In a cold and grey winter weekend in the Butlin’s resort of Skegness Brass Bands from around the UK and, in some cases, our international friends, come together for a weekend of competitive music making. The so called “Butlin’s Mine Workers Brass Band competition” is a stalwart of the Brass Banding calendar. There are 5 sections all together, starting at the fourth and then going up to championship. Championship bands consist of some of the best of the best in the world of brass. These contain world class musicians capable of seemingly superhuman capacity to interpret and perform the music!
I started in a community band who’s foundation was completely based upon an anti-competitive nature. As this was how I was raised I adopted a similar nature in that, for a long time, I did not think much of competing. I thought music should just be shared and acceptable to all standards and ability. Not until recently, having been with my girlfriend now for 3 and a half years, did I start to understand and come round to the idea of competitive playing.
There are advantages and drawbacks of competing and I think each option takes its own specific approach. Firstly I will discuss the advantages of competitive playing. The fantastic people of Towecester Studio Band are just everyday people that are committed to their music and their musicianship and development. To hear the standard this band can reach on their test piece is really quite epic!
A test piece is a piece of music that is chosen for a band to work towards. They often have a few months notice to get the piece ready. There will be an adjudicator who is normally in their own right a very high qualified musicians with a lot of championship experience or composers who also play in championship level performances. Various aspects of a players ability are tested it could be;
Technical quality (how clear can you play twenty thousands semi-quavers, working with your section to give the illusion of consistency so we can breathe, how tight are the band?)
Intonation and tuning (how in tune are you in relation to your previous note?)
Dynamic capacity (can we as brass even players play a double pianissimo?, can we play loud enough to be heard from outer space and still stay in tune?)
Musicality (a two parter, how is the MDs interpretation and how are the band responding to the conductors interpretation, or are they watching?)
Of course there is a degree of personal preference from the adjudicator but that list is just a general idea of the kind of things that an adjudicator may look out for. Each item is then scored or marked separately and the person with the highest score wins that competition. If you put all these things together it makes for a high score and one heck of a performance!
Another advantage is the psychological aspect of competing. In some test pieces one single person may have to start the piece of as a cadenza. This year at Butlins it was the euphonium players turn. This puts a deal of performance pressure on a soloist as they have to, in effect, set the tone for the whole piece (which is usually 10-15 minutes long.) I do believe that overcoming any performance anxiety to pull it off for your team takes a special kind of person. I think competing helps create cohesion in a band as you are automatically categorised in to “us” and “them” it gives a person a sense of belonging as per Maslows Hierachy of Human Needs and wanting to do well for your team (for most people at least) not to mention the great feeling of winning and doing well after having worked hard. If you do not win then hopefully you do get some useful feedback from the adjudicator to help you become a better musician.
SO, Great! you may ask, when can I start? just contemplate this next paragraph . As a competing brass bander you are committed to learning one piece extremely well. This can cause a headache for a conductor who may have a lot of normal concerts where a programme of entertaining music is required to please a paying audience. In some cases adjudicators can be really quite harsh and counter-productive in their feedback. This can cause damage to peoples confidence which can have a reverse affect. You have to be able to take the feedback on board and not take it to heart.
A competition is a day or sometimes even a weekend long commitment. You have to travel to one location that can be over an hours drive and sometimes you have to wait all day before you can get a result. Bands are drawn at random and if you get drawn to play first you have to hang around to hear the results. Needless to say if you’re first on, spend all day in a normally under-equipped location that is not particularly close to a town, only to find out that you came last place and the adjudicator did not give any useful feedback, you might find yourself somewhat rather “frustrated” to be polite. You often play to an empty hall bar one or two adjudicators. An adjudicator might have to listen to the same piece 15 times in a day. Fair enough the interpretations can differ, but even if there was a Pink Floyd inspired interpretation with additional synth effects, you would still find yourself bored after a couple of hours. The composer might not be too happy either!
On the other hand, community bands, like my own band, Wadhurst Brass Band, will have up to 20 concerts a year. Though we don’t win trophies we put together performances that are highly appreciated and usually our main concerts are completely sold out. We can make a good sound, even on test pieces and different arrangements and I intend to prove that, as, in our Spring Concert we will be performing the 2020 test piece for the fourth section. Although I wont have a highly qualified adjudicator to give constructive feedback, I will listen to what the audience have to say, people who are willing to depart with their own hard earned cash to come and spend a couple of hours listening to us. Not to mention, I am able to spend more time working on sight reading, and my band continue to do well when a new piece is brought out in front of them. Once the initial complaint of “we can’t play this, so I don’t like it” has subsided, of course!
I have, personally learned a lot from competing which has helped me become a better musician, but, more to the point, as a student composer the level of detail the piece has to be known both by the conductor and the band, in itself, helps to decode or analyse the music and the composition mechanisms used within the piece. This helps the band understand the music at a deeper level, therefore increasing their musical knowledge. However, would I give up community banding to compete? not in a million years. We’re a community band but we can give just a good a concert as a competing band.
If you are the type of person that is competitive, wants to win awards and get good at what you do, or you want to be well known, I suggest you take the competitive route – as it may inspire you to be the best musician you can be. However, if you are maybe self conscious and feel like your confidence will get knocked as a result of an adjudicator. I suggest that you take the community route. We can’t pull of a piece to the same standard that a competing band play a test piece. However we can make a terrific sound that is appreciated by a lovely audience who just want to come along for the fun. There will be conflicts in opinion and various stressful dysfunctions as there is not a common goal as such but If I had the time, I would conduct a competing band, commit to a competing band but play as a regular in a community band. I would like to thank my girlfriend for opening my eyes to the world of competitive banding
However, for now, I shall continue plodding along with my laptop close, just in case, there is the off chance, I can bore anyone with musical conversation. All the while I shall still continue to study and learn how to write music, how to tell a story with sounds or to paint a picture with music. Hopefully some people will see eventually a score with the name “David Healy-Richards” above the right hand corner, until then, there is still lots to learn!