Prescription pad junkies — The damaging craving for own-choice highs

4BR Editor Iwan Fox wonders if brass bands have become hooked on the habit of demanding ever more exotically produced artificial highs for own-choice contests.

Drug choice
Are bands becoming hooked by their own desires?  

Have brass bands become the prescription pad junkies of their own-choice making?

At one time they satisfied themselves with the considered musicality offered by a wide-variety of composers as they made their own-choice contest test piece decisions: Now all they seemingly crave are the computer programme designer fixes of pharmaceutically induced artificial highs.

Juiced up

It’s become a contesting version of ‘Breaking Bad’: Bands have become hooked on being ‘juiced up’ on ever more intoxicating stimulants.

As a result, even the conductor’s mind set no longer needs to seek out the lucid musicality of a Ball, Howells or Vinter to win an own-choice competition; not when the easy answer is to roll up the baton-wielding sleeve and get a composer to inject yet another dose of pyrotechnic euphonium cadenza into the veins to fry the audience senses with an extra gram or two of shock and awe.

And if that isn’t enough to get the heads rolling, then why not finish with yet another extended penultimate bar timpani and tam-tam roll, followed by screaming sop and bass drum thump: That should guarantee them clapping like demented circus seals.    

Contest victory fix

Bands it seems are turning into thrill seeking adrenaline pot-heads; their own-choice habit fuelled by the desperate need for a short term contest victory fix.

The current opiate of choice is the blockbuster behemoth; readily identifiable by its grandiose hyperbolic title, pseudo- Hans Zimmer/John Williams pastiche themes and rhythmic structures, outlandish percussion requirements, eye-catching choreography, trick effects and never ending quasi cadenzas/solo spotlights.

And whilst at the ‘elite level’, the best free thinking composers have produced remarkable compositions that would delight even Timothy Leary in their psychedelic exoticness, the inevitable by-product has been an explosion in mind numbing copy-cat plagiarism.

Cadenza strength
Roll up the sleeve and add a little more potency to the new mix...

It not just the likes of Black Dyke, Eikanger and the rest of the Euro-elite that have fuelled the craving for ever more powerful original contesting winning gear: Now everyone at just about every level that wants something that offers more kick, punch and pupil-reducing fizz for their bucks.

Cut & paste

It’s a demand that has exposed us to composer dealers whose ‘cut & paste’ output is diluted by the musical equivalent of washing powder and cat litter.

Perhaps we haven’t really realised that we have become increasingly doped up to the eyeballs with these compositional designer stimulants; but such is the current dependence on them that many conductors have simply lost the will to seek a much more rewarding musical experience.

Why worry

Why worry about developing the skills of your talented percussionists or giving back row cornets the chance to shine when you can have a lion’s roar and multiple choice cadenzas?  

Want to work hard to master the middle movement of ‘A Downland Suite’? Not when you can opt for whale noises and body slapping instead.

Pen and paper
Are the days of pen and paper ideas long gone? Not for Jan van der Roost


That said - if you were to ask current players in an average Championship/First Section band what test pieces they would like to play at the next own-choice contest, the answers would not be topped by Elgar, Vaughan-Williams, Howells, Vinter or even Eric Ball. 

Most would think you would have as much chance of overdosing on Berocca and Haliborgange as winning an own-choice contest on any of those.

As for the ‘mature’ masters of Wilby, Gregson or Sparke? Somewhat passé if current trends are anything to go by.

No. Given half a chance its now Doss, Waespi, Giske, Graham, de Meij and their ilk - the cartel of leviathans who write championship winning works that have players and conductors hooked like Lance Armstrong on a ‘buy one get one free’ offer at his local Boots pharmacy. 

These are the current producers of the most fantastically addictive own-choice contest crop of all.  

Test piece wannabes

No problem there - but below them comes the plethora of ‘Sibelius programmed’ test piece wannabes - all keen to come up with the next mind blowing blockbuster.   

The other by-product comes with the fact that those superb originals are simply way beyond the capabilities of the vast majority of top flight bands - although that doesn’t stop ego-driven conductors and wide-eyed players thinking they can play them.

Forgetting the classics

It has also led to your average top flight band no longer considering going to an own-choice event armed with ‘classic’ works as ‘Three Figures’, ‘Paganini Variations’ or ‘Dances & Arias’ - not if they get an inkling that a rival has a syringe full of Thomas Doss at their disposal.    

The  likes of ‘Audivi Media Nocte’, ‘Goldberg 2012’ or ‘REM-scapes’ quite rightly come with a government health warning printed on the score if you wish to tackle them - it’s the depressingly unoriginal ‘lite’ varieties that are causing the havoc.

Drug World
Everyone everywhere wants more bang for their bucks..

We must accept that times and tastes change. 

However, another problem with the desire to emulate the new-age contesting winning ingredients as soon as they come off the production line is that in the process ego-driven renditions can quickly cheapen the musical integrity of remarkable high class works.


The most obvious example is ‘Paganini Variations’ - still a truly magnificent composition that only bands of a very high class can play - and play well. It’s been mangled so often now that it wouldn’t make the top 10 of most conductor’s own-choice contest selections.  

How many First Section conductors would pick ‘A London Overture’ as an own-choice work after their travails earlier this year at the Areas?

Only ‘Contest Music’ remains almost inviolate. It’s unique demands would still make Keith Richards think twice before having a quick run through...    

A rare sight
Soon to become the rarest of sights...

It’s become a trend that is denuding what should still be the central core of top class Championship/First Section compositions - and one that has seen works that did not conform to pyrotechnic superlatives the first time around, faring even worse.

‘The Maunsell Forts’, ‘Prague’ and ‘Songs for BL’ - all by significant composers that didn’t opt for the adrenaline rush ingredients were last played in the UK in 2002, 2003 and 1995 respectively.  

No wish list arguement

This is not an argument to revive a wish list of ‘classic’ test pieces just because they haven’t been played for a while (and some that haven’t is due to the fact that they were pretty awful first time around).

However, it is one to suggest that in our desire to think we are becoming ever more progressive and innovative we are in fact becoming ever more predictable and unimaginative - however good we think those artificially induced highs make us feel.

That’s always the depressing end result of having prescription pad junkie tendencies.

Iwan Fox

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