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Alpine Reflections
Brass band contesting to the outside world

Colin Bowman is a respected local sports journalist but a novice to the world of brass banding — so this is what he thought about his experiences of a Regional contest day at Stevenage following his band Brighton & Hove City.

Regionals
This way to Cheltenham...

I am a complete novice when it comes to brass banding.

It was therefore a shock to me that my local band, Brighton & Hove City Brass, took up my offer of becoming their press officer for a year.  

l thought I knew what would be expected, as over the years I’ve worked covering many local events in the West Sussex area, especially in my other areas of interest of football and cricket. However, I wanted to find out more about brass bands, and after attending a scaba event in Crawley my appetite was well and truly whetted.

Excellent advice

After some excellent advice from the respected conductor and adjudicator David Hirst I got in contact with 4Barsrest, and asked if I could write an article about my novice experience at my first ever brass band contest – the London & Southern Counties Regional Championships in Stevenage.

It has been a revelation.

Why were we up so early in the morning when we didn’t have the faintest idea of when we were even going to play?

We travelled to Stevenage early on a freezing cold Saturday morning. My mind was already full of the type of questions I suspect American tourists have on visiting a cricket match - including the simplest of all.

Why were we up so early in the morning when we didn’t have the faintest idea of when we were even going to play?

Cold
Cold and snowy but such a warm welcome

Ritual

This, I later found out, was just the start of the almost bewildering sense of ritual that gives the brass band contest day its appeal.

On reaching Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre came the second rite of contest day passage - the breakfast cup of tea and bacon roll as the players sent off their representative to find out when we were to perform.

I tagged along, and revived by the injection of caffeine and processed meat I teamed up with the band’s contest secretary and headed to ‘The Draw’.

This was almost surreal; a complex system of serendipity that seemed to elicit either smiles or frowns from those who put their hands into the bag to pick out a random number.  

This was almost surreal; a complex system of serendipity that seemed to elicit either smiles or frowns from those who put their hands into the bag to pick out a random number.  

To be fair, the sense of schadenfreude when the poor soul from City of Norwich picked out number 1 was respectfully muted. What we didn’t know of course was that some five hours later, the feeling would be reciprocated.

Remarkable volunteers

With the contest due to start about an hour after the draw I managed to speak to some of the other band representatives as well as some of the remarkable volunteers who administered the contest over the two days. 

With close on 80 bands and 2400 players to cajole, coerce and keep happy (making sure registration cards are marked to sorting out the prizes, getting bands on and off stage, setting up percussion, dealing with queries and averting potential disasters), the members of the Regional Committee are the unsung heroes. 

They are led by the indefatigable Kevin Williams, but also included people like Alex Stevens, who not only helped out over two exhausting days whilst still playing with her own band in the elite level Championship Section, but also generously gave me an invaluable potted history of brass band contesting history. 

With close on 80 bands and 2400 players to cajole, coerce and keep happy (making sure registration cards are marked to sorting out the prizes, getting bands on and off stage, setting up percussion, dealing with queries and averting potential disasters), the members of the Regional Committee are the unsung heroes. 

She would make a great tour guide for American tourists wishing to end up at Lords cricket ground to watch their first test match.

Alex
Alex Stevens: A great tour guide!

Further insight

Following Brighton through the pre-performance routines brought further insight into the level of dedication and commitment all players have to their hobby: The sense of communal pride, the remarkable level of musical knowledge, the warmth of the humour and the appreciation of the efforts of others.

I managed to chat to players from other bands throughout the day too, and the same feeling permeated every conversation – the love of music making with friends and the gritty determination to beat respected rivals.

I even spotted three lads wearing Simon Langton Brass blazers and asked where they were from.  It was a surprise to learn they were from Canterbury, my home town as a lad. Until then I didn’t even know the band existed. 
 
And whilst I was amazed by the cost of the instruments (the tubas being the same price as a very decent second hand car), the obvious lack of substantial prize money and the thought of the adjudicators having to listen to 14 performances of the same work (enjoyable as it was) in a box, everyone involved seemed to take things in their stride.

Number 1

Back to the contest though – and my immediate thoughts turned to the feeling of the poor person who had earlier picked out number 1 at the draw.

I shouldn’t have worried. 

City of Norwich was amazing - bringing the cinematic excitement and colour of ‘Napoleon on the Alps, thrillingly to life.  It was a performance of excitement and pathos; all Gallic brio and style.

After they had finished the people around me clapped vigorously and murmured their appreciation (including rival players). Even their rendition of the National Anthem filled you with pride.

City of Norwich was amazing - bringing the cinematic excitement and colour of ‘Napoleon on the Alps, thrillingly to life.  It was a performance of excitement and pathos; all Gallic brio and style. 

This was the start of a fascinating few hours, as band after band performed admirably - although even to the untutored ear, you sensed when things went well and when they didn’t. The faces of players as they left the Gordon Craig Theatre stage also told you as much.    

Back downstairs I managed to catch up with Brighton as they waited nervously before being ushered onto the stage. Like actors running through their lines in their heads, players could be seen ghosting their fingering as they looked at their parts; others chatted, a few stared into the mid distance, deep in thought. The MD gave a few last second tips and on they went.   

bRIGHTON
Brighton pride

Glorious

15 minutes later and it was all over. Weeks and weeks of preparation distilled into a single performance; one chance to get it right when it mattered, one chance to claim a qualification place to the National Finals. What an odd way to compete - but what a glorious way to play music together. 

I sat and listened to the rest of the bands perform, engrossed in the competition with a growing sense of admiration for all the players (especially the youngsters) who played with such discipline and elan. 

Picking a winner for me was nigh on impossible, but I have to admit, that at the back of my mind was that performance from City of Norwich. The sheer confidence and hutzpah of which was unmistakable. 

The judgement

At around 2.30pm the bar emptied (the other ritual I was told about was that players invariable don’t listen to many of their rivals) and everyone packed in to hear the official results. 

The adjudicators Chris King and Sarah Groarke-Booth are accomplished musicians, and spoke eloquently about their opinions and findings. Levels of expectancy were heightened, personal opinions on who had won, strengthened or weakened by what they had just heard.   

Picking a winner for me was nigh on impossible, but I have to admit, that at the back of my mind was that performance from City of Norwich. The sheer confidence and hutzpah of which was unmistakable. 

In the end it was City of Norwich Brass that claimed the honours – a decision that was generously received in the hall by rival players and supporters alike.  

nORWICH

Sense of pride

As their secretary spoke to the press you could almost physically feel the sense of pride in the achievement, whilst on a personal note it was pleasing for me to find out that another local band that I had very little knowledge of (Chichester City) would be joining them at the National Final in Cheltenham. I will now be seeking out their next concert appearance.

For a first time major contest goer, this was a remarkable experience in so many ways; richly rewarding and highly enjoyable. 

As for Brighton?

They were pleased with their performance and result – a very creditable 8th place. The adjudicator’s remarks were devoured as if they were reading the Dead Sea Scrolls for the first time.

It was another little insight into why so many wonderful people play in brass bands.

For a first time major contest goer, this was a remarkable experience in so many ways; richly rewarding and highly enjoyable. 

My personal thanks go to all the bands and the organising committee for a stunning day of entertainment and robust competition.

I must still admit that I still find the ritualistic nature a puzzle in this modern day and age, but then again that perhaps also explains its timeless appeal. It is very much like cricket in that sense.

All that I do know is that I will be back again to enjoy it all once more.

Colin Bowman 



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