2005 US Open Brass Band Championships - An American view by Pat Herak


Pat Herak is 4BR's man in the States, and these are his thoughts on his first visit to the US Open.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend my first (albeit the third) US Open Brass Band Championships.  Two years ago I was hesitant to come since this contest was still an unknown quantity (and admittedly my football team had a home match the same day).  Last year, it was a bit far to travel from my temporary home in Watford, Hertfordshire, so this year I made the 6 hour drive from Columbus, Ohio to Arlington Heights, Illinois with my wife to see what sort of event has developed.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize how close Arlington Heights was to Chicago O'Hare Airport and I saw nothing of the shuttles the organizers helpfully ran ahead of time, or I would have saved some time and taken the 1 hour flight instead.

Buskers: Stinking Garbage
Buskers: Stinking Garbage

As we arrived Friday night and swiftly checked into the hotel, we headed straight to the Buskers' preview.  I really didn't know why I was attending this event, when the same Busker groups would be performing the next day, but I figured I ought to show up to maintain my journalist integrity. What I found was a lovely pre-contest social event. First of all, there were many performances by the Buskers groups that would not be repeated the next day. 

There were scores of bandsmen at Peggy Kinnane's Irish Pub not only to hear some live brass music, but also to enjoy each other's company (and some liquid refreshment).  In all the contests I have attended in the UK, the only one that this Friday social hour resembled in the least was the Friday before the Pontin's Brass Band Championships (however, this was a bit tame as compared to Pontin's).  After the event ended at about 10.30 it was back to the hotel bar to socialise some more before retiring to bed.

The next morning it was off to John Hersey High School for the beginning of the entertainment contest.  Being my first time there I wasn't quite sure of the standard to except.  Whilst, the overall the standard was quite good, there were very few, jaw-dropping moments. Part of the reason is that while most of the bands attending are of a reasonably good to excellent quality, many of the top North American bands were missing. In fact, of the 7 bands attending, only 2 are ranked in the top 7 North American Bands. 

By comparison, there will be 11 bands at the Brass in Concert at Gateshead in a fortnight, 6 of which are the top 11 ranked bands in the UK. While some might consider this an area for concern, I have no doubt that this fledgling contest will not only begin to attract more of the best North American bands, but returning bands will also be of a higher musical as they improve. Having spoken to many who attended the first two contests, the standard has already improved greatly in two years (with many of the same bands) and there was really only one band that was not of a solid standard this weekend.

Buskers from Fountain City Brass Band
Buskers from Fountain City Brass Band

One area that strikes me as definitely needing improvement however is the adjudicators. While I understand it might be expensive to fly the likes of Alan Morrison in every year, there are many experienced North American brass band adjudicators they could have turned to.  This years adjudicators included only one who has actually been a regular performer in a proper brass band and unfortunately that adjudicator (I won't mention any names…although the full score sheets can be found at
http://www.usopenbrass.org/USOpen_ScoreSheet_2005.htm) ranked the bands 1st, 1st, 1st, 4th, 4th, 6th & 6th for entertainment and 1st, 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 5th, & 6th for music. There were more ties than the men's department at Harrods!! 

In my eyes, this is not separating the bands, not adjudicating and a waste of the organisers money.  I would, however, like to applaud the US Open organisers for trying to develop new adjudicators, as the US is somewhat short of our own homegrown judges.  However, I think one new adjudicator with two experienced ones is a better format than three virgin (or relatively new) adjudicators all at once. 

Having run into veterans Keith Wilkinson and Dave Lea at the contest, knowing Colin Holman is not far away in nearby Chicago and that the experienced James Curnow, Paul Droste and Ron Holz are only an hour flight away, yet all unused is a bit disappointing. Needless to say, as the US Open develops their own adjudication team I expect to see them improve over the years.

Having attended a few entertainment contests in England, the one thing that impressed me most about the US Open was its tasteful ‘gimmicks'.  Whilst Arlington Heights is only a 1-hour drive from the Wisconsin border it was delightfully void of the cheesy shark and chicken costumes and other displays I had thought were a staple of entertainment contests.  The ‘gimmicks' here (for lack of a better word) were all well done and were solely for the purpose of improving the musical performance and atmosphere rather than to shock and awe the audience. 

The Motor City Band wore the denim jeans and cowboy shirts as the told stories of the "Old West."  In fact, there vocalist who sang "Shenandoah" was so well done, it might have won the soloist prize if vocalist could qualify.  In the same tasteful yet comical style Grimethorpe performed the 1812 overture at last year's Brass in Concert, the Eastern Iowa Band performed the Vandals "Play that country Tuba, Cowboy." 

We also saw Central Florida and Fountain City perform their opening numbers from memory with choreography to highlight the sections that had the melodies.  Most of the bands refreshingly had truly entertaining performances instead of the typical fun music and gimmicks.

Unfortunately, if you had just bought a ticket for the event you then had to wait until reading 4barsrest the next day or the US Open website on the following Monday to find out the results as they were only announced at a special banquet later in the evening. With about 3 hours to kill between the last performance and the banquet, I was quite happy to attend the Eastern Iowa Band's tailgate in the parking lot for more socialize with representatives from some of the other bands. 

After a few pints I think I was able to encourage the lovely members of the Fountain City and Sheldon Theatre Bands to each bring a keg from one of their local breweries next year, but we'll have to see if that will come to fruition or was just the beer talking. Needless to say, it seems like another fine tradition the Eastern Iowa Band has started and hopefully will continue to improve the comradeship between bandsmen.

After the results were announced, it was the host Prairie Brass Band's turn to supply the kegs.  In the UK there appears to be a natural socialisation between bands as many people have previously played for the bands that they compete against. In the States, many of the bands are so far apart it really takes a conscience effort like the Prairie Band and other participating bands have done to really bring bandsmen together in this country. 

For a contest in only its third year, it was a very enjoyable weekend and yet, there is still so much potential for this contest to get even better.

Patrick Herak


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