“So, now you’re free to choose, are you going to contest in the Areas?”
This has been asked of me several times since London City Brass found its independent feet; we’re fielding a (more than) full band in a stable central London rehearsal venue with whom we enjoy a great relationship, we’ve got a full diary of jobs for 2020 already booked, so surely competing success at the London and Southern Counties annual contest should be our next aspiration?
Or should it?
Brass band contests divide opinion like nothing else. They are undeniably a marker by which we judge one another, and there’s some real snobbery out there about what section your band is in - it’s one of the first questions many banders ask on meeting a new player, and if the resulting answer is ‘we don’t compete’ it can cause people to back away in horror, labelling your band as no good for anything above the local village fete.
Conversely, other banders dislike the contesting scene and all of the ‘we was robbed’ mentality that goes with a poor result, or have played in the past with bands who contest fiercely and relentlessly all year and so get to a point in their playing career where they never want to do it again.
I’ve heard all the stuff about how working up a contest piece in bar-by-bar detail can improve the standard of the band, but does that really mean we put no effort into all of the other music we tackle throughout the year? For 2020, I’ve put some really challenging stuff in the LCB folders, music we’ll have to work hard on, dismantle, pore over and put back together again in order to turn it into a competent performance (Children of Sanchez, anyone?)
How is this different from the discipline needed for contest pieces?
I believe it’s my job to run varied and interesting rehearsals which all players can enjoy and get something out of. I’m not for leaving anyone behind because they can’t cope with the technical demands of a given piece - it’s easier to bring people along with you if the programme is mixed, as there can be something in there for everyone. I always aim to end the rehearsal with music that’s within the grasp of every player round the stands so no one goes home disheartened, even if they got a bit lost here and there in one or two of the trickier pieces in the folder. We’re a community band of mixed proficiency, and that’s how we intend to remain. In fact, the only reason we are turning prospective recruits away at the moment is that we’ve no space to fit anyone else in!
My aim is to lead a band who give musically enjoyable performances of challenging repertoire in a variety of settings. I want our music to be appealing to listen to as well as to play, and make audiences want to return and hear us perform again and again. This doesn’t mean we nail every last note exactly as written on the page, more that we concentrate on producing something that makes musical sense overall, rather than getting caught up in whether the demisemiquaver run in bar 73 was evenly spaced…
I could slog away at a single contest piece from January until March each year to the exclusion of all else, perform it once at the Area contest and then put it away, never to be heard again. Would my players be any happier? Somehow I doubt it…there are plenty of bands out there who do this each year, and I wish them every success, but it’s not my direction of travel with LCB.
We are already looking forward to the packed schedule of bandstands, community and charity events, and concerts we have got in the calendar for 2020. And don’t get me wrong - London City Brass will be competing this year, just not in the Regional contest. We will be off to the French Open again in 2020 for a day of relaxed playing, hopefully in the sunshine - after all, if you are going to contest, you might as well do it in the Loire Valley.
Besides, we’ve got a runner-up title to defend (albeit under our old name) and possibly improve on…