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Contest Stage- The basics

Eccles Borough Band (led by Mareika Gray) playing at the North West Regionals Championships 2015, in the Winter Gardens, Blackpool. Photo from

So ‘Contest Stage’ is going to be regular feature of my blog, because it’s a regular feature of banding and is a pretty important part of most brass bands. This feature will look at what a typical contest week looks like (yes, you read that correctly, the week leading up to a contest is just as important if not more so than the day of the contest- fail to prepare, prepare to fail) and also be updated with information, experiences, pictures and general mischief that happens when a band goes on a day (or weekend) out!


Contest bands and non-contest bands 

Band contests are important as they encourage progression and allow bands and players to show off their skills in front of an adjudicator and an audience. It’s also a pretty good social gathering where you can meet other ‘banders’, set up contacts with other bands for ‘depping’ (I’ll explain later) and potential progression into better bands (will also explain later), however, be aware, this can cause rows over the cardinal offence that is ‘poaching’ (again will explain later).

However not all bands have to be ‘contest bands’, there are a lot of non-contest bands or community bands that don’t go to contests and instead focus on the progression of new players, playing concerts to the community (at fairs, walking day marches and other community events) and allowing players who no longer wish to take part in contests to continue playing. So if you’re looking to get into banding, but don’t want to take part in contests, search your local area for non-contesting/community bands. The easiest way of doing this is looking at vacancies on either the 4barsrest or All4brass websites and Facebook pages


So What Are Contests?

There are a few different types of contests, which have different levels of importance and which bands of all different sections compete in- some are aimed at a certain section i.e. Championship section. So, to make life easy ( and to prevent boring you) I’ll briefly explain the five main components of brass band contests.

Main Contests (not a comprehensive list…but quite detailed and trying to keep this brief!)


Click to see what attractions are going to be on at Butlins 2016. Photo from

 Butlin’s Mineworkers- Held in the glorious, scenic, Butlin’s resort, Skegness (for those who haven’t been, that was sarcasm, don’t let the picture fool you). It’s held over a weekend around mid-January (the weather is always a joy) and is a traditional contest, with set test pieces,for all sections on the Saturday and also includes gala concerts from some of the best bands around, as well as an entertainment contest on the Sunday. It is both a fun contest to play and to watch (and usually a wacky weekend away with the band). It may not be the most glamorous weekend away, but it is a good laugh and a favourite with many banders, including myself.

The contest stage.

The contest stage. Photo from

 Regional finals- equivalent of heats before a final. Held in Feburary/March, there are 8 regional finals all over the country

Scotland- Perth Concert Hall

Midlands- Bedworth Civic Hall

North of England- Gala Theatre, Durham

North West of England- Blackpool Winter Gardens

West of England- Riviera Centre, Torquay

London and Southern Counties- Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre

Wales- Brangwyn Hall, Swansea

Yorkshire- St George’s Hall, Bradford

Show ’em what they could have won: the coveted Chamionship Section National Finals trophy. Photo from

National Finals- The 1st , 2nd, and sometimes 3rd placed bands from each section, in each region is given the invitation to the National Finals Contest, where they will compete against other regional finalists in their section to gain potential promotion (if they have not already gained it through three consecutive years of contest success)

The Centaur, Cheltenham

The First, Second, Third and Fourth section National Finals are held at The Centaur,Cheltenham in September, with bands competing for promotion and to be the number one band in their section at the time.

Royal Albert Hall, London.

The Championship Section National Finals are held at the Royal Albert Hall, London in October, with bands, competing to be the overall top band in the country rather than promotion.

Royal Northern College of Music. Photo from 4barsrest.

Royal Northern College of Music. Photo from 4barsrest.

National Youth Championships- Held at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, this is a brilliant opportunity for youth bands to gain valuable experience as well as test themselves against people their own age, as well as being led and learning from some of the best conductors. It also allows young soloists a chance to test their nerves and make a name for themselves.

Blackpool Winter Gardens

Blackpool Winter Gardens

The Spring Festival- The Spring Festival is an invitation only contest, held at the Blackpool Winter Gardens in April/May and is separated into three sections-

Senior Trophy– Four highest place bands promoted to Senior Cup- six lowest placed demoted and will not receive an invitation for a year, to allow six new invited bands the chance to compete.

Senior Cup– Four highest place bands promoted to Grand Shield- Four lowest demoted to Senior Trophy the following year

Grand Shield– Two highest placed bands promoted to The British Open- Four lowest demoted to Senior Cup the following year.

Champions: Winners, Black Dyke Band at the 162nd British Open in 2014. Photo from

 The British Open– Held at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in September, it includes all the bands that played the previous year, with top bands in the country being invited, plus the two promoted bands from the Grand Shield.

Eccles Borough Band at Whit Friday 2015.

 Whit Friday (Marching Contest)- There are a few different march constests- one of the biggest and the most enjoyable events being Whit Friday. All bands from youth to championship, from the UK or overseas can compete. It is based in Tameside and Saddleworth, where bands board a coach and travel to about twelve different venues in either Tameside or Saddleworth, where they march down a short road (playing a road march, e.g True and Trusty) and play a contest march (e.g. The Wizard) at the bottom of the road, where an adjudicator judges each band, this is repeated at as many venues the band can get to in the period of 4pm and 11pm. The band isn’t sectioned so bands from all sections compete against each other, which means lower section bands could potentially beat higher section bands. The overall winner of each section can win a prize for being the highest placed band in their section. It also gives youth bands chance to compete in a major contest and also non-signed players to form their own band and play. It’s a brilliant, unique event and I’ll explain in (even more) detail in a separate ‘Contest Stage’ post about just how much fun (honestly!) this event is.

Entertainment: This is a contest where a band can play a programme of around five pieces that usually contains the traditional brass band repertoire of: march, overture, hymn, soloist and a big show stopper, but can vary or be based around a theme.

Grimethorpe Colliery Band at Brass in Concert 2014. Photo from

Grimethorpe Colliery Band at Brass in Concert 2014. Photo from

Brass in Concert Championships: This is basically an entertainment contest which allows the best bands in the world to really showcase the talent of both their ensemble and their soloists, without being confined to a test piece. Each band picks a programme of original and arranged music that is aimed at impressing and entertaining both the audience and the adjudicator (something which cannot always be achieved at a traditional brass band contest). This contest is brilliant to watch as bands choose some really original and interesting music and usually add some form of novelty e.g. choreography. It’s a chance for brass bands to unleash themselves, without any restrictions and do what they do best- entertain.

Yours truly, looking a little nervous whilst playing Zelda at the Colne Valley Solo Competition

Yours truly, looking a little nervous whilst playing Zelda at the Colne Valley Solo Competition. Photo by Jackie Clowes.

Solo Competitions- These are very important contests for young players as its a chance for them to really make an impression on the banding world. With influential people adjudicating, running and competing in the competitions, its a brilliant opportunity for players to start getting noticed, picking up advice from older players, testing their nerves and meeting other young players. They are really enjoyable days and are amazing for pushing players’ progression and also brilliant to watch and learn from others.

This isn’t a full list there are many other contests in both the UK and abroad. The Useful Links page contains links to information about the above contests and many other contests.


2. Sections

All bands that compete in contests are separated into sections, dependent on ability and contest success. This is kind of like how teams are separated in football (or soccer if you’re American)- just better and not full of overpaid idiots (not to say there aren’t any idiots in banding…but I’ll talk about adjudicators in a bit*)

Band Section

Approx Football Equivalent**

Championship section

Premier league

1st Section


2nd Section

League 1

3rd Section

League 2

4th Section

There isn’t really a football equivalent-it’s the lowest section and the section all new contest bands start in and work their way up through winning contests.

*this is a joke, not all adjudicators are idiots.

** (sarcastic) apologies if you’re a football fan and you think this is inaccurate, but I’m more of a rugby/ice hockey fan and I thought this would be more universal…yes I had to look it up.

Photo by Jackie Clowes

Photo by Jackie Clowes


3. Prizes

Promotion to a higher section (Regionals/Nationals only).

Trophies for 1st, 2nd, 3rd.

Prize money- can be anything from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds.

Trophies for individual soloists or sections- e.g Best soloist/instrumentalist, best euphonium, best soprano, best principal cornet, best bass section etc. These prizes are usually offered on the basis of which parts of the band the test piece challenges the most, for example, if there is a very tricky cornet solo involved, chances are there will be a trophy for the best cornet. At entertainment contests there can also be trophies awarded for specific repertoire, such as best hymn, novelty piece or best programme. There are also trophies for the youngest competing player at some contests.

Commissions for pieces– Some solo competitions offer the winners the opportunity for a piece to be written for them. This piece is usually written with the winners choice of range, genre and style.

Trips to play with bands in other countries– some solo competitions also offer the chance for a winner to win a trip to another country e.g. Amercia, and play as a soloist with a band in that country.


The Test Piece: Love it or hate it, play it like you love it. Photo by Jackie Clowes

The Test Piece: Love it or hate it, play it like you love it- the adjudicator won’t know you want to burn it. Photo by Jackie Clowes

4. The Test Piece 

At each contest (except own choice/entertainment) each section is assigned a piece. This is usually an original work for brass band or an orchestral arrangement. Some can be a joy to play and it will remain with you long after you walk off the contest stage…others may not receive such a positive response, let’s just say sometimes we don’t share the same vision (or enthusiasm) as the composer. They can range from brass band classics ,such as:Labour and Love’* by Percy Fletcher or ‘Resurgam’* by Eric Ball, to something more modern like Paul Lovatt-Cooper’s Vitae Aeturnam’* and Peter Graham’s ‘Torchbearer*’.

Some my personal favourites are:

*click to listen


6. Adjudicators

Each contest tends to have one or two adjudicators sat ‘in the box’ (a box made of curtains or a screen preventing them from seeing each band playing, to prevent bias) unless it is a contest where entertainment or deportment is being scored- e.g at entertainment or some march contests, in this case it would be open adjudication and they can see all the action. Each section has an assigned adjudicator and the rank they give your performance is (unfortunately sometimes) final. Websites such as 4barsrest and All4brass give a live written commentary as each band plays and makes predictions the day before the contest, and at the end of the contest day before the results are announced. Unfortunately (well depending how your result correlated with the prediction) these predictions don’t always reflect the outcome of the results, but it’s good to read the feedback, predictions and what another bandsperson thought of the performance after you have played.


5. ‘Depping’ & ‘Poaching’

You say poaching, I say progression

You say poaching, I say progression

‘Depping’- When a player from one band, helps out another band at a concert or contest. It’s a good way to make contacts with other bands to help progression of a player, to fill vacancies and to also meet other people, as well as obviously helping out a band in need. Most times a person deps to help out a band (and earn a couple of quid doing it) or to improve their sightreading and playing skills, however it can also be a good way to test out a band a player is hoping to join or a way to impress a band in the hope that they take them on as a full time player….which leads me nicely onto….

‘Poaching’– The ultimate ‘sin’ of the banding world (well that and stealing somebody’s pint), yet in my opinion is a made up concept. This is where one band accuses another band of stealing a player from them. This tends to happen when a player from a band is impressed by a player from another and asks them to join. Note I said they are ASKED not dragged away in chains with a gun to their head (though admittedly it can be persistent if the band really want the player), contrary to popular band belief, a player only leaves one band for another if they want to. However it can leave some bands/players disgruntled and thus the concept of poaching was formed, yet unless the player is a sack of potatoes i.e something that is inanimate, has no thought of its own and can be physically thrown over the shoulder and carried off, never to be seen again- players aren’t stolen or ‘poached’ they leave for pastures new (and usually improved).


Best Memories from Contests:

Coming 3rd at the first Regional Contest I played as principal in 2014 and gaining invitation to the National Finals, being one of the youngest principal cornets at the Finals at seventeen and the tears of genuine joy the band shared at this amazing achievement- a memory that will always stay with me.

The look of pure happiness, with a touch of disbelief

The look of pure happiness, with a touch of disbelief

Winning 1st prize at the last ever Fleetwood Contest in 2013, which was my first contest as principal cornet of Old Hall Brass, and was the first win the band had, had for a long while and was the beginning of a brilliant and very memorable contest season with the band going to the national finals the following year. Needless to say we were the happiest band there that day.


Little trophy, big achievement

Little trophy, big achievement

Winning 2nd prize for slow melody at my first ever solo competition (Fodens Solo 2014). With it being my first, I was expecting a bit of a naff placing so this was a memorable achievement (didn’t do quite as well on the technical contest…but we’ll just not talk about that, if you lose it’s a learning experience…)

4. Watching Grimethorpe Colliery Band play Torchbearer at the Regional Championships- one of the best banding performances I have ever seen

5. Depping for Eccles Borough Band and being too young (seventeen) to get into the infamous Jaks club at Butlins and an older member of the band threw a massive tantrum in front of the security guards saying ‘she’s my niece and you’re ruining our family holiday if you don’t let her in’ until the security guards finally gave in.*

*not condoning under age drinking…honest….was completely sober and well-behaved when this happened.

6. Coming 2nd with Eccles Borough Band at my first Regional Contest with them, earning another trip to the National Finals and promotion into First Section. First official contest with them and it was one of the most important of the year, talk about pressure!

7. Coming 4th in both Slow Melody and Technical and the Colne Valley Solo Competition. As I already knew I had a slight weakness with my technical, as I find melody playing much easier, to get such a high placing in both categories and coming higher than some very talented young players, whom I admire, was an amazing experience. It was also one of the most, if not the most enjoyable and well-run solo contests I’ve been to and I would urge every young player to enter at some point.


So, in my opinion ,contests are very important and arguably one of the best parts of being in a band. We spend months practising a piece together, the week before is spent rehearsing together (usually every night) and then we spend the weekend travelling, competing and celebrating our wins (and commiserating our losses) together, so banding is very much a team game as much as an individual learning experience, and provides players such as myself, with lifelong friendships and drunk-…I mean good, honest, fun memories that keep me so enthusiastic about this hobby.


One Last Thing!

I’d like to start writing a few backgrounds to bands in this country, so if you would like a write up about your band (any band welcome of all sections and non- contesting) then feel free to drop an email to


If you like this article or think something could be added/changed, please write a comment below or send an email. Similarly if you would like a link to your band page on my links page or an article/promotion about your band or band event on my blog, please send an email to (it’s free!)

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