Now the main contest season of the year is over I am wondering why it is that the brass band world has this obsession with contests, it is the only musical genre I know that has this intensity about competing. The struggle for success and advancement is the bedrock of the brass band world in the UK and although most bands have a sensible balance between concerts and contests there are a small number who exist solely to compete and while contesting has been a primarily British tradition it is one that has in recent years transferred abroad to both the US and Europe and even Australia.
Contests can be frustrating. Apart from all of the inevitable hanging around waiting to play results are often difficult to fathom and success or otherwise is at the whim of adjudicators, some of whom are even professional musicians!!, who will often be looking for different things than most of us mortals who are listening intently in the hall. Musicality quite often appears low on their list of priorities and some also have a slavish insistence on following the score regardless of whether it could be more musical to play it differently. In this case where is the room for interpretation? Placings are of course one thing but remark sheets are another and sometimes bands who don’t expect to finish high up are looking for some constructive feedback on their performance. Even here they are sometimes disappointed as the adjudicator has only a short time to write their comments and often don’t say as much as we would like. Even less helpful when there are two adjudicators and they openly contradict each other.
So what is the Attraction? Well I was once told that contests are not really about music, they are a sport, and that is probably getting to the heart of the matter. It is because of the naturally competitive trait of human beings that means that bands love pitting their musical skills against each other and many want to ensure they win, or at least give themselves a better chance, not necessarily at all costs but at a high price in terms of additional rehearsal time and the acquisition of the best players and MDs they can get.
Beyond that competitions are great social occasions where people can catch up with friends and acquaintances, and even bands themselves are able to socialise in a way they don’t always get a chance to do.
One of the most cited reasons for contests is that they increase standards. Well that is probably partially true, and I have experience with my contesting band where the onset of a test piece and a date by which you need to have it ready focuses the mind in a way that a concert doesn’t, but it doesn’t have to be that way as there are lots of excellent groups and ensembles around who do not compete. So it isn’t the whole story to say that contests raise standards, the improvement in my view is down more to the focus on an impending deadline than to the contest per se.
It will be argued that this is a very subtle distinction and that the end result is what matters, that is it improves the playing of the band. This is perfectly true but it isn’t necessary to compete in order to raise standards. Contesting can probably be likened to keen football or rugby supporters who always strive for their team to be top of the league, brass banders also naturally want their band to play at as high a level as possible and compete on an annual basis for the privilege of being promoted or relegated but what is the motivation for all the hullabaloo around contests? I’m not really sure I know but I do know we will probably keep on doing it.