I had a champion of a day yesterday.
Actually, the day began about two weeks ago with a phone call from my son one evening that started with that familiar “Muuuuuum……?”
He plays Bass Trombone with Pemberton Old Wigan Band, which is a First Section brass band in the North West area. For those who don’t know, the brass band movement groups its bands together first of all by geographical area and then, according to how good they are they are divided in the sections. The elite bands are in the Championship Section and then according to ability, the rest are graded into four more sections, a little like the football league.
I haven’t played my cornet in earnest for a number of years, and then Ethan rang me on the way to band one night to see if I would be able to help his band out at the upcoming area contest. In February and March each year, the bands in each area compete against each other by playing the same piece of music (different for each section, and getting more difficult the higher up the section in which they are played) and the top two or three (depending on the size of the field) will go through to the National Finals which are held in September to compete against the winners from the other sections from around the country. There are other contests held throughout the year and bands can accrue points according to their placing in the contest. At the end of each year, bands can be promoted up a section or demoted down a section depending on their placing in the section overall.
When Ethan rang me, Pemberton were short of a back row cornet player and he asked me would I be able to play for them. To be honest, I was more than a little apprehensive at first. My lack of match-fitness was one thing, but a couple of other factors were making me a bit unsure of whether to say yes or not. But I did say yes, and boy am I glad that I did!
As a band, we have put in hours and hours of intense rehearsal over the last couple of weeks, including a four-hour rehearsal last Sunday and two hours each night this week. I’ll be honest, at times it was a bit tedious and drawn out but at others it was exhilarating, exciting and a lot of fun.
I was wary of doing anything that would distract me or put me off my playing, so for the last week or so I have been cutting down my medication because of the side-effects it has for me. One of the worst is that it gives me a very dry mouth, which as you might appreciate, when you’re nervous and about to play in a music competition on a brass instrument, can be quite troublesome. Another of the more pronounced side effects is that it can sometimes make me distracted and it affects my concentration, again, not brilliant when you have to concentrate intensely for the duration of a performance where 28 other people are depending on you to be at your peak.
And so, we arrived at yesterday – Contest Day.
The contest was held in the Blackpool Winter Gardens and we had to meet for a rehearsal in a nearby church hall at 7.30am. It meant a very early start for us yesterday as it takes an hour or so to get from home to Blackpool. I didn’t want to be late so I set my alarm for 5am, and we left the house at 6am heading for breakfast at McDonald’s. Well, you have to have some compensation for such an early rise on a Sunday haven’t you?!
The rehearsal room was freezing cold, but the band all quickly settled in for a warm-up by playing a couple of hymn tunes to loosen up our lips and to get us playing together as a band. We played “Blaenwern” (the tune for “Love divine, all loves excelling”) and it was so beautifully played that I cried. Yes, I actually cried. I was moved by the musicality, the sound of the band, the perfect execution of every note and in my head I was singing the words as we played. It was one of those rare spiritual moments in music making that are just sublime and can’t really be explained to someone who hasn’t experienced them for themselves.
We moved on to the testpiece – “Land of the Long White Cloud” by Philip Sparke – and the band were definitely up for a good performance on stage.
I thought it might be a bit of fun to share a series of snaps through the day, which I did on Facebook yesterday. I called them all “View from the PamCam. It’s […] o’clock” and this is the first of the day.
During the rehearsal we learned we had drawn number 9 out of 13 in our section and we expected to play at around 12 noon. It meant we had a fair bit of time to kill so we made our way to the Winter Gardens to do so.
As well as time to just sit and relax before the performance, it was a great chance to catch up with a few people I’ve known from my banding life throughout the year and I was really pleased to get to know more people in my own band a bit better. A good chance to bond, if you like.
After a while we were called through to the preparation/dressing room for yet more waiting around.
This is backstage. A big space behind the Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens that allowed 6 bands at a time to get changed and warm up. I bet all you non-music folk imagine something a bit more glamorous don’t you? Haha, nope, this is the reality of banding. Lots of music cases, lots of uniforms strewn around the floor, hundreds of people milling about and a distinctive whiff of “nerves” from the bandsmen waiting to go and compete.
This is me with my son before we went on to perform. Slightly nervous at this point but under control. One thing about all that waiting about is that it helps settle any lingering nerves from rehearsal and the very early start to the day. Each band has to have its players registered with them, and the next stage of the day was go through to Registration where we get ticked off a big list.
And then, suddenly, it was time to take to the stage.
We played in the Pavillion, which is a room that hasn’t previously been used for competition. It was a huge room with a dark blue ceiling studded with lights, and no stage which meant the bands were seated at floor level along with the audience. The adjudicators were housed behind screens at the back of the room from where they would write their comments and come to their decision about which order to place the bands. The shape of the ceiling made the sound projection a bit strange, and when I was standing at the back of the room for the results later on, I could hear the whispers between people at the front of the room as if they were behind me. It was a little bit like being in the Whispering Gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral, and the sounds we made on the stand created a strange “bounce” which was a bit disconcerting to say the least.
The performance felt as though it went well, but it is really difficult to tell. If you can imagine that you are dressed in strange clothes (a tight jacket that belongs to someone else with a buttoned up collar and a dickie bow round your neck), in a strange room (almost dark, with strange acoustics), playing a very complex piece of music that requires intense concentration, listening and counting to be able to execute it to a very high standard, while all the while battling stage nerves you can imagine a little about how much adrenaline would be pumping around the system. I can’t really tell you how we sounded, but I can tell you that the dynamics were good, the soloists were EXCELLENT, the lyrical melody lines were beautifully played and when it came to the emotional climax of the piece the band were all moving and playing as one body.
It is very very difficult to achieve an objective view of a performance from within a band like that, and it’s difficult to know if our interpretation was good or not…
…until we had finished the last note that is, when the audience erupted with applause.
Now, I’ve heard good bands play contests where the audiences have politely clapped, but never have I experienced an audience reaction quite like that before. It was AMAZING!
We took our bows and trooped off stage, wobbling and on a high from the adrenaline rush of performance and made our way backstage to get changed again.
As there were only a couple more bands to play, it wasn’t long to wait until the results.
Here we are at the back of the room waiting for the adjudicators to deliver their verdict. There are two adjudicators, and they each took a turn in giving the bands some advice, and some insight into what they were looking for in the performances, including how they reached their verdict. They told us that the top four bands were easy to determine, because the winners stormed ahead of the rest, the 2nd placed were close to them but not as good, and the 3rd and 4th placed bands could have been the 4th and 3rd they were that close. The rest of the pack were a little way behind those four and all had their own strengths and weaknesses in their performances. So, the winners were brilliant, the runners up were really good, and the rest were OK, according to the judges.
It is normal practice for the Area contests to announce the top 6 placings, and it is a horrible feeling to be waiting to hear your band’s name, whilst at the same time NOT wanting to hear it because you want a higher placing.
The band in sixth place was announced…not us. Phew.
Then the band in fifth place…. not us. Phew.
Then the band in fourth place… not us. Phew. But feeling sick now.
Then they announced that there was a prize for the best section on the day. What?? Never had that before, but who has won it?
Would you believe it, the best section on the day was judged to be the trombone section from band number 9. That’s us!!!!
But wait. Have they announced that now because we haven’t won anything else? Or have they announced it because we came third?? Oh no, the sick feeling is intensifying now.
Back to the placings. The band who came 3rd… not us, but one who we expected to give us a good run for our money. Phew…. getting REALLY sick now.
And now the band who came 2nd… Oh boy, NOT US. Good grief. Can’t take the tension. Have we won, or have we come nowhere?? Can’t stand this, it’s awful.
The winning band (here we go) were also awarded prizes for the best Musical Director, best Bass section and a trophy for their Secretary (for some reason)… was the band that played….. NUMBER 9!!!!
That’s us! THAT’S US!!!!
We did it! So, so happy!
There is nothing quite like that winning feeling, especially after so much hard work and intense rehearsal. I am really proud of being a part of that winning ensemble, and I am extremely proud of my son who won a prize alongside his mates in the trombone section.
There is a bonus to the story too, in that because of points accrued and because of the win, Pemberton Old Band Wigan have been promoted to the Championship Section from January next year. That is a huge achievement and is all down to hard work and dedication from their players and their conductor Ben Dixon.
I doubt I will play with them again, but yesterday will forever stand out as a pinnacle in my banding life.
A champion of a day for sure.