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Spring Festival 2024: Superstars and See-Saws

Picture the scene.

It's 6am on the morning after the Spring Festival. The sun is fully am I, and not because I'm an early riser. I'd only just collapsed into bed after the best band contest I'd ever taken part in. I drifted off to sleep with a full heart, a smile on my face and a rather large, fresh bruise forming above my right ankle. A bruise?! Yes, dear reader. I'd just fallen off a see-saw.

Contest Morning

As the sun streamed through the window of my parents' house on the morning of the contest, I waited for the familiar tingle of nerves to arrive. Our set work, 'A Brussels Requiem' is the hardest test piece I've ever had to work on and an Everest that Rainford Band had been working tremendously hard to climb. It's a relentless test of mentality, as well as musicality with one moment of complacency holding the power to upset a performance.

Yet, I was unsettlingly (how ironic) calm.

The only moment of panic I had was when my parents' very enthusiastic cocker spaniel, Monty, nearly upended a mug of hot coffee all over my pyjamas in his rush to give me a 'good morning' cuddle. It's nice to be loved, even when it comes with the risk of an accidental first-degree burn.

As I approached the coach, it would appear that this feeling of calm had descended across most of the band. As we stood in the sunshine, sipping coffee, munching through various breakfast foods and having a giggle (as we usually do when we're together), there didn't seem to be a scrap of nerves to be seen.

They say bad things tend to come in threes. As we approached Blackpool, our percussionist, Jenny, received a phone call from another of our percussionists, Tom, who was driving to Blackpool.

He'd crashed his car and it needed to be towed to Manchester. Bad thing number one. The most important thing: he was unharmed, thankfully. Now, I don't know about you, but if I had just crashed my car, the last thing I would want to do is play in a contest. I'd have said my apologies and taken myself off for a long cry. Tom is clearly a better person than me, because he was insistent he wanted to play, it was just a question of whether he could get here in time.

We set about exploring our options of what could be done, one of which was to brief in banding bestie, friend of the band, composer, conductor and musician, who has literally turned his hand to pretty much every instrument in the brass band, including percussion, Matt Shaw.

There are very few people...actually no, there is no one else I know who would be told, 'we have an emergency that may require you to sightread 'A Brussel's Requiem' at a contest on percussion', whose answer would be - 'Right, I'll set off then'.

Matt Shaw, ladies and gentlemen.

As we approached the rehearsal venue conversation turned from car crashes to crumpets and the debate of whether jam is a suitable topping for said toasted snack. Some of our party were averse to (and I quote) the 'jammy pockets' that would occur with this concoction and I'm inclined to agree. Personally, I'm more of a fan of a cheese and baked beans combo on a crumpet, but there we are. As we discussed the validity of Nutella atop a crumpet, I nearly found myself victim to a rather large, metal trombone mute atop my head, as it decided to descend from its lofty perch on the shelf above me. Had I just dodged bad thing number 2? What was next?

Following a rehearsal where I split pretty much every note (I hoped I had got them all out of the way before we took to the stage) it was time to wait for the draw. After accidentally manifesting a number one draw at the Regionals, this is a topic I had avoided all week. I, instead, busied myself taking footage for a vlog covering the day and checking in with my other half, Rob, who was about to take to the stage with Wingates in the first half of the draw.

The phone call came through. Last band on. We faced a long afternoon of waiting. Bad thing number 3...or was it? With quite a few hours to go, we held out in hope that Tom would be able to make it. Matt was off the hook, but a hero nonetheless for his willingness!

The Waiting Game

'Blackpool is a colourful place', I thought to myself, as we watched a (what I'm assuming was) a kid's entertainer complete with rainbow trousers, a balloon hat and wheeling trolly that looked like he'd pinched it from a Grandma, someone dressed like Bellatrix LaStrange (if she'd decided to give up life as a death eater for a career in drag) and a stag party (one of whom was dressed as Ali G). A yellow plastic onesie in this weather - why on earth would you wear that?! She says, wearing, what was essentially, a three piece suit in 20-odd-degree heat.

Honestly the outside of the Winter Gardens was like a watering hole on a very strange safari, with many an interesting creature stumbling through. But before we could ring David Attenborough up to pitch the idea for a new documentary, a lesser-spotted percussionist waded through the crowd of oddballs to our group. It was Tom! With the full team assembled, it was finally time to collect our instruments from the coach and do our thing.

The Warm-up Room

The warm up room is usually the place that, if the nerves haven't kicked in before, they certainly do here. Surprisingly, I was awash with a completely different emotion. Excitement. Similar to nerves and apparently chemically the same, but a much more pleasant sensation. I was desperate to get on stage - not to get it over with and the nerves out of my system, but to go and enjoy playing this piece. A true compliment to this composition. I also have to point out, that I was grateful to have a warm-up room where you're actually allowed to play your instrument. As I warmed up, I expected an angry steward to appear from around a corner and tell me off. They didn't. It was great.

After blowing some notes through my instrument and taking a moment for myself, just to get my head in the game, I looked around our troop of musicians. My thoughts were then cast back to the last few weeks. The amount of work the fantastic people who make up our band have put in. The worries surrounding certain sections of the piece that were put to rest when we turned up to rehearsals and showed ourselves we could do it. The conversations over a pint after rehearsal about certain parts of the piece. The hours of work put in by our soloists. Weeks of sectionals, rehearsals and private practice; everything came down to the next fifteen or so minutes.

Again, I wasn't worried. The thing I love about this band (amongst many, many other things), is that you never feel alone. When the time came to step on to the stage, I felt part of one entity, one team - a team that, win or lose, we look after each other; we congratulate each other when it goes well and are there to lend an ear when it doesn't. I walked out onto that stage and felt about ten foot tall, both supported by and ready myself to support the wonderful people surrounding me.

Into the curtain-clad lion's den we went.

The Performance

I have to admit, compared to many of our band's members with this piece, I had the easy job. So I won't complain too much! The bit of the piece I was most nervous about? Walking to the side of the stage. An irrational fear, you may say. However, when I rehearsed it on the Wednesday , in my desperate attempt to not knock our second trombonist whilst trying to squeeze behind the section to get back to my seat from my offstage position, I managed to knock over a trombone case and trip over our solo trombone's chair, resulting in a rather loud, distracting clatter that sounded like a drunken elephant had just entered the room. I managed to avoid a repeat of this on the day, thankfully.

Saturday's performance was unlike any other I've experienced in my 20 years of playing and 14 years of contesting. I enjoyed every single second of it from start to finish. Trying to keep the smile from my face, especially as we entered into the spirited last movement and holding back tears was difficult. But enough about me. I need to speak about the band.

Let's start with the soloists.

James, our solo trombonist, had the task of the energetic, jazzy solo in the second movement. James is the type of player where it seems like the music just flows out of him, especially when it's jazzy. It just seemed like he took this solo in his stride, but I can only imagine the amount of work it must have took to make it sound so easy.

Then there is our Solo Euphonium, Louis. Louis has the tone that is like liquid chocolate; it's just so warm and so rich. The solo and duet lines in this piece benefitted from his gorgeous sound. In my write up of this piece, I described the euphonium line in the 'In Memoriam' section as a comfort in tough times and that is exactly what Louis, with the help of Second Euphonium, Tinjie and our Solo Baritone, Jackie created. A warm, comforting musical hug.

I was first bowled over by the technical ability of our percussionist, Jenny, when I first depped for Rainford last summer and she performed 'Helter Skelter' - I swear there was smoke coming off the xylophone. Her xylophone solo in this piece had the same effect. Whoa! Absolute star.

The lovely solo interludes from flugel, solo horn and soprano cornet are not to be overlooked. Our Solo Horn Danny - from the hymn-like entry into the opening main theme of the piece to the haunting In Memoriam section - he produced many a beautiful moment of loveliness. The little beams of light from our flugelhorn, Rebecca, weaving in and out of the technical parts of this piece. And our soprano cornet, Darren - there were some proper lofty moments in this piece, but you nailed them with style - legend!

When it comes to challenges for soloists, none were tested more than our Principal Cornet, Adam Case - and that's not just because he has to sit next to the female equivalent of a Chuckle brother (me). From the exposed opening to the relentless technical solo in the last movement - this piece is not for the faint of heart. Week in, week out, the shift he has put in to perfect the solos in this piece has been inspiring to say the least and certainly paid off on the day. He is the epitome of everything a bandsman should be, an outstanding musician, incredibly hard working and a great section leader. Adam, you're just awesome, mate!

I can't listen to the recording of our performance without tearing up. The sheer hard work every single member put into our performance was absolutely staggering. Since I first put on the Rainford Band uniform it has been an honour and a privilege to play with such a hardworking team of musicians, but more so than ever on Saturday.

Squealing in the Co-op

Sounds like a dodgy Sex Pistols song, but it's what happened when myself and bandmate/band bestie/big sister, Natalie, discovered the band had come 8th out of 20 when we were picking up some cans of beer for the coach ride home in the Co-Op opposite the Winter Gardens. On a tough piece, in a tough section this felt almost as good as winning it!

The team were in high spirits as we boarded the coach ready for home. The smiles, the hugs, the laughs - god, it was good - it did feel like we'd won.

Upon return to Rainford, we made our way to our local, The Star. It's very nice to have a pub that looks after us and as we entered the building the lovely people who run the place congratulated us all. We felt like heroes returned from battle. They have a pint on draught named after the actor that played Danny in Brassed Off - Pete Postlethwaite, which is my post-rehearsal tipple of choice and I managed to sink a fair few in the beer garden surrounded by my wonderful bandmates and my other half who was an honorary member for the evening. Who could ask for more?! I looked around our lovely troop with a heart full of gratitude.

After last orders were called, it was time to call it a night - at the pub at least. The Muskateers - Myself, Rob, Natalie and Matt - hugged the band goodbye and we set off for home, where we had a kitchen disco to end all kitchen discos. Have you ever tried to learn a line dance, after a few pints in the early hours of the morning? No mean feat. After listening to recordings of performances and a few glasses of bubbles and gin, Rob retired to bed, Natalie nodded off on the couch and me and Matt were left to our own devices.

Always dangerous.

After putting the world (mostly the banding world) to rights for a couple of hours and discussing daft we things we'd done over the years...we noticed that it was almost dawn. Cherish the friends you can talk about banding with until the pigeons start cooing in the morning. Most normal people would say - oh dear, probably time to go to sleep. We are clearly not normal people and we thought it would be most funny to go on the children's playground at the back of the house. So, we snuck out, as the sun was coming up at 5am, still rather giddy from the alcoholic beverages consumed over the course of the evening, onto the playground. What the neighbours must have thought to see a twenty-something and a thirty-something shouting, 'wheeeeeee!' on the swings at 5 am. It was all fun and games, until I spotted a single-seater see-saw, in the shape of a dolphin (I think) - you know the kind that is meant for toddlers? Yeah one of those. It was when I sat on it and instantly felt the pull of gravity quickly drawing me backwards that the thought passed through my mind - "I think I've cocked up". Before I knew it, I was flat on my back, my leg stuck around the springy beast, laughing too hard to get myself out of this predicament. Matt did try to come to my aid, but between also being in hysterics and me nearly booting him trying to get up, he was also unsuccessful.

Giggling like two naughty children, we made our way back to the house from our playground adventure. I tumbled into bed, with a sore leg, but a happy heart.

The following day - Rob went to rescue his car from Blackpool and me, Natalie and Matt spent a gorgeous afternoon with our lovely friend Avril (who we met through our time at Eccles Borough Band). The more I think about it, the more I am so grateful of all the wonderful people banding has blessed me with.

Which leads me to my final thought on the whole, wonderful weekend.

It's rare to play for a band where you feel at home. I've been lucky to experience it a couple of times and it's a feeling I've chased over the years, when things change or you have to move on for one reason or another. I've found it again. Rainford Band is home. 'A Brussels Requiem' will always have a special place in my heart because of the wonderful people I had the privilege to share this performance with.

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