BBE Conference Gregson's Observations


It has been a long time since I ventured on this forum; having bored the living pants off people for years before that. Anyway, apologies now for returning to my modus operandi.

Many years ago I went to a Brass Band England conference at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester and listened to Howard Snell comment on banding and its idiosyncrasies. It was in its relative infancy at that point. Not many bands as members, small steps and areas for development and not much of a budget.

Fast forward a few years and I decided to give BBE another chance, as being a member through Lindley made it a free entry (being a tight Yorkshire/Cardi!). The development of all aspects of the organisation was staggering and the energy and opportunities they offer to bands really interested me. The workshops, the BandSafe etc etc show that there is willing from the organisation to be as inclusive as possible and offer individuals and bands opportunities to develop and get the best out of a hobby.

Perhaps the main reason, if I'm honest, to attend the conference was to listen to Professor Edward Gregson and his views on brass band contests (and later copyright). Over the years I have listened to many musicians that have musical experience outside of our hobby, for example Elgar Howarth and Howard Snell, who have presented their views on aspects of banding. These have, unsurprisingly, been fairly consistent in their opinions.

Some interesting comments or quotes (paraphrased here) by Gregson and later by others:

a) "Contesting has reached new heights of obsession and distraction"
b) Contests have become the 'be all, end all' of everything.
c) Contesting has 'archaic traditions'
d) Contest music has become 'virtuosic for the the sake of virtuosic' leanings.
e) Contest composer gene pool needs to broaden with more people from outside the movement.
f) Contests, organisers, players and conductors have an 'in-built' fear of a piece being a dud.
g) Contest music and the restraints of what organisers want/tradition and fear of the 'dud' means styles are formulaic.
h) Pushing the boundaries of music in general, from non band composers, has diminished since the 1970s and Elgar Howarth.
i) The traditional concert programme structure is becoming outdated.
j) Adjudication should be open.
k) 'The time of set test piece contests are drawing to a close'.
l) Top British bands have a responsibility to inspire and educate youth.
m) The number of players in a contest should be changed (or abolished)
n) All band contests should be run by a central organisation.
o) The Championship and lower section finals should be in one location on the same weekend.
p) In Norway some of the players in the Championship section can also play in the band where they started playing (in a lower section I presume).
q) All bands should be compulsory members of said central organisation.

These are the views expressed at the conference. There were others, but I thought I would just throw this out there.


Active Member
I play in a band that contest and it is taken seriously. For some to a point (I personally feel..) that they forget why they started playing. I recently helped out a band that was short numbered for a concert and got so much personal pleasure from, I got a buzz and came away thinking I loved that. Which is not always the same for a contest... :eek:

Anno Draconis

Well-Known Member
I wasn't there but I watched bits online - am I right in thinking that the discussion about "are contests fit for purpose" got a bit bogged down in individual members'/bands' grievances about perceived injustices and "unfairness" rather than actually getting to grips with the topic at hand?

That tends to be the problem the moment contesting reform is discussed. One of my first posts ever on this forum was suggesting that registration was a pointless waste of time and money, and immediately there were people claiming that their local 4th section rivals would go out and buy the entire Black Dyke front row in order to win £50 at the Cleckheaton Dogbiscuits Invitational Open, or whatever. Until we get rid of this bizarre mindset, rooted in 19th century rivalries and apocryphal stories, rather than in 21st century actuality, nothing is going to change and certainly not improve. For what it's worth, I think Gregson is spot on in every one of his observations and should immediately be elected Brass Band National Dictator For Life.

Always a pleasure to read your contributions, Dr Jones!

James Yelland

Active Member
The most depressing aspect of Gregson's points is that pretty much all of them were being made twenty to thirty years ago. I was just one of many people making those points on this forum and elsewhere. The fact that people are still making the same points in 2019 shows just how inbred and immovable the brass band fraternity's mindset is. The only cause for cautious optimism that I can see is the creation of BBE and its apparent determination to change things - but I think it will be another twenty or thirty years before we start noticing any real differences.

Pauli Walnuts

Staff member
Until we get rid of this bizarre mindset, rooted in 19th century rivalries and apocryphal stories, rather than in 21st century actuality, nothing is going to change and certainly not improve.
Absolutely agree Andrew - I recall a very long time ago I wrote a piece for Brass Band World on this very topic including a reference to how much easier it was to get into Bosnia than it was to get onto a contest stage. I was accused by someone involved in the Registry at the time of taking banding back 100 years with this sort of thinking!

John Brooks

Well-Known Member
I was accused by someone involved in the Registry at the time of taking banding back 100 years with this sort of thinking!
More likely some well meaning functionary fearful of losing their perceived importance. Always a challenge when volunteers are relied upon regardless of the event. We have an excellent volunteer policy at work and the application process was automated a few years ago but the coordinator still insists on everyone getting her approval first before applying on the internal portal. Bob Dylan's song "The Times They Are A Changin'" comes to mind.....they are but all too slowly. I wish BBE every success.


Well-Known Member
Agree with pretty much the whole list, and agree with the sad observation that none of these observations of what afflicts banding are anywhere near new. We just have to wait for the cultural boil to be ready to burst, I guess. It's been painfully slow going though, waiting for banding to open its ears again.

Also - how nice to see names from the forum past showing up, names that you can always count on for posting thought-out stuff.


I have always thought, (having written the occasional report for the BB, and having associated with some of the powers that be) that as long as the organisers can continue earning a living from brass bands, nothing will change. They’ve even created businesses for themselves to ensure this happens. The tie up with the SA and WOB is proof that the health of the “movement” is a long way from the top of their list of priorities. I see the same earnest, vain faces at every event, clamouring for attention and seeking new and more important people to network with. When the news reporting, the music publisher, the media production, the organisation, and the rule making is under one umbrella, there are problems.

Edward Gregson being outside of the brass band sphere sees what those inside, by and large, cannot. It is consuming itself, and those eating at the trough do not and will not care until it is too late.

Jack E

Well-Known Member
I must admit to being biased on this topic, in that I have ZERO interest in playing in contests (though as I'm nowhere near the standard required to play in 4th Section - and may never be - that is a bit academic!). One point which puts me off contesting is that made by Professor Gregson (in A and B, above), and as made by Miss Braz:
I play in a band that contest and it is taken seriously. For some to a point (I personally feel..) that they forget why they started playing.
Mind, this tendency to obsession about winning competitions is not just confined to banding - I've noticed exactly the same in such varied activities as sailing and horse riding.
The other thing I dislike is much of the music used as test pieces; a purely personal opinion, but to me, some of it is fairly pleasant, some tediously complicated, and some which I find about as enjoyable as listening to a chainsaw! I can see that contest music has to be difficult to play well, otherwise it is no test of a band's ability, but surely there is ample music which is both difficult to play AND wonderful to listen to, as well? Two pieces which immediately come to mind are Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor', and 'Riverdance'.
Burbage Band, from Buxton, Derbyshire, contest in 1st Section, but mainly play concerts. Their programme includes theme music from films such as 'Skyfall', 'Zulu', and '633 Squadron', traditional military marches, music from operas by Handel and Puccini, and modern pieces such as 'Fat Bottomed Girls', by Queen, and 'Bat Out of Hell', by Meatloaf! I cannot believe that a band which is focused on contesting would ever give their players a chance to play such a range of music as that - and I've never seen Burbage play a concert which didn't draw enthusiastic applause from the audience.
A final thought - re. Professor Gregson's point about "Top British bands have a responsibility to inspire and educate youth."
I agree with that - but I don't think it goes far enough. I believe that ALL British bands have that responsibility, and that any which don't are living on borrowed time. A year or so ago, a band in Yorkshire which was originally a colliery band (sorry, I can't remember its name) closed down for lack of players. In the announcement put out by the committee, one sentence caught my eye, and was to the effect that "over the last ten years or so, we just haven't had the players coming in the door." Where, I asked, did the committee think those players were going to come from?
I gather that music lessons in schools are rapidly becoming a thing of the past - so if local bands don't have a programme for training novices from scratch, and a junior band to act as a stepping stone to the main band, where will they get new players as existing ones retire or move away? The short and ugly answer is "They won't - and they'll go the way of the band I mentioned above".
Championship Section bands will always have good players beating a path to their door, but the great majority of bands will NOT. Grow your own, or prepare to die.

Richard Knock

New Member
This is an interesting thread, because a lot of it chimes with my own thoughts on contesting. The main (possibly only) benefit from contesting seems to me to be that it forces players to practice and improve their technique, and a good conductor will organise things to bring out the best in each individual player. It is of course a challenge for the conductor more than anybody. It has it’s downsides in that you can end up with it becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end, and this results in the exclusion of those with lesser ability, and sometimes the formation of a ‘contest band’ within the band, which in the search for trophies or prestige starts to ‘borrow’ players and exclude regular members. This elitism can actually break up a band entirely, and then nobody benefits. It is my opinion that set test pieces are becoming more and more technically challenging and less musically interesting. Even the scoring is deliberately made difficult to read, in the use of obscure time signature changes every few bars and the introduction of double flats and sharps, which, although technically correct, are really included just to trip up players. There is excessive use of rarely used percussion instruments (which of course helps the sales of such equipment), and the end result of this is a piece of music which is only of interest to technicians. I have often asked conductors ‘Would you put this piece on in a concert?’ The reply is invariably ‘Oh no!’ Which says it all in my book. (There are actually some wonderful but increasingly rare exceptions to this.) If the sole purpose is to trip a band and conductor up, and make the adjudicators job easy, then that purpose is achieved. If, like me, you think music is about enjoyment and entertainment, then these pieces are an abject failure. I love a well presented concert, and so does the public. Surely that should be the end purpose of a band, not just trophies on a shelf.