2008 National Championships of Great Britain - The defining moment?


The defining moment can come at any time in a major test piece. But the final chord of a second movement? It certainly caught out nearly all the top soprano players on the day.

Kenneth Downie
Kenneth Downie - AKA Professor Van Helsing, talks to 4BR
Picture: Ian Clowes

Every major test piece has a defining moment. Sometimes it is at the very start of the work – the first pick up to Eric Ball’s ‘Resurgam’ for instance, or on other occasions, it is provided by the major death defying virtuoso solo, such as the famous euphonium features of ‘Le Roi d’Y’s’ or ‘Masquerade’


Rarely does it come with the small matter of a simple looking final chord to conclude a middle movement.  That though was what Kenneth Downie’s ‘Concertino for Brass Band’ provided.

On paper it looked easy enough. The elegiac melancholic movement drew to a close with a long chord provided by the band ensemble, to be resolved with clarity by a four note resting pianissimo chord from the repiano, two solo cornets, and a soprano on a top A.  Easy peasy then. And that was its fiendishly simple trouble.

Red blooded prowess

Soprano players enjoy nothing more than displaying their red blooded prowess to strip paint off concert hall walls by blasting out the high last notes to any piece of showboat music. 

It usually means that they invariably hold onto the last note for a split second longer than the rest of their colleagues too – the dreaded ‘minim blindness’.

Silver bullets

Pianissimo high note endings are anathema to them – like vampires (and most soprano players are creatures of the night) this was is if Kenneth Downie in his alter ego as Professor Van Helsing had shot them through the heart with garlic laced silver bullets. Here they dropped off their perch quicker than Christopher Lee at the end of a Hammer Horror film.

Just as the fateful final bar came into view, the audience witnessed the full gamut of physical escapologist contortions that would have made Harry Houdini wince in pain.


Most bent into balls of sweating anxiety like cricket wicketkeepers behind the stumps in a test match. It is a well known fact that an octopus can somehow reduce itself in size so that it can fit into a can of Coca Cola. Well, on the evidence of Saturday afternoon, so can quite a few soprano players too. 

There were more mutes on show than could be found at a Harpo Marx fan club, whilst some of the more rather risible attempts at camouflaging the insecurities would have made painting an elephant seem a better option.  

Just one 

Some did get close (a couple very close in fact) to nailing it as intended, but just the one emerged unscathed and perhaps wondering what the fuss was all about. There is a whole host of top class sop players in the banding world at the moment, but on this occasion just one, Paul Argyle of Rothwell Temperance, sat back, backed his own well placed confidence and talent and simply played it as written. No contortions, bucket mutes, no fuss.

The result? A great ending and his band well on the way to a top six finish. Simple test piece questions may fool players and conductors into thinking they need a complex answers, but if everyone knew that, playing on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall would be easy for anyone to do.  

Iwan Fox


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