I was fortunate enough to interview Andrew Snell, former Bass Trombonist of Grimethorpe Colliery Band and current musical director of Preston Band, on 5th September 2016 about Preston’s recent Brass Band successes, his recent adjudication of the NSW State Championships and what he expects from the Australian Brass Band realm in the near future.
Jared: Firstly, congratulations on Preston’s fourth win in a row in the A Grade of the Victorian Band Championships! Was the band pretty chuffed?
Andrew: Of course! We set ourselves a target that we wanted to achieve. Winning is one thing but we wanted to play a really consistent performance across all four pieces.
The A-Grade Test Piece was “REM-Scapes” by Thomas Doss. How did the band tackle the work?
It was an interesting selection. I don’t think there’s been a Doss Test Piece set anywhere in Australia before, and yet we had chosen a Doss piece as our Test Piece at Nationals this year. For us, it was a second bite of the cherry. A lot of things we learnt by playing “Spiriti” for Nationals this year really helped at getting REM-Scapes up. There’s a lot of similarity between the two pieces. He has a bit of an obsession with sleep, and both works have a sleep related basis, so this really helped.
Thinking about the future, I guess most Australian bands are now working towards Nationals 2017. They’ve just released the Test Pieces last week, and the A Grade has been set “Harrison’s Dream” by Peter Graham. Are you familiar with the work and are you happy with the selection?
*chuckles* It’s kind of interesting. I’ve done a bit of digging around and I think next year’s contest will be the ninth time the work has been set as the Test Piece anywhere. So it was originally used was the British Nationals in 2000, which was my last nationals as a player for Grimethorpe, so I’ve played it. I moved to New Zealand and conducted Waitakere. The first Nationals I did in New Zealand in 2002, it was the Test Piece, so I conducted it there. A few years later, I was living in Sydney and conducting Willoughby, and it was the State Test Piece in 2006, so I conducted it there as well. So I’ll have done it four of the nine times it has been set by the time we get to Launceston. So yes, I’m familiar with the work. I know it very well.
I think it’s a really good choice. It’s very interesting that whenever someone selects a piece as ‘old’ as “Harrison’s Dream” – and let’s be fair, 16 years isn’t old –, I can guarantee that no one will play it perfectly from beginning to end, so it is not too easy. Get all the A Grade bands to get the music out, and after a couple of rehearsals, ask the back-row cornets if they think it’s easy or not. I guarantee to you that they won’t find it easy. It’s a fabulous piece of music. It’ll be a really good Test Piece.
Where do you stand on how Test Pieces should be chosen for competitions?
It varies between Test Pieces for bands and solos. I used to be on the Music Selection Panel in New South Wales. In terms of the band pieces, I would be inclined to choose pieces for the Test Piece that bands wouldn’t choose for their Own Choice. For instance, I don’t think anyone in A Grade is likely to choose “Harrison’s Dream” as their Own Choice. Whereas, bands are likely to choose a piece like “REM-Scapes’ as their Own Choice. The reason I say that is there is a lot of really good music out there that bands never play. They never play it because you wouldn’t choose it as an Own Choice. Therefore, that stuff should be chosen as Test Pieces.
I would strongly advocate that easier rather than harder is better in all grades. The one thing you don’t want to do is put bands off attending these competitions. They’re the one opportunity for most bands to play original works. They don’t do it very often and the further down the grades, the less often they do this. So, music should be chosen to encourage them to be in it, and if they want to show off, then that’s what the Own Choice is for. It’s better to choose a piece at the lower end of expectations for each of the grades, and then the band’s can go to town and do what they like for the Own Choices.
Solos are difficult, actually, because every year, you’ve got to find two pieces; One for each of the State Championships and one for Nationals. When you’re talking about instruments like flugel, tenor horn, baritone and soprano cornet, it’s quite difficult. There’s not that many major works for those instruments. It’s also much harder because solo competitions don’t exist in the heartland of Brass Bands, the UK. You don’t have those works being written to the same level that the band pieces are.
Trombone is easy, there’s so much stuff. Cornet, you can get away with some trumpet stuff. But then again, they’ve got a trumpet piece for Flugel for Launceston, and that doesn’t seem quite right to me. That particular piece is very much a trumpet piece. Of course you can play a trumpet piece on flugel, but surely there are better options. There’s probably only five or six flugel pieces at that kind of standard, and that’s what makes it really hard. So it would be kind of nice to see some people maybe doing some commissioning for solos.
You’ve recently adjudicated the NSW State Band Championships. What is it actually like sitting in a matchbox listening to dozens of bands for a full weekend?
It’s uncomfortable… I did two days, 11 hours of adjudication on each day. In NSW, they don’t put you in a box, they just put you behind a screen. The weirdest thing about it is not being able to see anything for 11 hours of the day. Losing your sense of sight – losing any of your senses – for a long period of time like that is really strange. What you find yourself feeling at the beginning of the day is very very different to that at the end of the day. I really don’t like sitting behind a screen. You can’t offer as much advice as to what a band can do to improve their performances. That’s what I think an adjudicator’s job is. Yes, it is to rank the bands from first to last, but it’s also about trying to give constructive points and ways to improve.
Are there a couple of things you think bands really should take into consideration when it comes to choosing their pieces?
My feeling has always been to firstly choose a good piece. That’s not the most objective of criteria, as what might be a good piece of music to one person, isn’t to another. Fundamentally, the piece has to be a piece that works both technically and musically.
Then, make sure it’s a piece that suits the band, and make sure the band knows how to play it. I know it sounds like it’s stating the obvious, but, unless you explain to a band the style you are trying to achieve, and the mood or story you are trying to portray, the band is never going to be able to portray it properly. At NSW, one of the lower grade bands played technically very very well. But it was one of the most boring performances to listen to, as you can imagine. They were just concerning themselves with playing well, and making sure the notes, articulation, dynamics were there and in the right place. That’s obviously important, but you’ve also got to try to do something to try to engage your audience and your adjudicator. Make them sit up and take notice, and get excited about what they’re listening to.
The Own Choice is the biggie. At NSW, the bands that were successful made a good choice for their Own Choice, which is a piece that really shows your band off. If you’ve got a really great Principal Cornet player, then you want a piece that is going to show that you have a really good Principal Cornet player. If your trombone section isn’t as good as you’d like, don’t choose a piece with a huge trombone trio in the middle of it. I know it might sound really obvious, but for a major work, it might be really difficult to do, as most works will feature each section at some stage in the work. Bringing the best instruments to the foreground is one thing. The hiding of the weaker sections is the harder to achieve. One of the nice things of conducting Preston is there isn’t really a weak section. We don’t really have to worry about the hiding thing. We can choose based entirely on showing off individuals.
With the Hymn, I like to try and find something that isn’t the standard ones. There’s about five or six that bands just trot out each year, and I try and find new arrangements that don’t quite live up to your expectations of what a hymn piece is. Something that takes a tune that you know but really messes around with the harmony or the rhythm, to mix it up a little bit. I’m also a firm believer that a good hymn arrangement for a competition needs to end quietly – not like the big, huge tam-tam roll kind of arrangements, but that’s just personal.
So when you go for these more creative hymn choices, do you have a reasoning behind that?
It’s partly to stand out. I’ve adjudicated a number of competitions and I always like something that makes me sit up and take notice as an adjudicator. If you hear the same hymn for the third time in the space of a day, you’re not going to be quite as engaged by it, as something that you’ve never heard before.
Recently, there’s being some drama regarding grading within the A Grade section of Victoria. Do you think the system we’ve got in place at the moment is successful or should it be altered?
This is a really tough one. I’ve thought about this a lot. In the UK, grading is based on one competition each year. Your result over three years determines your grading. It’s purely mathematical. If you don’t go, you come last, technically. The top two or three go up each year and the bottom three go down, or thereabouts. It gives the people in charge the opportunity to ensure each of the different sections stay balanced. But it’s a completely understood process and there’s little bands can do about it. If you’re relegated, that’s it. You can appeal but they’re very rarely granted.
In Victoria, it appears to be down to the opinion of a few people. But, I’m not sure if the purely mathematical approach works either, because the number of bands in each grade probably isn’t enough to really make the maths work. I would love it to be purely mathematical, but I don’t think it could probably work here. There’s only three A Grade bands in Victoria, therefore, you can be the third best and you would theoretically be the worst and would be relegated. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that band is not of A Grade standard any longer, and that’s the problem. If there were ten bands, and you were constantly tenth, it’s pretty clear that you need to go down to B Grade. It’s tricky.
I think the system is about as good as it can get, to be honest. But I do think that the one fundamental thing that does need to be thought through is the idea of not turning up to competitions. I think not going to your State Championship for three years in a row, in whatever grade you’re in, means you should be taken down. But then the bands in the lower grades think “That’s not really fair”, because then a B Grade band that hasn’t come to three State Championships in a row gets relegated to C Grade, but still may be of B Grade standard. Is that then fair on the C Grade Bands? It is really difficult.
Thinking immediate future, is Preston striving towards a podium finish at the 2017 Nationals?
No, we’re going to win! As in, we are going, with the purpose of winning. I’m not predicting a win. But top three is not of much interest. The band should be winning. It’s good enough to win and we have every intention to.
Finally, bit of a silly question, but what is your favourite instrument in the brass band?
Without doubt, bass trombone!
Of course! Well, thank you for your time today. It’s been fantastic talking to you and best of luck for Preston in the coming competitions!
If you know anyone who may be interested in being interviewed about their role in the Australian music scene, please tell them to get in contact! Looking to do more interviews of some fantastic musicians in our industry!
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Jared loves to share his passion for music and artists through music reviews and commentaries. These include a selection of reviews written for community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.