UK Banding: Yesterdays people, yesterdays ways…?
In bandrooms, at concerts and events all across the length and breadth of the country there are whispered conversations taking place.
These, together with all too frequent articles and features in the banding press and media, often suggest that banding is in decline. Discussions can be wide and varied: 'it’s just not the same anymore', 'we don’t get paid enough by the council", "we receive the same rate as 10 years ago', or even, ’there’s just no players about anywhere' - the list is almost endless. As an active member of the banding community I've thought about this long and hard and I'd like to present a different perspective, a perspective that suggests our movement is not in decline, but is in fact, thriving.
We in the Brass Band movement have witnessed many changes during the last hundred-and-fifty or so years. Perhaps there are fewer village or community bands than there once were; but for many years we have, I believe, stagnated in our own self importance, oblivious to the fact that bands in other parts of the world have seized upon unique opportunities and have, in some quarters, shown us all how we could be taking advantage of banding's current circumstances. Some bands have taken a very positive lead. What's to stop us doing the same?
What can we do to bolster our movement? How can we move onwards and forward, being consistently consistent whilst striving to improve everything within it that can be possibly improved? I present to you here a few ideas and opinions of my own, together with those of several eminent figures from the world of banding today. These ideas are an attempt to stimulate debate, to ask that we take a fresh look inwards, to help identify what can be done in the futurefor you, your band and our movement.
It would be advantageous for many of today’s modern players to do a small amount of research and examine the history of our so-called ‘movement’. By studying the past, today’s players would gain a greater understanding of what we have achieved, and hopefully, what can still be achieved with courage, conviction in belief and enough determination to put into place what we feel are the right things to do. I am not suggesting that many of us don’t do this already, I am sure there are many who do. However, it may also be of interest to look out over the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ to see what our banding colleagues are getting up to across the Channel, whilst also taking a fleeting glance West and South to America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
We could quite easily of course, sit back and watch yet another generation of ‘In the good old days’. Bandsmen and women come and go, and perhaps don’t give a second glance at the news of yet another band who have just announced they are folding! How many of us reading this are aware of the present issues facing the wonderful championship section City of Oxford Band? Or the very recent demise of Thornbury Band. However, we must not be pessimistic, somewhere out there are many devotees, maybe you. People in our movement today who are striving to put the UK Brass Band scene back at the forefront of amateur music making… back where it belongs, be they concert promoters, contest organisers, new editorial publications or web-hosts and technologists of the modern day internet.
The answer is simple, and the answer is right in front of our eyes. We need to change our outlook, alter our approach and move quickly out of the dark ages. We need to wholeheartedly embrace the wonders of modern technology, we need to capture the ethics and pragmatism of modern business management and ultimately take hold of and nurture the unique spirit within every bandsperson on the globe, to take banding forward into today’s modern era. There are Bands that are already doing this and the proof is there for everyone to see.
Let’s start with technology. The biggest ‘helping hand’ opportunity we have been afforded in recent years – and on a silver platter to boot - is undoubtedly that of the World Wide Web, the Internet. Most bands have www sites of some form, music publishers have www sites, and even some of us as individuals have www sites. This vast virtual world holds a wealth of knowledge and information but also presents an opportunity which has seriously altered the face of modern banding, and it’s all available, often free, from the comfort of your favourite armchair! The Internet has made our world a smaller place, and has helped to bring thousands of banding musicians together, through the exciting and innovative use of informative news web sites such as 4BarsRest, Brass Band World or perhaps the popular brass discussion forum theMouthPiece.com. With huge monthly viewing figures, no one can argue with this. Banding does indeed have a presence on the internet.
The Internet also offers its helping hand by providing an almost instant communication process. You can email and talk to colleagues in Australia or America instantly, 10 years ago we would still be writing letters and posting them in those little red boxes that once stood so proudly at the end of every street, ah remember those! How far we have come in the last decade! The process of ordering sheet music has been revolutionised with the advent of the Internet. How many times in the past has your Musical Director bought a piece of music from a catalogue only to find that certain sections are too difficult for the band and that it is then either sent back, or put into the library with the myriad other pieces never to be seen again? Most music publishers and suppliers now have their own promotional websites, with many offering a unique facility providing an opportunity to ‘listen and view’ before anyone has to part with their hard earned cash. And not forgetting that this music can now be ordered on-line with a credit card and often even delivered immediately! Again, all this is achievable without leaving your armchair. Although our beloved and cherished Brass Band tabloids still print our contest results, albeit a week or two later than the event, the Internet gives us the facility to read news and results within minutes of them being announced. On many sites you can enter ‘live’ discussions and join the debates on ‘who should have won’ and ‘who was robbed’! The results of the recent British Open were posted live on theMouthPiece.com as they were announced in Symphony Hall. That is most certainly utilisation of modern technology for the benefit of all.
The Internet has also given many bands the opportunity to further promote their organisation by presenting themselves in their own online catalogue - through their own website. Advertising for player and MD vacancies, as well as concerts and events is now commonplace, but although many jumped on the internet bandwagon several years ago, some bands seem not to have made the most of it and are not motivated enough to maintain or update their web sites. Promoting your band via a website is indeed hard work and is certainly time consuming, but it can be very rewarding. Come on, we’ve been given this magnificent tool to promote our organisation, why not use it to your advantage. Many however don’t seem to appreciate the power unleashed through effective use of the world-wide web. What must any potential sponsor or concert promoter think when they are reading band news on your site that is perhaps twelve months out of date! If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Far too many banding web sites don’t get updated – this is such a shame.
Why not make use of easily accessible recording equipment to produce a CD and sell it on your own web site? Many people now have home recording studios using reasonably priced and portable mixing equipment that could easily be set up at a local venue such as a church or hall. Gone are the days of it costing a fortune to produce, market and distribute your own bands CD. Besides that fact – how else could you so easily and effectively market and promote your own CD to a global audience?
Why should the deployment of modern technology within banding be limited to just the use of the internet and producing CD’s? At national contests in New Zealand, the adjudicators don’t actually write anywhere near as much during their time in the box, there is a system set up and in place where their comments are actually recorded! Bands actually take away a recording of their contest performance and the adjudicators audible comments as they were made during their performance.
Nigel Weeks, the charismatic Welshman who 10 years ago decided to move to a new life in New Zealand and who recently conducted the Dalewool Band to 10th place in the British Open has first hand experience of this system. He says… “Bands certainly feel comfortable with the current adjudication system for the Nationals in New Zealand, they feel far more confident about results and of their competition placing, and inevitably the comments made by adjudicators appear to be far more constructive. It is always better for bands to hear positive yet constructively critical remarks. In the box adjudicators are recorded and speak as they hear the bands play – allowing them to make many more comments than they could otherwise achieve by writing them down”. Wouldn’t this open a few eyes here in the UK? If implemented at a contest near you, how well would this be received?
This, certainly, would be a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. We could very easily improve on this and go even further. Regularly nowadays, competitions have recording desks at their venues. Modern technology could easily facilitate the playback of a section of the performance for the adjudicators to listen to within the box. Football referees use a similar system; cricket umpires also, and what of the ‘Photo Finish’ in athletics and racing..? These professionals deploy technology because quite simply, they are all human and humans sometimes do get it wrong. In these respective fields, to correct the human error, technology is used and welcomed. Are our adjudicators not also human..? Are they infallible…? Of course not, they also often get it wrong. It does seem though that we are not allowed to question this. Where is the governance, where is the credibility, moderation and maintenance of standards, where is the accountability?
Adjudication, now there’s a topic that is often the subject of heated discussion. One only has to read the current banding press and media to see this. We each have our opinions, and mine is that most of our adjudicators are very talented, and do a good job under what are very difficult conditions. Many adjudicators judge in a professional and consistent manner. However, there are a few adjudicators who are not good at all… and I really mean not good at all. Why are we not allowed to challenge this? ... Are people scared of upsetting the establishment? There is nothing wrong with healthy competition, and there is nothing wrong with presenting a pragmatic, challenging case. There is most certainly a perceived lack of accountability on the part of adjudicators.
Philip Sparke, who was one of the adjudicators at the 2004 British Open, has recently been the subject of much criticism in the banding media. Many of us have our own opinion on what transpired at this competition, but in all fairness, Philip has been one of the first adjudicators to speak out, to face and answer his critics head on. He says… “Players simply must accept that the judgement of an adjudicator is as good as one can get. I judge as a musician and I'm not using different criteria from other judges. Playing a piece successfully is a question of getting the right notes in the right place, at the right time and in the right style, with a balanced and quality sound - plus the X factor.” Adjudicators are indeed musicians, and with music being subjective – the process of how one adjudicates is extremely difficult to quantify. I don’t feel we can ever move away from the subjectivity being the most significant facet of a result, but there are things the movement could embrace to make the job easier.
If there were a process in place that defined exactly what adjudication standards should be; that assessed an individuals ability to reach and maintain these standards via some form of accreditation, a process that monitored these standards throughout our movement, and finally ensured that a mechanism for feedback and evaluation existed… (I.e. that the feedback loop worked) - the role of the adjudicator would become significantly enriched by the fact that faith in the adjudicator, from those who are judged, would be significantly restored. How do bandsmen and bandswomen of today play a part in the selection of adjudicators – and by this I do not simply mean the selection of who should adjudicate at a specific contest, but in the selection of an individual actually becoming an adjudicator? I doubt such a process exists, but I suggest that there very much should be. Why does the ABBA not set up an evaluation process that asks for feedback of the adjudicators performance to be provided by each competing band or a representative of them, after each contest? These results could be managed by the ABBA and made available to our local regional associations. Aided by the band members they represent, a far superior set of criteria on adjudicators could be presented from which they could choose who should receive their invite to judge. I don’t purport to have all the answers, but would this not be a step in the right direction?
The “brass band contest” has been with us almost as long as bands have existed and has, undoubtedly, over the years contributed significantly to the exceptionally high standards of today’s bands. There has been a phenomenal amount of commissioned music written specifically for all our major contests, the National Finals, the Open etc, all of this by some of the movement’s greatest composers, Bourgeois, Heaton, Sparke to name but a few. However, are we doing enough to raise the profile of our movement when it comes to selecting our area test pieces? In 1908 Wagner’s ‘Rienzi’ was the National Test Piece, nearly one hundred years later bands will be performing the same music, albeit for the area qualifying contests. In 1957 Vaughan Williams ‘Variations for Brass Band’ was used for the Nationals, again the same music will be featured by our second section bands come the new year. Admittedly, these are fantastic tests for any band, but we have to question why are we still playing the same music we played nearly one hundred years ago? Traditionalism is wonderful of course, but alas, not to embrace change is often fatal. To progress and push the Brass Band genre to greater heights and to gain the respect of our orchestral counterparts, we must inject new music into our contests and at all levels. Some might argue that for financial reasons this is not justifiable, but not everyone wants to make a fast buck out of the brass band movement. We have an abundant wealth of talent right in front of our eyes; young players, composers, conductors, publishers etc… so why can we not accept this and not depend entirely on the establishment to approve who we should use for such requirements? There is a vast, untapped source of composers who are continually writing fantastic music for our movement, but never get the opportunity to have their music played. We must encourage and develop this wealth of talent and I’m sure a lot of these people would require little payment, just a reward that their hard work has finally been recognised. How long can our movement survive tapping the resources of messrs: Philip Sparke, Peter Graham and Philip Wilby? When their ideas have been drained, our unsung composers would have long gone and then it’s back to the good old days of Grand Selections and Orchestral transcriptions once again!
Concert music also comes under scrutiny. Attend any band concert in the UK, including the recent WoB British Open Gala Concert, and you’ll hear the same music being played over and over again, usually in the same format and comprising a March, an Overture, a Solo, and a Novelty item etc. Yes, this formula works to a certain extent and is a tried and tested format, but is still the same format as we used one hundred years ago. Here we go again, notice a trend here, it is the same-old same-as. Something worth mentioning at every opportunity is… “If you always do what you did, you will always get what you got!”
Unfortunately in this day and age this approach isn’t doing enough to promote our movement and sell tickets for the much needed revenue which our bands rely on heavily for their sheer existence. So, do we need change our ways and be more inventive with our ideas? Of course we do, and huge lessons can be learned by looking no further than our European bands, who certainly know how to lead the way when it comes to ‘something completely different’. Their concerts are buzzing with excitement, oozing with new material, and are usually spiced with dazzling choreography and sometimes played from memory. For those of you who attended the WoB Gala Concert after the British Open will no doubt remember the anticipation of waiting to hear YBS and Stavanger Band perform. When did you last get that sort of ‘buzz’ waiting for a band to appear on concert stage? A concert balanced in the first half by the brilliant and dazzling musical ability of one of our top bands, YBS, which musically was incredibly stunning but was somewhat staid and traditionalist in approach. The second half revealed a band that presented a spectacular visual, as well as audible, performance. The appeal being in the conjunction of these two factors.
Stavanger’s and YBS’s success is spurred on by the forward thinking approach of Professor David King. He took over the helm at Stavanger in 2002 “because of their commitment to innovation and creativity” and he also comments “it doesn’t mind breaking new ground”. How many conductors would ask a band to memorise Philip Sparkes ‘Hymn of the Highlands’ for the North American Championships because the MD wanted to use choreography? How many times have you seen the band drawn ‘number 1’ at your National contest who still have to use their red hymn books to play 14 bars of their own National Anthem? It’s certainly not a good advert!
Professor King must be commended for his enthusiasm and commitment to our movement. He’s not alone, but he is certainly in a minority at the moment. We need to push the boundaries and experiment with ideas. We must take risks in the first instance and see if they work. ‘To have tried and failed is better than not trying at all’. There is an untapped resource of new concert material being written for the Brass Band movement, not necessarily, by the ‘big’ names either, which would make refreshing changes to our concert repertoires.
Roger Thorne of Thornes Music Publishing comments “Although music sales are steady, the bulk of my orders are now coming from American, European and Australian Bands. These bands are obviously prepared to take risks and experiment with new ideas. The comments I’ve received back from these bands is that the music has been well received, not only by band members, but by their audiences too”. Let’s be brave enough to take the plunge and encourage our conductors up and down the country to take the lead and try something new!
We need to take a long hard look at ourselves and realise that if we don’t make certain changes, UK Banding will not set the standards and will not get back to the top of the tree where it belongs. The Youth Band scene is thriving as anyone who attends the Youth Band Championships will have experienced. It is evident how committed these youngsters are and how much they enjoy their banding. When age catches up with them they have to move on, but when they join your band don’t dismiss their ideas or enthusiasm. Most of them have already been there, read the book and got the T-shirt! You only have to look at the success of our many Summer Schools to see that the majority of attendees are youngsters. The older generation are far too quick to dismiss or ignore our younger players, as a movement we cannot afford to let these talented youngsters drift away. They will form the bands of the future and as such need to be supported and encouraged. There is a plethora of Lottery Grants, Arts Council Awards and other funding associations that offer hard cash to support youth organisations. Again, we may have missed out here in that there are many untapped sources of funding that could be so beneficial. In our modern times when the purse strings are tight, we need all the help we can get. If you don’t ask - you don’t get! And if you don’t help don’t complain that “there aren’t the players anymore”!
Over the last 30 years the brass and movement has witnessed a change in perception from the general public. Television finally gave way to screening the ‘Granada Band of the Year’ contest, and for a short time brought brass bands into every living room in the country. In 1977 Brighouse & Rastrick Band recorded a hit record with ‘The Floral Dance’ which was very successful, but like most novelties it was soon forgotten and did little to change the public’s stereotypical perception of bands. Unbelievably, they still play it as an encore twenty-seven years later!
More recently the popular movie ‘Brassed Off’ featured ‘The Floral Dance’ and the Finale from ‘William Tell’ as the national finals test piece! Although this seems to have given the brass band movement greater exposure, it didn’t however do anything at all to enhance the modern image of banding we so much want to portray.
I ask quite seriously, what do we do next to raise the profile of our great Brass Band movement and convince the general public to come and listen to our concerts and contests, and to treat us as serious musicians?
I suggest we need central governance and control. We need to embrace technology. We need to inject accountability at all levels, especially in adjudicating. We need not be so insular in approach. We need to change our draconian ways, inject new blood into the system, take risks, not be afraid to challenge the way things are and to try something new, to reiterate – “if you always do what you did, you will always get what you got”.
There are many enthusiastic members of our unique movement who are striving forward with new ideas and innovations to secure our future.
Are you one of them?
We all need to join them and pull together as ‘one’ to prove to the rest of the world that UK Banding is not in decline and is still the mecca of the banding world and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.