A Bandsman's Harrogate Diary - the 2006 Nationals

Brian Kelly

Active Member
So, the Third Section National Championships 2006. I have never played at a National Finals before; in fact, I had never believed it possible that I would ever get to play at a National Finals. I am still a relative newcomer to band contests. There is a big difference between playing in a concert and playing in a contest. If you make a mistake in a concert, you look and feel like an idiot, the performance is spoiled, but most of the audience won’t have noticed (unless you do something spectacularly wrong). If you make a mistake in a contest, you look and feel like an idiot, the performance is spoiled, but the adjudicators (who are listening carefully and following a score of the piece as you play) will definitely notice. Your mistake could be the difference between winning and coming second. And this was to be the most important contest I have played in since I joined Flixton Band nearly three years ago.

While the Championship Section National Championships (there’s a mouthful) are always held at the Royal Albert Hall in London at the end of October, the First, Second, Third and Fourth Section National Championships are held over a weekend at the end of September, and for the last few years have been held at the Harrogate Conference Centre. For the duration of the contest, the band had booked into a hotel in Ripon, a small market town only a few miles from Harrogate. So on Friday afternoon the members of the band began to make their way to Ripon. I knew that Adrian, our principal percussionist, was setting off at 11.30 am, which I thought was excessive. I set off from home at 1.30 pm, which I thought would be a reasonable time. Adrian was right. The motorway was packed solid, and barely moving between Bradford and Leeds. There was also a monsoon to cope with, and the Highways Agency had decided that the junction numbers on the A1 and A1M should be discontinuous, in order to make people’s journeys more interesting. As expected, I got caught up and lost in Ripon’s fiendishly complicated one-way system (all one-way systems are fiendishly complicated) before finally arriving at our hotel. This did not bode well for those members of the band who had not been able to get the day off and who were travelling straight from work, as we were due to have a rehearsal in the hotel’s conference room at 8 pm.

Our hotel was situated on Ripon’s main square. A 2-star hotel, it was a former coaching inn dating from the Middle Ages. Some of us who had arrived early, having set up the conference room for the rehearsal, had time to have a meal at what turned out to be a very good Chinese restaurant close to the hotel.

As the evening wore on and we waited for more band members to arrive, it was worrying to see that there was a large police presence in the square. It was suggested that Karen, our first trombone player, should stop sitting in the conference room window, as it might give the wrong idea to any troublemakers outside.

As feared, 8pm came and went, and still not all of the band had arrived. Our conductor, Kevin, decided to postpone the start of the rehearsal until 8.30. By 8.30, more players had arrived, but we were still a few players down. The rehearsal began: a few unison band exercises, a couple of hymn tunes and a quick run through the National Anthem in case we were selected to be the first band to play at the contest, before looking at “Sinfonietta for Band”, the piece we were due to play. The remaining players arrived at 9.30. Kevin was not impressed. Principal euphonium Andy Tyson is legendary in Flixton Band for getting lost, but apparently the delay was (at least partly) because they had to stop on the way as his sister, Katie Tyson, our principal cornet, had not been feeling well. Katie did look pale, which was worrying. At 10pm the rehearsal finished, and Kevin gave us a brief pep talk before we all headed back to our rooms and then to the hotel bar.

In the hotel bar, it came to light that the hotel was supposed to be haunted. Conversation turned to strange and ghostly incidents which people had seen or heard or knew about. Then Paul and Dave, our baritone players, came into the bar brandishing a large bone which they had found inside a drawer in the room which they were sharing. Later on, Yvonne, who plays third cornet, was among the first to call it a night only to return in a rather agitated state. When she had entered her room, the light was on, and she distinctly remembered having switched the light off before going to the bar. Spooky. I did not have any strange encounters that night, although I was kept awake by the unearthly sounds coming from the nearby nightclub until the early hours of the morning, plus the delightful chimes from the clock tower every 15 minutes all through the night.

Saturday morning. Contest day. Everyone had been sensible the night before, and we all made it down to breakfast (although a handful had to be roused from their slumbers). As might be imagined, the 7am rehearsal was lacking in joyful enthusiasm, but at least we were all present and correct in our band “walking-out” uniforms, and we got down to work. As on Friday night, we began with some unison band exercises, then a couple of hymn tunes and the National Anthem, then “Sinfonietta”. We had not been rehearsing for long when Katie Tyson left in a hurry. Alison, our band librarian, went to see how she was. Alison reported back that Katie was in the bathroom and not very well. Kevin remained calm and collected. “I’m sure that she’ll be alright, but just in case…” we played through the cornet solo passages, with Craig, the assistant principal cornet, playing the solos. At 8 o’clock Kevin declared himself satisfied and gave us another brief pep talk before we loaded up the coach to take us to Harrogate. Katie emerged, and we set off.

While on the way to Harrogate, we heard the news of where we had been placed in the draw.
The draw and the adjudicators’ box always seem to cause problems for non-brass banders, so this may be a good place to explain. In the early days of brass band contests (the mid 19th century), adjudicators were sometimes conspicuously less than impartial. It has even been alleged that money sometimes changed hands. To prevent such shenanigans, at most contests the adjudicators listen to the bands from inside a box (usually these days a metal frame draped with curtains). Obviously, the box is not soundproof. Once the adjudicators are safely hidden away, a draw is made to decide the order in which the bands play. This means that the adjudicators do not know which band they are listening to, and so cannot be swayed by reputation or favouritism. We had drawn to play number 9. There were 17 bands in the contest, so we were just on the half way point. We had avoided the dreaded number 1 spot. It is an article of faith among most brass banders that it is impossible to win a contest if you play first. This is not true, but they believe it anyway.

We arrived at the Harrogate Conference Centre, a building straight out of a 1970s science-fiction film. As we had plenty of time, I went for a good look round. After buying the souvenir programme (complete with a small complementary box of Yorkshire Tea teabags) and a ticket (unlike most contests, at the National Finals competing players have to buy a full-price ticket if they want to listen to other bands), it was time to hit the trade stands. Faced with a cornucopia of compact discs, I successfully restricted myself to buying only two before examining the smorgasbord of music, instruments, and instrumental accessories. Tim, who plays percussion and who has his own music publishing business, was pleased to see that some of his own compositions and arrangements were on prominent display. I also met Steve Ford, a friend of mine who plays bass trombone with Clifton & Lightcliffe Band, who were playing in the same contest. Being a pair of trombone geeks, we drooled over the new model Conn 62HG bass trombone before wishing each other good luck and going our separate ways.

At 10 o’clock we all met up, collected our instruments and band concert uniforms from the coach, and headed for the changing rooms. Our assigned changing room was a large, featureless, windowless room with grey painted walls and a row of chairs to delineate the space where we were to get changed and leave our things. Another band, presumably the band before us, had left their instrument cases and clothes in another part of the room. For anyone who has ever been to a band contest and wondered why quite a few players always have wonky bow ties, the answer is simple. The changing rooms at band contests never have any mirrors.

Having got changed, we were then solemnly escorted to the warm-up room, another featureless and windowless room, with chairs and music stands laid out ready for us. We did not go through the test piece at all, just some exercises and hymn tunes before Kevin gave his final pep talk, and then it was time to go. We were lead down a corridor, and then paraded through the Registration area. All players have to present their registration document (complete with photo ID) to show that they are genuine members of their band and not ringers brought in for the contest – something else that used to happen in the early days of contesting. We then had to stay in the waiting area, blowing through our instruments so as to prevent them getting cold again. Waiting to go on stage is the part of contesting I hate. It is like waiting to begin an exam (which, in a sense, is what it is). Look through your part. Focus. Stay calm. Breathe slowly and deeply. Above all, don’t tense up – if you do, the sound you make becomes harsh and nasty. Time to go.

We went on stage and settled down, adjusting chairs and music stands, and shuffling around. I deliberately did not look out into the auditorium. Karen told Helen (2nd trombone) and I to take the banners off our music stands, as she had had problems with banners before when turning over music pages. As Karen is our section leader, that’s what we did. I felt nervous, though not as nervous as at some other contests. Kevin looked round the band. We were ready. Kevin beat two bars to set the tempo, and we were off. The opening fanfare from the front-row cornets was perfect: spot-on together, the right rhythm, in tune, no split or fluffed notes, a terrific sound and a swaggering confidence that inspired the rest of the band. This was something special. My nerves vanished. I just played. Later that night, Alex, Karen’s partner who was in the audience, said that, of the times he had seen Flixton Band play, this was the first time that Karen and I had looked as if we were enjoying ourselves. Tom on front-row cornet later said that he had looked across at me and that I had reminded him of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”, which was less complementary. In the second movement, I just sat back and enjoyed listening to the solos. Mona (solo horn) was magnificent as always. Nikki was fabulous on her big flugel horn solo. Katie on principal cornet, despite not feeling well, was excellent, her playing was elegant and stylish, and she made it all sound so easy. The third movement began – light, delicate and precise. All too soon, it came to an end. To applause and cheers, Kevin indicated for Nikki and then Katie to stand up, before bringing the rest of us to our feet.

As we came off stage we were on a high. Everyone was congratulating Nikki and Katie, and each other. After each band has played, they have their photographs taken by a professional photographer, who also takes photographs of each section of the band and then of each member of the band. As we waited to have our photographs taken, Kevin told us how pleased he was with our performance, and that it was the best that we had played the piece.

After the photographs, we went to get changed, and then we loaded up the coach. It was agreed that the coach would pick us up at 5pm. The results of the contest were expected to be at approximately 2.30. After that we split up, some to the nearest pub, some to go and listen to the remaining bands.

I was one of the group that went to listen to the other bands. The auditorium was huge, but I doubt that it was a quarter full. The adjudicators’ box was in the stalls, close to the front of the stage. The acoustics did the bands no favours, but you could hear everything.

After the last band had played, the auditorium began to fill up. Members of the competing bands are allowed in to hear the results without payment. I went to sit with the other members of Flixton Band, who had gathered in three rows at the front of the stalls. The compere, Peter Bates, asked for a representative from each band to go on stage. Unusually in my experience of band contests, he announced the name of each band in turn, prompting applause and cheering as each person made their way forwards. Mike, our 2nd euphonium player and band manager, went up on behalf of Flixton Band. We then had a speech from a representative of Besson Musical Instruments, who sponsored the contest. He was listened to politely, and was applauded politely at the end. Then the adjudicators, Kevin Wadsworth and Steve Pritchard-Jones, emerged from the box and made their way on to the stage. As they did so, they passed by the adjudicators for the Second Section Championships who were going into the box. The Second Section Championships were due to begin once we had finished. Sadly, they did not High Five each other as they passed.

Peter Bates came to the microphone. I had not noticed, but when he had announced the name of each band, he had done so in the order in which they had played, so that the adjudicators then knew which band was which. He apologised for this, but the adjudicators had told him that it had made no difference, as they had already reached their decision and written it down before the bands had been announced. Then there was more controversy as Peter Bates announced that the adjudicators would not be speaking to the audience. This caused uproar. The audience booed and jeered, and for a second or two it seemed as if things might turn nasty. Then Kevin Wadsworth and Steve Pritchard-Jones went to the microphone, and, to cheers and applause, it was announced that they would say something after all. They said that it had been a difficult piece and that only a few bands had coped with it, that it had been not so much the notes as the rests between the notes which had caught bands out, and that they had been looking for a performance “with a bit of magic” in it.

Finally, Peter Bates came forward to read out the results. “In sixth place, with 174 points, the band that played” a dramatic pause “number 4, Broxburn Silver!” Applause and cheers from their supporters as their representative went to be photographed accepting the certificate for sixth place. The trophies and cash are reserved for the top 3 bands. “In fifth place, with 175 points, the band that played” again, a dramatic pause “number 9, Flixton Band!”

So that was it. We waited to hear the final results (4th place Leicestershire Co-op, 3rd place Tullis Russell Mills, 2nd place Rainford, and the winners Long Eaton Silver) before heading outside, making phone calls on our mobiles and heading for the pub. Someone, probably Helen, went to find Kevin and tell him, as he never listens to the announcement of the results.

At 5 o’clock we made our way back to the coach. Once on board, Kevin made a speech, saying that we had played well and that we should be proud of our performance. We had the prospect of a night out in Ripon before us.

Back at the hotel, we unloaded the coach, and then it was time for a shower and change of clothes before meeting in the bar and heading off into the night. Most of the band went to a very good Indian restaurant, which coped admirably with an unexpected influx of hungry bandspeople and their partners and relatives taking over the entire establishment. They even did not flinch at Nikki’s request for a “Curry with no spices, and chips instead of rice”, which caused 2nd horn player Andy Vail to lower his head into his hands in despair at such barbarism. From there we went to a nearby pub, and then, as it was only one o’clock in the morning, back to the hotel bar. We all had a great night out. While I can’t report on everything that went on, I can state that Helen revealed herself to be a history buff, and that young percussionist Jenny revealed her passionate interest in law and order.

So, that was the Third Section National Championships 2006 and my first time as a player at a National Finals. It was a great weekend with a great group of people. It was fun. It was what banding is all about.