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Major Headaches: Part 1
The British Open Brass Band Championships

It may come as no surprise to you all out there, but given that just about every other bleeding programme on the TV for the past few weeks has been about the last fifty years of “Good Queen Bess” and how during the last half century she has remained as unchanged as an incontinent pensioner in a nursing home, 4BR has decided to have a look at our very own institutions of state – the major brass band championships and see whether or not time and the heavy shadow of progress has finally caught up with them and made them redundant.

Are the Nationals and Open in need of change, overhaul and modernisation? Are the Masters and Europeans undemocratic and unrepresentative of the modern brass band scene? Will David King ever win at the Albert Hall? Has the Queen or any member of the Royal family ever attended a brass band contest – and if not why do we still play the National anthem at the start of every contest? You know – the important questions of our time.

We’ve therefore had a look at each of the four “Majors” and picked out what we believe are their plus points, their minus points – and most importantly, what we think may be a few ideas to help them survive and flourish well into the 21st century. By the time old Brenda will have been on the throne for 75 years (she will get there you know), will the brass band contest be as healthy and popular? See what you think.

First up then, the oldest of them all:
The British Open Brass Band Championships

Older by nearly fifty years than the House of Windsor itself, the British Open remains the grand old lady of the brass band world – ancient, revered, untroubled by change…. and finally starting to show its age?

It may seem like sacrilege that we even dare discuss if there are any problems with the “Old Lady”, but we think there is a need. In 150 years the Open has only had four homes, a set criteria of judging, roughly the same number of competing bands – and an average age of the audience that has now crept past pension age. It remains our flagship for the general public to look at in awe and admiration – but does the general public really think its relevant in the 21st Century?

The plus points:

• 150 years of tradition
• Superb concert hall and facilities
• Commissions of new works
• High standards of performance
• Well run

Not bad eh? You can’t beat tradition – just ask the Americans, who think history is something that happened before the invention of the television set; the Symphony Hall is superb and offers great facilities for everyone; there is usually a new work to perform each year; the standards of performance are high and overall it is well run and organised.

The minus points:

• Too many bands
• A conservative approach to change
• Variable standards of quality
• Lack of media coverage
• Lack of openness

It speaks for itself really – too many bands bring a legion of problems – including variable levels of performance, whilst there seems to be an inherent conservative approach to the question of change. There is next to no media coverage in the national press and many believe the organisers should try and involve the bands themselves in the development of the contest – the mystery of the dropping of the original test piece for the contest being a case in point.

So how should the British Open change things to make itself an even better contest?

For us its about the structure of the contest, rather than just its content that we think is in need of reform. So these are our suggestions:

• Reduction in the number of competing bands
• Implementation of long-term policies on choices of composers to write for the contest
• Review of the adjudication process and selection
• Appointment of Press Officer
• Implementation of consultation process with the bands

That’s it for us – for the time being at least. There is little doubt that there are too many bands playing at the Open. This leads to all sorts of problems, not at least the variable standards of performances, but also the problems of time. Who remembers the marathon that was the Open of “Dove Descending”? This of course leads to problems of choice of set works and the limitations that must be imposed on the composers due to the time constraints. The reduction of bands would lead to we think, an overall improvement in the standards of performances and the standard and nature of the compositions available to be played.

This leads to our second suggestion. There is a desperate need for new, exciting composers to be invited to write for the medium. The argument that it is too expensive or that the likes of James McMillan couldn’t write anything for brass bands until 2009 is spurious. A long term approach to the need for new compositions is needed. The over reliance on a small band of brass composers has been shown to be short sighted – Philip Wilby’s rich seam of work was exhausted some time ago – over exploited in too short a space of time.

There is a need to review the whole process of the adjudication system used and the selection process. There is an argument for “new ears”, new systems and dare one say it – getting the judges to explain themselves to the audience. Why not a five man panel; why not open adjudication; why not separate judges…..? Why not at least discuss it.

The appointment of a full time professional Press Officer may seem a small request, but if the contest is to remain relevant to the general public, there is a desperate need for press coverage. The organisers may be doing something, but to be truthful it has useless over the years. There is a need to provide the press with information, pictures, articles, and facilities on the day etc. In return they will be surprised what they will get back.

And finally – consultation and communication with the bands themselves. Why not talk to the bands about the things that worry them. Why not try and explain what the organisers are thinking about? We hear stories and rumours a plenty – why was the original choice of the set work last year dropped for instance? What about the 150 celebration concert – was there any consultation about this – it was originally going to be another contest wasn’t it? So why was that dropped?

Be open about things and you’ll get positive responses from people – keep things secret and you just breed discontent. We need to know who and how the decisions are made – it’s not a lot to ask.

So that’s it for us. What do you think? Let us know on the comments page whether or not you agree or disagree with us, and whether or not you have any better ideas. The more the merrier.

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