It’s amazing how quickly the Regional Championships in Blackpool seem to come along with the intervening year sometimes seeming to flash by from one contest to the next. The second section 2023 test piece was The Pilgrim’s Progress by Rodney Newton, an interesting but quite challenging piece demanding much not only of individual soloists but the band as a whole.
Our initial encounter with the piece was rather confusing, composed as it is of several sub-sections each styled to describe stages along the journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City (Heaven). The key and tempo changes, as well as a liberal supply of accidentals and occasionally tricky flourishes, take a while to get your head around, but as the story unfolds through the music the character of the various sections and the journey as a whole begins to make sense. This journey is, in some ways, analogous to the journey taken by bands when they endeavour to master each year’s test piece going through periods of doubt, uncertainty, struggle and finally salvation as you work your way through hours of rehearsals and individual practice before finally arriving at a level of performance that pays due tribute to the music and the endeavours of the players.
During the presentation of prizes, the judges acknowledged how challenging this particular piece is with many a First and Championship section band likely to struggle with aspects of it. They paid tribute to all the bands attempting to master the piece, albeit with differing levels of success. Important issues such as players breathing together prior to playing a phrase, bands being reasonably faithful to tempo markings but not at the expense of clarity and also attempting to bring out the character of each section were noted.
Listening to a few of the bands it seemed to be the case that most had problems with aspects of the music from time to time, for example, unison entries, some of the solos and also achieving a harmonious balance across the band. However, a couple of the ones who managed to achieve the top spots seemed to minimise the problems while also achieving what might be described as a ‘traditional’ brass band sound – very smooth and blended and also successfully bringing out some of the nuances of the piece in a clear but not over-done way.
Like the other 16 bands in the Second section, we took the journey to the band room on a frequent basis in our attempt to master the piece and also the journey to Blackpool in pursuit of our best performance on the day; sadly, we weren’t successful. Did the band of Marple Pilgrims make progress? Undoubtedly yes, as there was a substantial improvement in our rendering of the piece from our first encounter with it to our delivery at Blackpool but not sufficient to win over the judges, in comparison to several other bands, this time.
It’s true to say that contests are a mixed blessing and not everyone enjoys them, some preferring concerts for example. An important benefit of tackling set contest pieces is the skill development that arises from trying to meet the demands of the music, although it can be a bit demoralising when, after many long hours of practice, the result is not the one you’d prefer. When things don’t go your way, the only thing to do is to keep faith, put the disappointment behind you and continue the journey towards being the best players and the best band that you can be. Don’t worry – it’ll soon be the regionals in 2024 offering another chance to do well.
Article by Malcolm Harper