Be Careful What You Wish For

 be careful what you wish for brass bandsA cautionary tale for ambitious brass bands

Your band has been in the doldrums for years down in the bargain basement of the banding world. It’s the same faithful faces week in week out the loyally turn up to rehearsal come rain or shine. You have been sat in this band for years and wish that one day the band could be up there with the likes of Black Dyke and Cory.  There is an old saying ‘Be careful what you wish for’ which means that if you want something badly enough you will get it. But…and here’s the catch…sometimes it comes at an awful price!

The next rehearsal at half-time break the bank chairman puts a card and a bottle of plonk on the conductors stand. The older players look on with tears welling up and the chairman in a wavering shaky voice makes the announcement to change your banding future.

“It is with great regret that I have to announce that after 50 years of conducting the band our marvellous musical director is going to stand down”

…. The kind words continue and the outgoing MD makes a speech and weeping like a willow takes the second half of the rehearsal. It’s the end of an era and the start of something else.

A committee meeting is hastily called over a several pints in the bands committee room  pub and some of the principal players are asked to attend.  A gallon of ale, several bags of pork scratchings, much bickering, some swearing, snarling, threats and a few phone calls later the white smoke drifts out of the chimney of the ‘Dog and Duck’ – a new spiritual leader and M.D. has been appointed.  Voted in by a the skin of a timp’ the new hot shot whizz kid has been targeted to breath life into your stagnant but happy band.

The next rehearsal is filled with wonder and trepidation. New conductor, new brush sweeps clean, new direction and what some are dreading…new players.

The heir to the baton arrives, makes a speech about how we will do his best to transform the band success, how some will fall by the wayside, what he expects, what he won’t put up with.  “Do you want your band to get better” he barks authoritatively and everyone says yes – effectively signing up to whatever horrors or delights the future holds.

New music is pulled out of a shiny briefcase. NEW MUSIC??!!! What a luxury! then out comes a strange device appears in the band have only ever seen on Amazon or eBay.

“Give me a middle C” says the new MD as he tweaks the buttons on the strange contraption. What follows is an array of sounds from the petrified ‘tunees’ (who have never been put on the spot in the previous half century) ranging from a frog breaking wind to a sheep’s cough. After his managed to get everyone in the range of a tone or two we gaze at the new music.

It’s a test Test piece. A top section test piece. O.M.G. – semi-qauvers! Fred on the front row, who struggles with Colne and Blaenwern, drops his jaw at the pyrotechnics staring back off the page and his top set fall onto his lap.

“We have to set our sights high. It’s no good playing fish and chip park job crap!”, sneers the conductor. “You must play harder stuff to get better…Agreed?” Fred nods in a daze, mouth still wide open and his bottom set plops onto his lap.

By the end of the rehearsal the band is divided into two camps. The ‘want to’s’. And the ‘don’t want to’s’. The ‘don’t want to’s’ are generally the older element and players  not up to the new challenge. The ‘want to’s’ are the better players and younger ambitious element.

Within a few days and several million tweets and Facebook posts there are rumours (well…more than rumours) that several members have decided to step down.

Instead of empty chairs at the next rehearsal there is a full band and some new faces. This is the start of the morphosis of the band. The conductor reinforces his position by importing his own stooges. Admittedly they are better players but their main function is to create a loyalty to the Führer. Not only do they play well but they also start to brainwash the other players and infiltrate the committee.

The conductor is working on two levels –  musical and psychological. Excellence is the order of the day and peer pressure from the conductors disciples and his fiendish discipline and work ethic quickly raise the bands game.

The very first contest under the new regime and the band win by a country mile, totally vindicated the new conductors methods and putting him in an unassailable position. More players leave as they cannot keep up the pace or are put on the spot, moved down the line, undermined and very effectively pushed over the musical cliff.

Time rolls on and the band stabilises into an unbeatable outfit rising through the sections.  but the conductor doesn’t wallow in glory…oh no! he looks further into the future  and anticipates the challenges of harder music and competition ahead.  The real turning point comes when some of the ‘want to’s’ start to be evicted to make way for even better players. The existing principal players ousted often acrimoniously.

The success builds and builds and the band glide upwards and at every stage members of the original band are picked off one by one until the only person left from the original lineup is the chairman. He gazes at the photo on the wall of the band  a few years before and realises that only his face remains in the band.

So where does this end up. The band gets better and better rising eventually to the championship section. The conductor has now got one hell of a reputation some bigger bands have noticed the meteoric rise and begin asking him to guest conduct for them.   Before you know it he has been made an offer he can’t refuse and is gone.  His followers follow and the band disappears in a puff of smoke.

Back in the band and the chairman looks again at the photo on the wall and realises that his face is the only one left from the lowly but happy days several years before.  The ride has been terrific and the band room has been buzzing success and the glory of winning  but now it’s in dire straights with numbers dwindling, an uncertain future and an other conductor about to take up the baton with what is left of the band.

A grim story but this has happened to many bands in varying degrees time and time again. Some call it a travesty and not what banding is about. Others believe it’s evolution.  Either way, when the spark of ambition is let loose there are always going to be casualties. You only have to look at how many bands of the last two centuries have gone to the wall to know that this scenario has been played out many times.   On the other hand if there were no progression there would be no top-flight bands in the championship section.  It would be a strange day at the British Open to listen to 20 bands playing the likes of Indian summer instead of some of the rockhard test pieces we see today.

So if your chairman of the band languishing in the bargain basement of banding and have your sights set on improving the band…just be careful what you wish for!

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