4BR Talking Point — The great reform act

Former Grimethorpe resident conductor and tenor horn star Sandy Smith argues his case for reform of national grading and test piece selections.

Sandy Smith
The man behind the debate: Sandy Smith

I would like to take this opportunity to address a few points raised by recent correspondents to 4BR who question the need for reform of the current system for the grading of bands and choices of test pieces for our regional championships.

To reiterate one of the final points I made in my initial letter (4BR comments March 2014) which was submitted to 4BR on 12th February 2014: Many of the dissenting voices in the need for change debate seem driven by self interest or fear of change. 

They seem to think that any change being advocated is for the benefit of the ‘elite’ and to the detriment of all the rest. 

My argument is not this at all.

The current Championship Section:

This has got to be looked at dispassionately. 

If we are to take a securely competent technical and musical performance of a piece such as ‘St. Magnus’ as the yardstick for what constitutes a Championship Section standard band, then I can find no evidence, based on the myriad of recorded performances available online since the Areas, that Britain has more than a dozen bands even capable of getting close to this level.

Working on the assumption that ‘St. Magnus’ is representative of, or at least very close to, the current compositional pinnacle of brass band writing, then perhaps one could argue a countrywide Championship Section of 30 to 40 bands is appropriate - although I still feel this is erring on the generous side.

“How insulting to those bands to suggest they are second string, just because they failed to qualify in a region which could only fill 2 places” 
(Jim Doran: 4BR comments April 2014)

I am not suggesting these bands are second string at all; but Mr. Doran makes the mistake of railing solely against the recent North West Area result. 

The argument for restructuring is not based on individual contest results, but more an overview of how our current top section bands cope with a work such as ‘St Magnus’. 

The truth is that the majority do not. 

This is not a slight – we simply have to give these bands more realistic goals to aim for. It is no good hiding behind the paper statistics that say Britain has 80 + Championship bands who are comfortable tackling ‘St. Magnus’ when the actual evidence is clearly otherwise.

St.Magnus type pieces

“The qualifying bands for the Championship final this year are the cream of their areas and this combined with last year’s top 4 looks like a great line up to me and should bring the crowds to The Royal Albert Hall.”
(Graham Rix: 4BR comments April 2014)

“It was and is, a very difficult test for the very best bands, so it was a given that some Championship contenders would struggle. However what is clear is ‘St Magnus’ did the job!” 
(Craig Williams:  4BR comments April 2014)

‘St. Magnus’ did indeed do the job of getting a strong line up of bands to the Albert Hall - which is for the benefit of all involved in promoting the contest.

Royal Albert Hall
Strong line up at the Albert?

I would lso argue though that attempting pieces like ‘St. Magnus’ in trying to qualify for the event, can do great harm to players who are ill equipped to tackle its difficulties.

Let’s be in no doubt that if the choosing of ‘St. Magnus’ is seen as a ‘qualifying’ success, then we can look forward to more of the new breed of ‘blockbuster’ test pieces, particularly those being composed around Europe, being used at the future Areas.

That should continue to get a good line up for the finals. There is also the need for the very best bands to be challenged in a way which keeps them abreast of similar developments abroad. 

The problem however is that for well over 60% of current top section bands, these pieces are way beyond their capabilities. They are ill served by being forced to tackle such immensely difficult works. 

In my experience strong contenders in the Area contests do want as difficult a challenge as possible. 

This is seen as a way of instantly sifting out ‘weaker’ competition.  Conversely, it can also be seen in the apprehensiveness when a piece perceived to be ‘less challenging’ is chosen - usually leading to accusations of a ‘dodgy’ result post contest.

“The point I make, is the standard of the better bands improves the performances of the other bands in the Area.”

“Bands have to adjust to the higher standard”

“Higher class competition improves standards across the board as a general rule”
(Craig Williams:  4BR comments April 2014)

By this reckoning, why not just scrap the First Section, put all those bands into the top section, select ‘Spiriti’ or ‘Audivi Media Nocte’ and sit back and wait for the inevitable upward adjustment to the higher standards being asked for?

I jest of course, but this is exactly the situation we are in at the moment with 60% or more of the current top section. 

To use a sporting analogy - it is akin to making developing high jumpers only attempt heights which world class athletes are capable of - only for them to continually knock the bar down again and again, instead of making more gradual increments in the heights attempted and allowing proper progress.

“Forming an Elite Section is unlikely to improve the standard of the bands in the bottom rungs of the Championship Section: My guess is it will just widen the gap” 
(Craig Williams: 4BR comments April 2014)

The huge, almost unbridgeable gap between the top bands and the bands in the bottom rungs of the Championship Section already exists, with 60% of them having  already been cut adrift by the likes of ‘St. Magnus’.

Limbo test pieces

“Why change something that has worked for the amateur musician for decades”
(Graham Shelley 4BR comments April 2014)

Edward Gregson
What of Gregson's Dances & Arias and Connotations?

The crux of my argument for the re-organisation of the sections lies here. 

The current system is no longer fit for purpose. If we persist in peering through our rose-tinted specs to the past, Britain will become the dinosaur of banding even quicker than it currently is.

We have now lost the use of a multitude of our best compositions because they fall in the perceived gap that exists between First and Championship Sections.

Where do the following pieces now sit in the scheme of choosing area test pieces?

Dances & Arias (Gregson)
Ballet for Band (Horovitz)
Pageantry (Howells)
Diversions for Brass Band (Bourgeois)
The Essence of Time (Graham)
A Lowry Sketchbook (Wilby)
Checkmate (Bliss arr. Ball)
Connotations (Gregson)
Theme and Co-operation (Horovitz)
The Land of the Long White Cloud (Sparke)

I have yet to hear an answer of any sort for the question other than that they now fall into the gap mentioned above. 

Every one of this list of 10 (I could quite easily add another 20 or more) are first class examples of top class brass band writing that currently seems either out of fashion or without a level to be competitively performed.

I find this absolutely scandalous.


If we really want to see a rise in standards across the board, we can no longer afford to ignore the use of pieces like these in aiding that development. 

I would argue that these pieces would provide the 60% of bands who are currently cut adrift in the top section with the chance to make realistic improvement; utilising first class compositions, while still being able to produce really meaningful technical and musical performances.

“Perhaps we should stop looking up our own backsides and putting such an undue emphasis on ‘Elite’ contesting and try to answer the conundrum of how we still manage to attract many quality young players” 
(Jim Doran: 4BR comments April 2014)

The exposure to the music on the above list would go a long way to providing young players with attractive opportunities to make continued sensible improvement.

Let us not forget that many of the systems used by our foreign colleagues in their national championships already allows exposure to this list of ‘limbo’ pieces - and we wonder why the standards of these bands continues to improve!

Potential solutions

“Banding is about everyone, not just the Elite.”  
(Graham Shelley: 4BR comments April 2014)

Ebbw Valley
What of the rest? Ebbw Valley celebrate their National Fourth Section victory

I agree absolutely. 

The current system and choice of test pieces gives bands progressing from the First to the Championship Section little chance of making a lasting impact. 

A new 6 tier system of 4th, 3rd 2nd, 1st, Championship and Premier would re-introduce a multitude of great pieces currently lying dormant, which in turn would allow genuine development of playing standards. 

Two or three years in a new Championship Section playing pieces from the list above is much better preparation for tackling ‘St. Magnus’ than being thrown in at the deep end after tackling some of the recent First Section test pieces we have been subject to.

Many of your correspondents seem fearful of being left out of some sort of Elite Section. Why would anyone advocate exclusion from improvement?

 A new 6 tier system in no way excludes any band from progressing.

I often think that bands in this country are caught up in this ‘paper’ myth of being in the Championship Section - a myth which is exploded as soon as you listen to the standard of playing being held up as being top tier.
A 6 tier system offers more opportunity for lasting development and improvement rather than the yo-yoing back and forth that goes on in the current top two sections.

Our foreign friends have a more even spread of bands through their sections and an enlightened attitude with regard to own choice test pieces which allow bands to enjoy progressive improvement.

We have to do the same for our bands too.

Sandy Smith

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