Editorial ~ 2005: June


This month we look at the Besson's no vote on the European; Whit Friday and the inability of top bands to play quietly.

Besson's 'No Vote'

The decision of Besson/Kapitol to put their version of the European Championships on hold for the foreseeable future (most probably the long term future) is one born out of realistic pragmatism.  It is also a decision that should not be welcomed by others with any sense of schadenfraude either, although that won't stop people rubbing their hands in glee at their discomfort.

The reasons why Besson pulled their financial support from the EBBA run Europeans has been well documented, and brought a great deal of opprobrium from those who felt it was a short sighted decision. That may or may not be so, but it was also an overdue kick up the backside for a movement that had for far too long relied on philanthropy as a means of hiding their own fiscal planning shortcomings. 

However, this decision also gives Besson the opportunity to re position its relationship with the broad banding movement.

Now it can free itself from being a major contest promoter, and leave that aspect to those who have a wish to undertake that themselves – whoever they are. Their budgets can be better utilised in promotion, research and development and exploring new markets – the core aspects of what can be a thriving worldwide business, and ultimately that will be of much more benefit to the banding movement than pumping prize money into any contest. 

How they do this will be an important decision for them, but at present it also gives them the unique opportunity to show their commitment to a harmonious relationship.

Why not Besson showing their support of the banding movement by allowing their famous European Trophy to be awarded to the current European Champion Band and its future successors, so they can display it as the most recognisable symbol of their victory.

It won't cost Besson anything, it can be done without stepping on the toes of EBBA, and will show that the problems and ill feeling caused by the initial decision to opt out can be consigned to the past.

In fact, it will be the perfect way for everyone one to come out of this feeling like something worthwhile has been achieved.

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Whit Friday

We live in secular times: Whether or not that is a matter of great concern is open to debate, but there is little doubt our appreciation of religion and its importance to our lives is at an all time low.

It therefore comes as little surprise that the religious heritage of the ‘Procession of Witness' has become so diluted that it now no longer has real relevance to the vast majority of players and listeners who cram the streets of Saddleworth and Tameside every year to listen to the ‘Whit Friday' contests.  

Whit Friday is wrongly seen as a ‘tradition': Just like any other Victorian inspired mock heritage (from the Houses of Parliament through to the Welsh Eisteddfods) they were born of a desire to impose an appreciation of a culture that never really existed.  

Today, Whit Friday has become an excuse to impose a false sense of cultural heritage that appeals to the potential money spenders of tourism, young drinkers and those out for a good time, as well as brass bands out to win money. 

That is why the sponsors of the events are not the churches or villages themselves, but the County Councils, the big supermarket, the pubs and clubs.  It is why there is little or no mention of the processional walks, the Sunday School children dressed in white or the bands themselves heading individual churches as they make their way through their own communities to celebrate the ability of the apostles to speak in all languages the celebration of God's word.

It is also why we now have accusations of ‘favouritism' to leading named bands, players out to play for money and contests that do not encourage youngsters to perform after 9.00pm. It is why the Whit Friday experience is now a somewhat grubby commercial sideshow to what was a true community based celebration.

There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with that at all – as long as we recognise it for what it is. The real sadness is that we still delude ourselves that it isn't.

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Quiet please

Why is it that brass bands even at the topmost level have lost the ability to actually play quietly?

Some will blame the development of larger bore instruments, whilst others could justifiably claim that the generally appalling standard of peripatetic teaching that now goes on in schools has contributed to the inability of whole generations of players to have note production techniques that fail them when trying to play quietly.

Other can blame the composers of test pieces who now rely on the exploitation of technique rather than sound, whilst others could proportion blame on conductors who insist on their ensembles being able to out blow their rivals in a misguided appreciation of what constitutes excitement and drama.

It is perhaps an amalgam of all of them, although there is little doubt that in general modern brass bands find playing at the quietest dynamics an almost impossibly difficult task.

Perhaps, what has really happened is that the whole dynamic range of a brass band has shifted inexorably upwards – a dynamic inflation if you like.

What used to be considered a true mp is now seen as a pianissimo, an mf a piano and so on:  Players are comfortable with this, as it does not put pressure on possible suspect techniques, whilst conductors are happy as long as their bands can then move their higher dynamic levels up a notch or two to compensate.  It is of course all relative – but it is of course, all relatively wrong.

On the rare occasion you do hear a full band playing a true pianissimo it is truly one of the musical wonders of the world, a sound that can bring a listener to the edge of their seat and provide them with a magical moment that will live long in the collective memory banks.

The pity is that it has become such a rarity to hear it today.  Why try, when you can get your players to stand 30 behind the band at back of the stage, or fix foam padding to your bell to deaden your sound. Bands who cannot play quietly should be penalised for their lack of technique and guts to try and take risks, but who could you penalise when just about everyone has lost the ability to play quietly in the first place?

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