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United and Rejoicing Through Music |Spring Festival 2023

From Blackpool to Eurovision - The Unifying Power of Music

101st British Open Spring Festival Brass Band Championship stage banner on at the Opera House in Blackpool

Well this was a weekend of music contests, wasn't it? The eyes of the world (well, Europe...and Australia...and Israel) turned to Liverpool as the UK hosted Eurovision on behalf of the 2022 winners, Ukraine. However, a bit further north from Liverpool, in the (surprisingly sunny) seaside town of Blackpool, a far more important competition was taking place - the 101st British Open Spring Festival. As both a brass bander and a Eurovision superfan (please don't judge me too harshly), it was a big day. A day that was bookended by some of the most sublime brass writing I've had the privilege to play and the bizarre shenanigans of Eurovision that make me question my integrity as a musician, as well as my music taste.

Jokes aside, it was a day that reminded me of the sheer power of music and made me stop and think about my mindset and transparency when we're talking about banding.

I'm Obsessed, OK?!

Yes, I know you're probably sick to death of me waxing lyrical about Edward Gregson's The World Rejoicing'. So, if you want to move on to the main body of what went on at the weekend, then I will not judge you (too harshly).

Music is subjective, so whenever a test piece is set, you're always going to get those who love it and those who don't. However, across all sections within the Spring Festival, the general consensus was positive for the set works chosen. I was very, very happy. This piece ticked all the boxes. Musical - check. Nice melody lines - check. Diva-worthy flugel solo - check, check, check. The first time I heard 'The World Rejoicing' at the British Open last year, I knew it was going to be a piece that I would look back on with fondness after we played it. Edward Gregson has retained his position as a composer who has never written a piece I didn't like. With every rehearsal I noticed another motif, moment or chord that made me fall even further in love with the piece. It's a test whilst remaining musical and that, for me, is what a test piece should be. It's only the brass band community that makes a piece of music a test piece (as far as I'm aware) - the same piece in any other context is just that, a piece of music. Music is to be enjoyed, both by the listener and the player. Any way, I'm digressing, this is a debate for another time.

Just in case you weren't sure, I really, really, REALLY like 'The World Rejoicing'.

Frankly My Dear, I DO Give a Damn

Before I get into the story of the weekend, I just want to put it out there that all the thoughts within this blog are my own. I don't speak for the band, when I'm writing this blog, I just write about my experience.

I had a thought during rehearsal on Friday night. By and large, we naturally want to speak positively about our bands. We're a competitive community and many of us do pledge loyalty to the ensembles we play for and so we don't want to look like our band is doing worse than others or that we're ashamed of the band in any way - which is absolutely understandable. However, the reality of the matter is, bands around the country either are or will go through rough patches, whether it's through contest results, numbers of players or financial difficulty. However, we tend to try and play it down. Every time I bump into a bander the natural course of the conversation is to ask each other about our respective bands and the events we're taking part in and, in every conversation, I feel like there is an obligation on both sides to cherry pick what's going well.

I'm done with this mindset.

If I don't speak frankly, then I wouldn't be able to fully illustrate why the performance and our result meant a lot to me (and my bandmates) at the weekend. To those on the outside, a 10th position doesn't look like something to shout about, but it was and I feel these little wins are played down often. So, speak frankly, I shall.

If someone asked me last week about how I was feeling about the weekend, my honest answer would be, nervous. The band is going through a period of changed - a fact I am not ashamed of and therefore not ashamed to share. We've had changes in personnel (that's banding!), we're still learning to play as a team - bolstering each other's strengths, working on our collective weaknesses. We want likeminded individuals to join us, so why paint a different picture? I've played for my fair share of 'cloak and dagger' bands and if I'm going to sign myself up to something that takes up so much time, I'd rather it be a transparent situation. We're a work in progress and progress is being made.

However, with that being said, in our community - results carry weight. If you choose to join a contesting band, results are important. The thought of going down a section in either the Regionals or the Spring Festival is something all competing bands fear. It sounds dramatic, but I don't think I would be the only one who felt like my band, it's results and any potential rumours about the goings on are being discussed. If I had an issue with that, I'd be a hypocrite. I follow brass band results, news and commentary like any one else. It would be weird not to discuss other bands in our community - it's the way it is. We've all been involved in conversations about other bands and players to worry about how we may fair in someone else's conversation. Should we care? No, probably not. Do we care? Speaking for myself, yeah a little bit.

By the time I got to contest week, the weight of potential results placed pressure on the performance, in my mind. It's the band's 150th year, we're still growing the band and, if we find ourselves in the bottom four, we're down a section. We all know what can happen at contests - even if we leave the stage happy, it's not always reflected in the results, so there are no real guarantees. I wanted the band to do well, for all of us for our MD, for the community of lovely people who followed us and wished us luck on social media. So let's cut the bull - I was nervous.

Bring Me Sunshine

The sun shining on Blackpool Winter Gardens, the venue for the Spring Festival brass band contest

Jeez, this all got gloomy rather quickly didn't it? It gets better, I promise. Never underestimate the power of sunshine - Morecambe and Wise were right about that. Adding sunglasses to your walking out uniform does wonders for the spirit. So, it was a surprisingly optimistic start to the day, despite my nerves. I was sad to be playing the test piece for the last time, but god damn, I was ready to throw everything I could at it. Shades on, Battle Playlist playing at full blast - I tell you what, there's nothing like a little bit of Barbra Streisand singing 'I'll march my band out...' in 'Don't Rain On My Parade.' that makes you want to kick down a door, instrument in hand and take on the world.

Again, the power of sunshine - as we drove the car through the familiar streets of Blackpool, the tired, tacky store fronts seemed to have a new lease of life (if you didn't look too hard) with a bright blue sky in the background and beautiful sunlight kissing the architecture of buildings in varied states of dilapidation.

Spring Festival 2023 in a Nutshell

Wingates rehearse in the Royal British Legion, union jack flags surround with a flugel horn in front of a copy of the Grand Shield test piece for the Spring Festival, 'The World Rejoicing'

I fear I may have chosen a header that readers under the age of 20 won't get - do you remember the Esure adverts? Google it - young-uns!

We set up the stands in the Royal British Legion, flags bearing the face of the, newly crowned, King Charles III, left over from the festivities of last weekend, looked down upon us. My thoughts travelled to the musicians that took part in the coronation. Musicians who had the eyes of, literally, the world, looking upon them. The pressure to not split a note in front of the king or more importantly, in the era of viral social media, the pressure of avoiding your performance becoming a meme for all of the wrong reasons. It made the performance I was about to embark on very insignificant in comparison.

It's not a momentous, historical event. It's a competition we've created for ourselves, played by ourselves and (sad to say) performed largely to ourselves (with audiences, typically, made up of members of our own community, friends and family). It's not to say that it's not important - we should absolutely care and treat our events with the respect and commitment they deserve. However, it must be remembered that we created the league tables, the adjudicator's guidelines, the rules - we didn't need to turn music into a competition - we created the pressure. Our job is to perform a piece and the adjudicator's role is to pick the best. The world continues to turn and all you can do is your best.

As we waited to take to the stage, standing in the 'greenhouse' that was the middle of the Winter Gardens (ironically), this was the only thought going through my mind - 'we can only do our best'. Well, I tell a lie, there was another thought going through my mind which was - "bloody hell, I could murder a pint', as I looked achingly at the heaving crowd in The Galleon Bar, lusting after their, cold, condensation-coated pints of over-priced lager - moving on...

I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of our performance. I'm not going to lie, my eyes were slightly sweaty at the end, as it was the best performance I felt we had ever produced and we'd saved it for the stage. It wasn't without its imperfections, but as a team, we pulled it together and it was a solid foundation for which to build progress. A highlight for me was listening to our incredible solo horn player, Alice, who delivered a simply stunning rendition of the horn solo, with effortless class, a beautiful sound and mature musicality. She's a star and it's a privilege to watch her grow into such a phenomenal player with each rehearsal.

United By Music

Members of the Wingates Band pose for a team selfie before going onstage at the Spring Festival brass band contest.

As always, one of the greatest things about brass band contests is having the opportunity to reunite with friends from other bands. Whether it's a fleeting wave across a room, a quick hug and a 'good luck' or 'play well' exchanged with smiles or a full blown catch up covering weeks, months or even years, it's one of the brilliant powers of music - uniting us.

United By Music happened to be the slogan of this year's Eurovision Song Contest (such a seamless segue...not). Don't worry, I'm not going to try and convert the haters or go into detail of what I like or hated about each performance. What I briefly want to touch upon is the performance of Liverpool's Songbook, which was a fantastic musical celebration of a city that holds a dear place in my heart. The main point within this performance that got me thinking was the rendition of the anthem 'You'll Never Walk Alone.'

Usually associated with Liverpool F.C. rather than the musical it originated from, 'Carousel' this song took on an entirely new meaning, given the circumstances of Ukraine who couldn't host the competition in their own country due to needless warfare. The song represented solidarity amongst nations. Eurovision is an event that is often ridiculed and I won't be the one to defend it as a serious competition - I have eyes and ears, I'm not that deluded - but this year it truly demonstrated what music can represent and how it can bring us together in ways that words alone can't manage. In our darkest moments, it's the arts - specifically music in many cases - that we turn to to lift us up, to feel less alone, to drive us forwards. It's not maths or science - as useful as they may be. Only the arts has this power.

Coming back to banding - I feel the experience I've had preparing for the grand shield is a microcosm of how music can unite us. Our MD, Andrea, made a point to us that, on the Opera House stage, you can feel like you are playing entirely on your own. Soloists can feel very vulnerable and the acoustic makes it feel like a lonely space, but if we look around, we can see that we are not alone, we can hear that we are not alone. We have to trust the people beside us to not let us down and only then will we succeed. As I said, earlier, the band is on a journey. Some of us are still new to each other and we are building musical trust, that can't be constructed overnight. Performance by performance, contest by contest, bit by bit, this trust will grow until we are playing like a team and that is the true beauty of ensemble playing.

The competitive nature of contesting has the power to drive us apart if we're not careful - both individually within our band rooms and when competition heats up too much in contests throughout the year. We're part of one community and although competition can be healthy, it's the music that matters. It's making the music together that matters. In banding and in the wider world - music will always have the power to bring us together, to break loneliness, to drive us on. If there is music, we are never alone and that is something that is worthy of rejoicing...and 10th position isn't a bad place to be - for now.

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