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A virtual future of banding benefits?
Reflecting on the Cory Online Championships

4BR talks to Cory MD Philip Harper to find out what he thinks the future may hold as banding takes exciting steps into a virtual reality.

The success of the recent Cory Online Championships not only provided the competing bands with a much needed boost of confidence and enthusiasm but also gave the movement as a whole a tantalising glimpse into a way in which it can reach out to future audiences.

In context (given that was one of the first such online events produced) the numbers were startling  - and not just as it attracted 68 competitors from as far afield as Japan, Australia and North America, let alone Europe and the UK.   

Run over two weekends at the end of September 2020 on occasions close on 2000 people were watching the action live, whilst that has now topped 140,000 views across 49 countries since. 

Passionate belief

Much then to discuss with Cory MD, Philip Harper…

Speaking to him over the last few months has revealed a musician not only with a passionate belief in the importance of the arts, but also who understands fully the context in which the brass band movement finds itself – and how we must take a proactive approach to long term sustainability and success. 


The competition attracted a very different type of audience

Understandably then, and despite the acclaim the Cory event has received, the conversation starts with a dose of reality.

Dose of reality

“This is a bad time for live music,” he says. “Everything we do in banding – contest and concerts - depends on social togetherness, not social distance.

From rehearsals in small rooms to concerts in front of large numbers of people, nothing that we love doing is currently allowed.

And whilst we all know that the pandemic will one day be over, that is certainly not the case yet, nor will it be very soon. Recognising that was key to how we at Cory wanted to motivate ourselves and crucially keep our audience informed and entertained.”

And whilst we all know that the pandemic will one day be over, that is certainly not the case yet, nor will it be very soon. Recognising that was key to how we at Cory wanted to motivate ourselves and crucially keep our audience informed and entertained.”

Entertained and inspired

He continued: “In our privileged position as one of the top bands, we at Cory wanted to set out a programme for our exile which motivated our own musicians, kept our audiences entertained and inspired other bands, encouraging them to keep going.

The danger is there for all to see – as the performance lockdown continues with no end in sight there will be a drift away of bandspeople at all levels. 

Whilst it would be easy to shrug and put this down as another damaging effect of the virus, we at Cory are determined to make what we can of the changed world, for the benefit of as many bands as possible, whether we can see light at the end of the tunnel or not.”


The technology was emplyed by competitors and presenters alike...

After a great deal of analysis and discussion in line with specific funding criteria that could be applied for, the Cory Online Brass Band Championships were formulated. 

It was an attempt as Phil revealed to “plug a gap” created by the ever increasing list of contest cancellations that were robbing bandspeople of one of their most valued musical experiences. 

Lifeblood

“Contests are the lifeblood of the movement – no doubt about that. But as a result our dependency on them to survive is also a huge weakness in our long term sustainability as a movement.

We therefore wanted to make the contest a spotlight for bands to showcase their talents – not just as a way to compete against each other.

We wanted to reach out to a worldwide audience that would then appreciate their excellence and commitment – elements that would hopefully create further interest in their musical endeavours."       


Fountain City Band from the USA won the Championship Section title

He added: “The response was brilliant from the bands – and everyone deserves so much credit for the way in which they harnessed their approaches. The innovation on show was incredible, but so too the commitment. 

Each band we are sure will have learned so much about how to produce online content – from the technical hurdles to the artistic challenges – and more importantly, how to enjoy it.”

Key to success

That has perhaps been the key to the success of the project with each performance imbued with a communal spirit of adventure and fun that was unmistakable. 

“We got just as much enjoyment from the playing as we did the presentations,” Phil admitted.

“Something always caught your eye and added to the performances.  At a time when things were becoming testing and stale for players being at home and not being able to play music with friends was simply brilliant to see and hear.”


High quality playing and production values helped Downshire Brass to the First Section title

Rules and criteria

Being a competition there had to be rules, although Phil revealed that by giving the judges just three criteria elements meant a much more open appreciation of the 10 minute presentations, many of which were governed by local COVID-19 rules in different areas of the UK and the rest of the world.     

“We gave the judges three criteria: quality of performance; programme content; and presentation, with the latter relating to how the bands utilised the technology available in the video format. 

We gave the judges three criteria: quality of performance; programme content; and presentation, with the latter relating to how the bands utilised the technology available in the video format. 

The bands that did well were the ones which embraced all three of these, including imaginative use of video technology.  Apart from that we let bands whose countries allowed them to meet physically do just that.

Some of the approaches worked better than others for various reasons – and some of the presentations were almost industry standard in their professionalism.”


Virtual reality - Whitburn took to the waves... 

Visual magnetism

He continued: “We saw players’ faces projected onto the sides of buildings and mountains, properly storyboarded mini-movies, use of superimposed graphics and text to enhance the package and some highly inventive editing skills on show.

With these bands it was almost impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen such was its visual magnetism.”


Wit and humour played its part... this from Lion City Brass

Advantage

It was obvious that some bands had an advantage in that someone in their organisation may well have been employed in graphic design and social media advertising, video or even film production – an element that Phil believes may in the future be just as important as choosing the right MD to conduct a band!

“Just think of the possibilities that can bring. We are very fortunate that we have Ali Woodman with us at Cory, but I’m sure all bands will have someone who has a passionate interest in this artistic and commercial area either within the band, or within the circle of the band.     

Your next band advert on 4BR could be for someone with video production skills – and not just a cornet player.” 

If we are to appeal to a wider audience – and crucially to open it up as a potential commercial revenue stream then we have to invest time, thought and money into doing it well. 

We saw so many exciting ideas during the contests that it’s essential that bands push on from here to explore them further. Your next band advert on 4BR could be for someone with video production skills – and not just a cornet player.” 


Tradition still played its part - Nordic style with Fjell Brass

Emotive impact

It was still the emotive impact though that was felt the most.

“What it all showed though that it will take more than a pandemic to defeat us!,” he said.  

The videos were uplifting and entertaining, really tapping into the new technology required – that’s the innovation and imagination too.

“So many bands were prepared to step into this unknown, alien landscape – that’s the bravery and risk that music needs to survive. The videos were uplifting and entertaining, really tapping into the new technology required – that’s the innovation and imagination too.

These are the emotional effects which music can have on people and which makes their lives worth living.”


Inventive use of icon images added to presentations

Key outcomes

In looking back at the success on the event, Phil takes this as one of the key outcomes. 
 
“In my view, this has been one of the most resilience-building aspects to the contest - encouraging bands to think about their digital presentation. 

When concerts finally return it will be incumbent on everyone in the performing arts community to make sure that we attract back as many people to listen to us live as possible. 

However, the social media platform will become increasingly important in getting our product appreciated and enjoyed.

However, the social media platform will become increasingly important in getting our product appreciated and enjoyed.

Love it or hate it, it is here to stay and here to drive the brass band movement forward if undertaken with understanding and care." 


Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! to the success

Future

Phil concluded: "That has been our key to success at Cory – providing a foundation of long term interest in what we can do through social media engagement.

Now we must build on that – and other too – mixing the fun and the slightly irreverent with the serious and artistically challenging.

Get the balance right (as has been shown by major orchestras and arts bodies) and new doors open to potentially wider audiences. It has to be done well though as the competition from other artistic organisations is incredible. 

We are not alone in recognising where the future lies and that gives me great hope for the future of our movement.”

Iwan Fox

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Brett Baker

BSc (Hons), ARCM, PG Dip
Rath clinician, conductor, teacher, adjudicator, editor


               

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