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Now and Then

David Read is regarded as one of the leading brass band contest adjudicators. He is also a man with huge experience as both a player and educationalist. Here he gives us some thought about the band scene of today, and of a few years ago.

Following my article for 4BarsRest some months ago entitled, "50/60's Revisited", I thought it might be interesting to put some flesh on the bones, to comment on the many changes that have taken place, and to draw some comparisons with banding today.

I am often asked the question, "Are brass bands better now than they have ever been?". I can only comment on the last 60 years! It is a difficult question to answer, for instance, is David Beckham a better footballer than Stanley Matthews?

As far as bands are concerned, I believe they are. There are some wonderful players today and the technical skills of players are much better than ever before, they play better in tune, their range is greater, they have better teachers, higher education is available to many more young people and so on and so on! Having said all that, we produced Maurice Murphy over 60 years ago and he is still a wonderful player!

Could the players of my generation play the extremely difficult test pieces of today? Who knows! We never had them to play, but what I do know is that when I hear bands of today playing the older test pieces I have to say I think we played them at least as good!

There has been a tremendous change in the repertoire since I started playing in 1943. The concert programmes them consisted mainly of operatic selections, marches, waltzes, overtures, musical comedies, light novelty numbers and of course solos.

Much of the concert work was on bandstands in the parks, the music contained tunes and melodies easy on the ear to the listener, so we were well equipped to play the generally tuneful passages in the earlier top section test pieces eg. Comedy, Downland Suite, Resurgam, Festival Music, Variations on a Ninth, Kensington Concerto etc.

There were also many Slow Melody and Quartet Contests held in those days, and I remember as a boy competing at three such contests, held only a few miles apart one Saturday afternoon in South Yorkshire where I lived.

The average entry at these events would be 30/40 in the Junior Sections, 60/70 in the Seniors and 15/20 in the Quartet Section. I know of all the arguments and criticisms from the purists on how restricted the music was, with its predominance of Victorian ballads such The Holy City, The Lost Chord, Nirvana and Angus MacDonald etc! and the quartets were similarly restricted where items such as Euryanthe, Concordia, Presiosa and O Harmony were the norm. This is one of the reasons why I asked Gilbert Vinter if he would consider writing some new compositions, but I still think these contests were a great training ground, particularly for younger players, and invaluable for learning how to phrase, develop the sound and generally to keep in good performing practice.

In the mid sixties we had to cope with the change to concert pitch, when instrument manufacturers announced that no more sharp pitch instruments would be produced. Those that could afford to do so were able to buy new instruments, whilst others converted their existing instruments with slides, lowering the pitch by nearly a semitone, and bringing us in line with the orchestras and military bands.

An advantage today is the improvement in the quality of the instruments, especially with their added features. For instance there is no excuse for a cornet player to produce a low C sharp, out of tune, with the availability of the trigger on the third valve slide, (I know that a trigger is useless in the hands of someone who does not know how to use it, or does not listen when playing!). Players of my generation had to set the slides the best way they could.

A euphonium player said to me recently that euphonium players today have no difficulty playing the high D in Lalo's "King of Y's", unlike in 1959 when it was used as a test piece at the Royal Albert Hall. I reminded him that in 1959 high D was equivalent to high Eb today!

In my day we had fewer changes in personnel (and full rehearsals), and as I understand it some players today are lucky if they know who is going to sit beside them at the next contest! A number of Championship bands today gain from the availability of full time music students (usually of Grade 8+ standard before they get to college), and when they leave, others take their place!

Two further changes are the number of ladies in bands - in fact, many bands would not survive without them and I can remember a time when so few were playing you could name them! And secondly, the acceptance of percussion in contests - in my first twenty-five years of contesting this was not allowed.

Finally, as an adjudicator, I have heard some wonderful and unforgettable performances and two that spring to mind immediately are the Black Dyke Mills Band performance of "Cloudcatcher Fells" conducted by Peter Parkes and more recently "….Dove Descending" by Yorkshire Building Society conducted by David King (there are many more), but I also have to say that in 1950 I felt the same way about Fairey Aviation Works Band conducted by Harry Mortimer playing "Resurgam" at Belle Vue and in 1962, Manchester CWS conducted by Alex Mortimer playing "Force of Destiny" at the Royal Albert Hall.

I hope this short article has been of some interest to your younger and older readers alike and as I write this at the beginning of another century I will end with a Latin quotation "Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in ilis" - "Times change and we change with them", although not as quickly as younger people wish!

I look back because I am in a position to be able to do so, (kind people call it experience!) however, the fact that I am communicating through the "net" should tell you that I am not quite the dinosaur you may think, and I hope on another occasion to write about the state of banding today and how I see the future.

Copyright David Read.

David Read:

David Read was born in Wales and did his Military service with the Regimental Band of the Welsh Guards. His playing career came to fruition with the Askern Colliery Band, followed by a spell with Carlton Main Frickley Colliery. He later joined the Munn and Feltons Band (later named GUS) later becoming Principal Cornet. During his time with the band, GUS became National Champions on four occasions and World Champions once.

He was also assistant principal cornet for the Virtuosi Band of Great Britain and Kings of Brass and was three times Champion Cornet Player of Great Britain and once outright Solo Champion. He was also a member of the famous GUS quartet that with John Berryman, John Cobley and Trevor Groom who on a number of occasion were British Quartet Champions.

He has been an educationalist as Senior Instrumental Teacher for Cambridge Area Education Authority, and in 1983 was honoured by the Worshipful Company of Musicians and in 1996 by receiving the English Masters Dedicated Service Award.

He is perhaps the most highly respected brass band contest adjudicator currently on the banding circuit, who's written comments are constructive and detailed and who has an acute ear for musical shape as well as technical clarity.

More importantly he is seen as a "safe" adjudicator in the eyes of the bandsmen themselves, in that he invariably gets the vast majority of decisions concerning the prizewinners correct. This has been further emphasised by the bands themselves voting him as their first choice to judge them at the All England Masters for the past few years. He has officiated at all the major brass band contests both in the UK and abroad and has been in "the box" at the last seven National Championship Finals at the Royal Albert Hall and retired this year as Chairman of the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators.

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