continued to pay dividends for Paul Jenkins as he directed a lively performance of 'Diversions'. Despite, a brief moment of hesitation in the sight reading test, he recovered to once again gain the response of the band in playing that had a sense of spirit from the start.

Jef Sparkes might have been a tad unlucky to walk away with the third prize of £200 after a safely negotiated sight reading exercise and a stirring reading of Robert Redhead’s music that drew warm applause from the modest audience. Certainly following the afternoon session a good number of those in the audience and the band (us included) felt that he was in with more than a fighting chance of lifting the title, but with three outstanding performances on the night, it was a case of the competition being just that bit too strong.                                                                                       


Awarding equal fourth place to the other three finalists, Roy Newsome spoke to the audience at length about that elusive combination of musicality, technique and communication that make up the all round conductor whilst earlier, Geoffrey Brand gave deserved praise to the Virtuosi GUS Band for its unstinting contribution to the day’s proceedings. Stamina sapping though it was, John Berryman and the band still had enough lip left to give a mini concert prior to the announcement of the results.   

In our contest dominated band world it is both surprising and a great shame that we do relatively little to stimulate, identify and develop conducting talent. As such this is an event which deserves our whole hearted backing. The simple fact of the matter though is that it is unlikely to survive unless we are prepared to give it a greater level of support.

Degree of significance

That said there are still ways in which the event could achieve a greater degree of significance. From the point of view of the competitors, the key word here is development. There is little doubt that the competition could be given far greater credence if the winner was to walk away with a prize more musically meaningful than a cheque for £1000 alone. 

If the competition is to succeed in its quest to identify conducting talent, then that surely is a reason to give that talent the opportunity it needs to flourish.

In the classical music world, similar events will often result in a residency with a certain orchestra or ensemble. T

his might not be entirely suitable in the band world, but were we to take a leaf from that same book, it should be perfectly feasible that the winner could be awarded the opportunity of working with a top band in a full rehearsal situation followed by a concert; just one of many possible ideas that could make this an event of serious worth and significance in the future; as long as we are prepared to lend our support to its cause that is.   

Chris Thomas        


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