Comments ~ 2009: December


From a Spanish palaver to a Lawro defence - its been one of those mail bags...

The Spanish palaver
These days I Iive out in Spain where there are very few bands indeed -  certainly not brass ones anyway.
I try to keep in touch with banding via 4BR ( what else ! ) and I look forward to reading about what is happening in the banding scene, and used to really enjoy it.
However, through no fault of yours, I am afraid I am becoming a little bored to be honest , constantly reading about all this judging palaver.
Were we robbed?, are the judges competent ?, did they know it was us ? etc., etc.,
To be perfectly honest, when one enters the contest,  the competitors ( bands or individuals ) know what is going to happen, in essence you are going to perform, someone will listen and decide who they think deserve the prizes. 
Thats it ...full stop.
No one else decides, so please just accept it, and get on with life.
It may be you didn´t agree with the result... so what, the judges did, and that is the end of the matter.
Just look forward to the next one....and remember, contesting is NOT about which is the best my mind , contesting is a really useful way to raise the standard of your band . You pay by giving extra special attention to detail,  there are often more bums on seats at contest rehearsals .

Other plus factors include teaching players to listen to each other,    practice at home,   watch the beat more attentively, they try  and concentrate more than normal ( especially on the platform ) and they bond together during their weekend of contesting.

All these really good benefits that you and your band derive from contesting , sometimes seems lost with all the moaning. 

So ....please resist the temptation to let someones opinion (however  different to your own ) ´-spoil or cloud the benefits your band has gained  during its preparation.

Otherwise you simply waste the experience.

Gordon Higginbottom

A Sparke spanner in the works

When a highly regarded composer like Philip Sparke comments: 

‘I was both mystified and appalled by the amount of re-writing to which Peter Graham's test piece had been subjected. As well as the high-profile mute incident, I also saw an amount of re-barring, which I consider bafflingly unnecessary in a piece of this nature. Why any composer of standing would want his piece reduced to vehicle for winning a contest at all costs, I've no idea.’

Surely, this sort of blatantly obvious alteration to a piece of new music requires addressing. 

However, it always seems that if you mention anything regarding this, you are just causing trouble and the next word is ‘It’s not cheating’.  

Well as read it, according to one composer, it is.

That being the case, why don’t we get rid of most of the problem and have Open Adjudication at all contests whether it’s the National Finals or the local Association contest it should make no difference, at least competing bands may have 2nd thoughts  to as Philip says, ‘Re-Barring’.. 

We are told that most adjudicators know which band is playing anyway so what’s the big problem.

Adjudicators as far as we are aware, are all honest men and women and do not favor any band. That being the case, why should we have to have them locked away in boxes when, if that is the case, is totally unnecessary.

Several years ago, through a Spotlight article written at the request of 4 bars rest, I made a suggestion whereas the two or three adjudicators at contests where place away from each other in full view of the audience. At the conclusion of the contest a steward would be sent to collect all of the written documents including the result sheet, from each of the adjudicators, prior to them being able to speak to each other. 

A member of the audience would be selected to overlook the collation of the results. This way the  results would be collated without any intervention from the adjudicators. 

This would also get rid of the comments like, ‘Well such a body is the senior adjudicator and he would have had the biggest say’.

As Philip says, ‘If we want serious people to take us seriously, we have to take ourselves seriously first.’

This suggestion gives the Association of Brass Band Adjudicators (ABBA) the chance to lead the movement in the right direction, if that’s what they really want, and it would not cost a penny. 

It would also throw a spanner in the works regarding recent comments about adjudication.

David W Ashworth

Failed defence

I have just listened to the 4barsrest interview with Mr Buckley of ABBA. 

What a load of platitudes it is that constitute the policy of ABBA if Mr Buckley is to be believed. It is time that the ABBA realise that each band deserves a fair, honest and reliable adjudication, which if the carried out by two or three adjudicators would result in the same type of comments and the same ranking of bands - not just the top two or bottom three as Mr Buckley suggested. 

The ranking of bands has to be repeatable. By this I mean if "qualified adjudicators" were to listen to a band playing then the comments and mark from each adjudicator would be very similar, if not exactly the same.
How can this be achieved. Mr Buckley dismissed the filling in of boxes by saying that it produced the same result as the present method although the marks were lower. Where is the evidence to support such a statement.. I am unaware of any experiments having been carried out under proper conditions. 

Educational research has recognised for a long time that what is necessarily a subjective assessment  can be improved by setting out clearly and unambiguously a set of criteria each of which is given a subjective weighting. 

I wrote a paper on this for ABBA and 4Barsrest some years ago after a long correspondence with Mr Buckley's predecessor. 

But there appears to have been little or no progress in improving the methodology. Since he informed me that adjudicators identify the good bands in the first 10 bars I have, as a member of a lower section band, given up on placing any  value on the remarks of adjudicators. 

We had one occasion at a regional competition when Adjudicator "A" stated  "Good opening well balanced ... " while Adjudicator "B" stated " Shaky opening...... "So opinions in the first 10 bars were formed!! Surprise ,surprise when the marks were examined there was one joint mark which had been mutually agreed by some unknown method!!!
It is time that ABBA moved out of the last century, did some research on assessment and came up with a scheme which could be readily understood and  talked about in detail by all members of the brass band world without all the platitudes spoken by the secretary of ABBA in his failed defence of the existing system. 

Can your website help by rigorously challenging ABBA on this matter?
William J Emond

Three cheers for Sandy
Thank you, thank you, thank you Sandy Smith for you article – I do hope ‘the powers that be’ take notice and act on your comments.
Every year I travel to the British Open in the hope of hearing quality brass band music. And for most of those years I have come away very disappointed.

I always buy the score in order to make my own judgement on the performances and over the years have come to the conclusion that either the composer doesn’t understand how to score for a brass band or likes a ‘confusion’ of sound. Often there are several ideas written to be played against each other – the result being an incoherent noise. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that the composer is writing as for an orchestra where the wider variety of timbre is more conducive to this type of writing.
I also think they have either forgotten how to evoke emotion in the music or think they have to just test bands technically. As Mr Smith says ‘film music has, by its nature, to make an immediate emotional impact on the listener’. 

With the odd exception I have to go back a long way to remember a performance that had emotional impact other than that of irritation through lack of musicality.
The pieces being written certainly test the bands but it’s about time we had a test piece where musicality was to the fore – perhaps the contest halls may then be full throughout the competition. Do you remember when that used to happen? – If so you must have a very good memory.
Geoff Bradley

Defending Lawro...

In defence of the beleaguered Phil Lawrence I would only say that having known him for some 30 odd years I have learned not to take everything he says too seriously!!! I also regard Phillip Littlemore as a friend, having worked with him several times on recordings whilst at Leyland. 

A number of the tracks on these CD’s featured his arrangements so I can certainly vouch for his talent in this regard. 

I've never played ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ but I'm sure it was a worthy winner on the day.
I do hope this ‘storm in a teacup’ can be resolved over a beer in the near future!
Paul Warder

An apologetic nail on the head

Now, I'd really like to congratulate Gavin Higgins comments and join his nail on the head comments with a firm ‘Yes!’


I'd also like to take the opportunity to apologize, as I seem to have offended some by my last comments on 4BR re: BIC, Mr. Dobson’s comments on his editor and for supporting Peter Meechan’s comments.

It seems that my email candour was very misunderstood, and I do admit it is hard at times to read between the lines (scouse funny-bone stuff?). However, not for one minute (and I've read my comments over and over) do I criticise his ability as a composer - in fact, it's hard to deny that he's very talented indeed.

I have defended new music from square one, and done it in the same fashion it is attacked (remember ‘Eden’?) from 4BRs first appearance on the Internet!

I also seem to remember supporting Pete Meechan’s point of view on the situation, I did mean to support?

The comments page is often a square ring, with boxing competition style verse.

Perhaps this and some tongue in cheek language has led me astray - then there are those that enjoy this style of banter. If this is the case that I have offended, then I'm truly sorry.

I have championed new music on this soap box for many a year, and there are those that also seem to go unrealistically the other way (Mr McFadden) who need a reality check.

So again if it were taken the wrong way, sorry to Mr. Dobson & Mr. Meechan.

Phil Lawrence

Sour grapes
In response to Phil Lawrence’s comments about the editor of Faber, I’m afraid the letter just sounds like sour grapes and a chip on the shoulder.
N. Garman

Pointed attack 

I’m not entirely sure what purpose Mr. Lawrence feels he is fulfilling by making what appears to be a rather pointed attack on Simon Dobson.
The crux of both Peter Meechan’s and Simon Dobson’s arguments are fundamentally the same, although the tone differs somewhat. It seems Mr. Lawrence takes an issue with Simon offering congratulations to me for the fact that a simple arrangement of mine, of a rather nice choral work, won the Best Composition/Arrangement at BiC.

What is wrong with saying well done to the ‘winner’, before going on to offer some constructive criticism about a contest that offered a rather impressive range of new compositions by some talented composers that Simon felt were more deserving of the award?

 A position I agree with, I might add. Perhaps in future the BiC organisers will consider an award for both composition and arranging and then such controversy would be eradicated.
Yes Mr. Lawrence I am also Simon Dobson’s publisher, but I doubt most reading his comment last week would have known that. So why do you feel you need to take a pop at someone you do not know and accuse him of something he did not do?

But you don’t rest there, you then go on to take a pop at me and say that I use my position at Faber Music to put my ‘ball in to play’?

My ‘ball in to play’ for what exactly?

As a publisher yourself, you should know that it is our job to promote our composers and our copyrights. I am proud to represent Simon Dobson, Kenneth Hesketh, Hermann Pallhuber and Gavin Higgins.  I am proud that composers like Nigel Hess, Carl Davis and Morten Lauridsen allow me to make brass band arrangements of their music so that they can be brought in to our medium too.

But of course, you know what my role at Faber Music is Mr. Lawrence, because I have checked my files and I see you submitted works to me for consideration. Alas for you, I chose to reject them. 
Phillip Littlemore
Sales & Marketing Director
Faber Music Limited

Tongue in cheek? 

Philip Sparkes comment why any composer of standing would want his piece reduced to vehicle for winning a contest at all costs, I've no idea.

The comment must have surely been meant tongue in cheek!

It's the monster our competition structure has created. A win at all costs mentality clearly persists and bands and conductors appear to be or put themselves under immense pressure to be top dog.

Does it go beyond healthy competition?

Well, it might if commercial interests are considered including the risk loss of Sponsorship/Support from Instrument manufacturers? And there may also be personal earnings involved, which are likely to be enhanced as a result of a solid track record.

It can’t really be for the sake of the prize money that with the exception of a small number of events is only a token gesture, which wouldn't pay for the average bus trip.

Nevertheless, most in the audience would not be aware of “adjustments” to the original score to help achieve greatness and to be frank does it really matter?

Maintaining the integrity of the work is what counts and, I would trust, most adjudicators would notice if it wasn't and mark appropriately  (well, perhaps not based on some of the controversy this year.)

So should this matter and detract outside composers (the original question)?

I would doubt it, exposure to his or her composition, performed at the highest level with the potential spin off of further core sales broadcasts, etc. would surely be a massive benefit.

In the meantime Philip please keep on writing your wonderful works that test bands at all levels and give such great musical enjoyment. Perhaps you can encourage a few more to join you.

Graham Rix

Difficult task

I enjoyed the recent eloquent contributions from Peter Meechan, Simon Dobson and Sandy Smith and agree with all of them.
Answering Sandy's challenge to encourage 'outside' composers to contribute test pieces to try to add some depth to our major contests, I'm afraid this may be a difficult task.
Having attended the Championship Finals this year, I was both mystified and appalled by the amount of re-writing to which Peter Graham's test piece had been subjected. As well as the high-profile mute incident, I also saw an amount of re-barring, which I consider bafflingly unnecessary in a piece of this nature.
Why any composer of standing would want his piece reduced to vehicle for winning a contest at all costs, I've no idea.
If we want serious people to take us seriously, we have to take ourselves seriously first.
Philip Sparke 

Lack of courage 

I have read some of the comments regarding new ‘innovative’ repertoire with interest and felt it was about time I added my own thoughts to the debate.

I think it is fantastic that young conductors and composers are working together to create something new and would like to congratulate Jason and the Leyland band. But I fear that this brave example could prove to be a one-off - I hope I am wrong.

Unfortunately there are not enough people like Jason who are willing to showcase new talent.

This lack of courage on behalf of the movement is not only detrimental to the young composers who are taking the time to write new repertoire but also for the integrity of the brass band. I would like to quickly mentioned Paul Hindmarsh here, who’s hard work with regards to the RNCM Festival of Brass and the support he gives young composers is greatly appreciated by all he has showcased – a real step forward every year.

We have come a long way since the days of overture arrangements, hymns and marches and I think many would now consider the movement as integral a part of British art music as any orchestra.

The culture of producing fantastic players who go on to perform in the worlds greatest orchestras has not gone un noticed and there is wealth fantastic music written by renowned composers waiting to be performed.

Why then, do works such as ‘Grimethorpe Aria’ by Harrison Birtwhistle (one of the U.K.’s most successful composers) and ‘Cataclysm’ by Paul Patterson hardly ever played, when barley a summer goes by without hearing at least four performances of the Floral Dance?

Of course a fourth section band are unlikely to be in a position to tackle these sorts of works but the point is there is good music that needs to be hear, much of it being written by young composers with a fresh and ‘innovative’ approach to compositional thought.

The idea that new ‘challenging’ music may somehow rock the boat is true... and so it should. New music has to excite, anger and divide opinion, without these tensions music cannot move forward and where does that leave us?

The idea that new music may turn audiences away from our concerts (unless ‘tonal’ with a strong clear beat) is absurd and far more detrimental than people realise. As far as I am concerned, acceptance and true appreciation can only come from an understanding of the repertoire.

If you don’t know how or what to listen out for, experiencing a new work for the first time can be daunting and sometimes confusing.

I have written a few pieces that are not only harmonically dense and rhythmically complex but also tap into very adult themes such as sex, drugs, booze etc. Including one entitled Three Broken Love Songs – the first movement is called Two Bottles Of Wine Later… and depicts a drunken one night stand – dark stuff actually! At the end of the performance, after I had taken to the stage to give an insight into the piece, a group of not so young ladies came and told me they enjoyed the piece and even went as far as to say it took them ‘right back’ to their youth!

It’s all to do with the way you present the material to the public. Inviting a composer to the stage to talk about the piece really does help and gives the audience an invaluable insight into this ‘new’ music.

People often talk about ‘tonal’ music and ‘a-tonal’ music and I am frequently asked ‘is your music tonal or a-tonal?’

These words, I think, have lost there meaning now and the notion that performing ‘a-tonal’ music (whatever that means) results in an unpleasant listening experience is an outdated concept – certainly in the wider musical world.

In my opinion there are two types of music; good and bad. Whether it’s light or more serious in content is of no concern. Amazingly there is a lot of fantastic brass band repertoire out there that is not being performed and a vast amount of drivel that is... why?

If I can touch briefly on test pieces, once again I fear our compositional integrity is coming under attack as more frequently, popularist decisions are being made. Why are these ‘check list’ and ‘film score-esque’ test pieces constantly being thrown at bands and audiences?

Where is the sense of ingenuity, flair and imagination? Pieces can be hard, challenging, expressive and enjoyable without bending to the trends afoot. I fear this dumbing down of musical truth totally undermines a composer’s voice and, more importantly the integrity of the movement.

New music is always going to be a challenge on some level. It always has been. People seem to forget that Mozart and Beethoven were ‘new’ composers once and often caused quite an outrage. Imagine where we would be without them.

The brass band movement needs to embrace this challenge if we stand any chance of moving forward. Us ‘banders’ started pretty late in the game remember.

In 1913 the premiere of Le Sacre De Printemps resulted in a riot in Paris. Bergs complex opera Lulu that premiered in 1937 is still a tough one to sit through.

Stockhausen, Messiaen even Mahler pushed the boundaries of what music 'is' and 'does'. But while all this was going on, brass bands were still playing operatic arrangements and romantic-esque pieces.

If we want to sustain our credibility as a musical force to be reckoned with we have to be brave and embrace the new - we should be leading the way!

I implore the brass band movement not to give into mediocrity and apathy. We should demand the highest quality of music that is technically, artistically and intellectually assured and it’s being written now – stand behind your composers!

Gavin Higgins

Dwarling gushings

As the only unspotted composer at BIC, I’d just like to give support to Peter Meechan’s comments and more or less 100% agree with all he said.
But I did find Simon Dobson’s comments a bit too gushy (dwarlings).  I think it might also have been his first time there, as he thought it should have happened long ago - but did it not happen long ago in Spennymoor?

And, I thought, his congratulations to his own music editor in the brass department at Faber & Faber (i.e the guy that gives him the gigs) made his nose looked a bit over sun tanned.

Philip Littlemore, is not recognised as a composer (as yet) but seems to have won the composers prize with an arrangement (magic?) using the stepping stone of the music publisher’s position that he works for himself to get his ball into play.

But, I’ll probably gush the same at the Oscars next year when I have to thank my director (for giving me the gig) my Mum & hamster in floods of champers running down my DJ.
Anyone knows to be a real composer you have to struggle for years and years and be turned down by all without anyone listening to you or giving you a break at all which adds to the angst of your music.

Oh - and not forgetting Mr. McFayden’s bet noir too “if you compose full time”, you cant be a proper composer anyway!

May BIC go on to year 2 then 3 and so on!
Phil Lawrence

Well said Sandy

Here, Here, Sandy!

May I congratulate Sandy Smith on his recent comments on 4BR regarding the lack of music from mainstream composers (young and old!).

I particularly liked the two paragraphs:

“…………….(insert name of test piece here) isn’t a top section piece now because it is …….( insert number here)  years old and has been used for the Areas/Grand Shield/Senior Cup/Pontins/Pilkingtons etc. contest”.
“By that reckoning the near 100 year old ‘Rite of Spring’ must be a piece of cake for orchestra by now, and Bach, Mozart and Beethoven must hardly be worth bothering with for musical satisfaction.”      SPOT ON!

I have read with interest recent articles on snobbery from sections of the music world and wondered if the lack of communication from us, the brass band fraternity, to them is our contribution to this apparent snobbery.

I once heard the following comment from a listener at a concert after hearing a piece of contemporary music: “That sort of music is OK for orchestras but it’s no good for brass bands!” It wasn’t that he didn’t particularly like the piece, he just didn’t see why we had to explore different types of repertoire. Perhaps not snobbery in the kind of way we think but it is a form of self isolation.

Another great point made by Mr. Smith is maybe we need to canvass our own links to ‘the other side’ (sorry for sounding like a paranormal investigator!!).

This is surely what happened in the past with the likes of  Iles, Geehl, Mortimer etc. The likes of Holst, Howells, Bliss, Vaughan Williams and Vinter were asked by someone.
So well said Sandy, we need more informed opinions like yours.

John Maines

Stiff when your swinging
I am ex-brass band player who has played in swing & big bands for the past 30 years.

I still like to hear a good brass band, and so went to the BIC at the Sage last weekend. Whilst the overall standard of playing & musicianship was excellent, I completely agree with your views on brass bands’ attempts at playing swing music.

At last, someone who is willing to put into writing what I have been telling brass band players for years.

Not all do this badly, as the Fountain City Brass Band proved. I am afraid however that I must agree with Mr Fox’s comments on Cory’s attempts. It was rather embarrassing to see so much talent on stage sounding so straight and stilted  (the rest of their programme was almost faultless)

Other bands seemed to think that switching from cornet to trumpet is the answer – I’m afraid not.

The problem is that brass band players treat swing music as a test piece – every note must be perfect and in its place.

Well, swing is completely different – different reading, different style, different phrasing. It still needs to be tight, but with a more relaxed feel. Also, swing music is driven by a rhythm section of piano, string bass & drums – not 4 tubas, and whole percussion section. It’s all too heavy.

The reed parts are scored for the inner parts of the brass band, but they produce a completely different sound.
I note that in a letter from Miss L. Griffiths to 4BR, she asks ‘what bands need to do to their approach and playing techniques in order to make their performances work in this idiom?’

Here are my suggestions:
Join a big band and learn to read & phrase in a swing style – this applies to conductors as well as players.

Immerse yourself in recordings of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman etc. for a few years, and listen the phrasing styles.

For soloists, learn to play jazz solos from a chord sequence. This way you can be more creative instead of reading, note for note, the written music which tries, but fails,  to emulate a jazz solo.  (Mark Nightingale demonstrated this perfectly with the Reg Vardy Band)
Maybe the Fountain City Band is successful because it’s in their culture, and they are brought up in an education system, which promotes high school swing bands etc. They do, however, prove that it can be done.
With so many excellent new arrangements and compositions for brass bands at the moment, I personally really do not see the point in persisting to try to play swing music. 

When did you last hear the BBC Big Band trying to play ‘The Thin Red Line’?
G. Melrose
Scottish Borders

Great contest, but more from Frank please...
I went up to the Scottish Open in Perth on Sunday. 

First time I’ve been and what an excellent contest it is – superb venue; good list of bands; super selection of own choice test pieces.  Two wise men in the box (Frank Renton and Philip Harper) who had and took the opportunity to have a brief and interesting say on the day’s playing.  

To my mind, though, what they said left a couple of questions unanswered.
Philip Harper praised the playing and commented that some played too safely in quiet playing, adding that he found himself consistently marking up those who had tackled quieter playing well. 

Frank Renton said that their job was to point out things that hadn’t gone right and differentiated between those mistakes that the audience could spot and those that wise men with scores could hear. 

I’ve absolutely no problem at all with that comment and I’ve no problem with the result, but I do wish they could go just the bit further and explain what it was they heard the audience didn’t. 

Otherwise, it sounds a bit patronising to simply say ‘we know better than you’ and I know it wasn’t to be.
So, how about a post-match summary from the adjudicators, not one read out from the stage but an overview of the day’s playing along the lines of a retrospective. 

From Saturday, for example, they might have said something like ‘For us, Fountain City gave a quite simply stunning performance, virtuosi playing throughout the band with special mention for trombone and soprano and a clear length in front of the rest, hence our 3 point margin. 

Places 2 to 6 were very close indeed and Pemberton Old were awarded second because they combined well balanced meaty stuff with secure and tuneful quiet playing.  Whitburn had a high error count but came third because????  There wasn’t a bad performance all day and some bands may have done better with a different choice of piece: for example…’
It’s the question marks and examples that would be helpful.  That way I might hear things from a different perspective at the next contest I go to. 

It’s like the debate about referees – once they explain the context the spectator has a better understanding of the game e.g. ‘it wasn’t a penalty because I didn’t see it/clear contact with the ball was made/the defender plays for Rangers.’
Only a thought and it didn’t detract from a really good contest.
Stuart Lawson

Well done Fountain

Congratulation to the   Fountain City Brass at the Scottish Open.
I heard this band at Gateshead at the Brass in Concert gala concert and also in the Entertainment competition on the Sunday.

Their stage discipline and conduct was exemplary and their programming ingenious. They had a great sound, and showed great versatility in their playing.

The players also sat through many other bands performances -once again I didn’t witness many other bandmen do this -and I am sure by doing this they learnt a lot about   other bands performance techniques and styles.

Their conductor also sat through many performances too-and now it has paid them well deserved dividends. I know they were slightly disappointed by their placing at Gateshead, so was I, as I was also with Leyland's  final position  after their amazing  contribution  -congratulations to them  too for their bold  and brave programming of  New  Young composers works .
May I also add that Sandy Smiths recent article on your website should be ESSENTIAL reading for all who are concerned about the future of Brass bands!
Well done to both bands, and once more many congratulations to Fountains City Brass -come back soon!
Tom Stone

Quartet skills

In response to Jim Yelland’s comments about the skill of quartet playing dying out and the use of conductors we would like to add our wholehearted support.

We feel that listening to each other and being aware of what each member is doing is part of the skill of quartet playing.

Although we accept there is no rule on playing with or without a conductor, we find it disappointing that some quartets have the distinct advantage of a fifth member to lead the playing, making the negotiation of tempo changes, note endings and dynamic variations so much easier.

It would be really good if quartet contest organisers would level the playing field and instigate a rule that all senior quartets play without a conductor.

P. Woodings

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