2006 Regional Championships - An overall retrospective


4BR looks back at the 2006 Regional Championships and asks whether there are lessons to be learnt for everyone concerned?

Now that the dust has finally settled on the musical merry-go-round that was the 2006 Regional Championships and the cheers of victory, mixed with the tears of disappointment, are behind us for another year, it is always worth looking back and taking stock of the lessons to be learned from the most important series of contests in the British banding movement.

As always, some will reflect on the successes of the past month, whilst others may be a touch more circumspect about their efforts. Are we in a healthier state in 2006 than we were 12 months ago or, as Harold Macmillan remarked about the state of the country in the 1960s, are we just managing our own steady decline?

The Regions:

It is an uncomfortable fact that the total number of bands now competing at the Regional Championships has fallen and continues to fall. In 1986, there were 614 bands taking part in the contests around the country. This year, 529 put their names forward and 515 actually made it to the stage. Mere statistics, however, do not fully explain the reasons why less bands are competing. The North East, for instance, had just 43 bands taking to the stage, whilst in London and in the Midlands 81 performed in each. The structural imbalance between the eight regions is now so pronounced that in the 2nd Section at Darlington there were just five competing bands but in the West of England there were 15. In the 4th Section in Scotland there were just seven competitors, whilst the Midlands and London each had 24 and the West of England had 26.

Perhaps the time has come to look at the geographical set up of the regions once more and see if a reorganisation can produce a more evenly proportioned spread of competitors. There may even be some credence to the thought of anew ŚCentralą region being created to make this much more realistic.

Regional Committees:

Hats off to the Regional Committees. From Motherwell to Torquay, Swansea to Stevenage, each of the eight regions continues to undertake the mammoth task of putting on its championships in fine style.

This year, there was the added problem of heavy snow surrounding the second weekend of contests, which took place at Blackpool, Motherwell and Burton-on-Trent, yet the response from the Regional Committees was excellent. Common sense and intelligent responses to bands' needs made sure that, even though there were some delays, everything went to plan - and not just on that particular weekend either.

There are those who like to moan and groan at the Regional contests about the venues, the facilities and even the price of snacks and drinks, but how many who criticise are prepared to give it a go themselves? It is a thankless job, undertaken by very committed people. They continue to deserve our thanks, even though we are sure they could do with a bit more help and assistance from players who, at times, take them for granted.


The Music Panel has a difficult job. Picking five works for bands of varying standards to perform is a tricky business and, for the most part, they get it right.

This year, we had some excellent choices. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was popular with performers and audiences alike and gave the judges the opportunity to really assess the merits and credentials of the very best bands. Voyage of Discovery was an enjoyable and demanding test for the 1st
Section that proved a worthy challenge for those bands with Championship Section aspirations, whilst Anglian Dances was an absolute corker for the 4th Section. There cannot have been too many pieces chosen at this level that gave an opportunity for so many bands to enjoy the contesting experience. It was an excellent choice.

The set works for the 2nd and 3rd Sections, however, gave rise to a number of problems. Entertainments was a very difficult test for the bands in the 3rd Section, but was made harder by the general lack of appreciation by conductors of Gilbert Vinter's intuitive style of composition. It was an ambitious choice by the Music Panel, but one that should have been within the capabilities of most bands. That it became obvious that it wasn't was due as much to the inability of MDs to understand the score as it was the Music Panel's initial decision to use it as a demanding set work.

That cannot be said, though, of Images of the Millennium. This was plainly a very ill-judged selection and you do have to question how on earth the panel thought it suitable for the 2nd Section. It was a disaster and the level of performances around the country this year ranged from merely competent to catastrophic, with far too many nearer to the latter than the former.

Performance standards:

There is little doubt that the standard of performances at the very highest level bordered on the breathtaking this year. However, there is also no question that, in general, performance standards throughout the sections
were varied, to say the least.

The test-pieces, of course, had something to do with this, but not exclusively so. The trend towards sheer volume rather than bigger sounds continues to bedevil the movement at the top level, whilst the inability of so many of these bands and their individual players to play quietly has become endemic. Bands that think that having cornet players turn away from the audience in pianissimo passages actually sounds better may be able to kid themselves that it works, but the ones that try it with the bigger instruments must be living in a strange parallel universe that has different laws of physics if they think that it will make any noticeable

Technically, banding has never been better, but musically we have gone backwards. Why was it that so many 1st Section cornet players couldn't produce the notes in the final section of Voyage of Discovery? No blame can be attached to the 2nd Section bands. They were asked to perform an unsuitable work and all who took to the stage gave blood and sweat (and, we are sure, more than a few tears) in the cause. That the vast majority got nowhere near the piece was not a disappointment, just a realistic result of a poor choice by the Music Panel. You do wonder, however, how many of the bands who played the piece this year actually enjoyed the experience to the extent that they will want to come back next year and how many performers thought that it improved them as players?

The general standard of conducting was also poor, even at the higher levels. The evidence of too many MDs carving away with their heads stuck firmly in the score, a lack of appreciation of the basics of band playing and of the music they were conducting was painfully obvious. The lack of understanding of Gilbert Vinter's Entertainments was at times the equivalent of a musical criminal offence.

What can be achieved by the selection of a fine test-piece was evident in the 4th Section. Bands came to the stage able to play the notes, so they could then concentrate on making the music. The result?  Hundreds of bandsmen and women, young and old, thoroughly enjoying the contest experience.

The Sections:

Each region can only be as strong as the sum of its constituent parts - the sections. However, on the evidence of listening to performances around the country this year, there does appear to be a problem with the sections that, if not addressed, could have real long-term problems for the movement as a whole.

Although the Championship Section is the top tier of the contesting structure currently in place, in reality it has become laden with a mediocrity that permeates to the sections below. As a result, the step up from the 1st Section to the Championship has become ever more pronounced, whilst the knock-on effect to the 2nd and 3rd Sections in particular has become even more marked. In too many areas, they have become almost
indistinguishable from each other - an amalgam of bands struggling to meet their aspirations in the wrong sections.

Five of the regions have more than ten bands in the Championship Section, whilst numbers in the 1st Section range from eight in Wales to 17 in the Midlands. It is questionable whether the level of performances in these
Sections can justify the numbers. Surely quality and not quantity is what is required to enhance standards throughout the sections in each area. Unless a radical re-grading of bands for the Regional Championships is undertaken nationally, the long term effects will be an ever increasing variance of standards.

The Adjudicators:

It would be very easy to castigate the judges following some 'surprise' results, but that is an easy option. Win or lose, respect for the decision of the adjudicators is integral to the continued development of our movement. Long may that continue. Like the bands, however, the standard of adjudicating at the Regional contests this year was varied. At its best, there were numerous examples of fine decision making at all levels, at times in fields of competing bands that numbered over 20. On other occasions, however, it wasn't as good.

It was a real joy to hear the vast majority of judges take the opportunity to explain their decisions to the audiences at the conclusion of each contest. It was greatly appreciated in the halls and by the competing bands, whilst it was also good to hear strong opinions from many of the judges on the standards of playing and about the suitability of the test-pieces that bands had to perform.

ABBA is showing itself to be a progressive organisation, but perhaps its hardest test of its character will come when it addresses the need to introduce 'new blood' to maintain and enhance the high standards it has
set itself. There were occasions this year when those standards were not maintained.

Looking forward?

What will the story be in 2007, then? More of the same, most probably. Individual examples of excellence still excite and thrill us, but they are becoming increasingly isolated and rare. The Regional Championships are in need of an overhaul, perhaps radical in nature, if we are to stop the gradual haemorrhaging away of bands that provide the lifeblood of our movement. Managing decline is not an option. Managing a reinvigorated and quality led movement should be our principal aim and objective.

Iwan Fox

This article first appeared in the British Bandsman magazine on 1st April


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