When it comes to brass band competitions in the United States, one of the most entertaining and well-attended events is the US Open held in St. Charles, IL each year. One of the reasons this competition draws a crowd is because of its entertainment value, and the fact that a large part of the competition scores are subject to each band’s amusement and entertainment.
There are different awards given to bands in different areas, such as:
Most Entertaining: Fountain City Brass BandBest Cornet of the Day: Kim Dekay, Ohio Brass BandBest Featured Soloist: Theo Musick (xylophone), Fountain City Brass BandBest March: Brass Band of Central Florida, The Padstow LifeboatBest New Arrangement of Composition: Foggy Day/Lee Harrelson, Fountain City Brass BandBest Percussion Section: Brass Band of Central FloridaBest Busker: Motor City Brass Band, DEEP 6 with a medley from the musical Chicago
Awards for each area vary. The award for Best Cornet of the Day is a brand new silver cornet. Casey Thomas was the winner of the Best New Arrangement of Composition in 2008 with his arrangement of “Esprit de Corps.” He received $250, and a plaque. I believe the grand champion of the competition takes home a large trophy, and probably some money…not to mention an inflated ego.
After looking at previous results, talking to band members about competitions over the years, and seeing the competitions for myself the past two years, I have concluded that even though entertainment is a large aspect of the competition, you are also judged on how you execute such entertainment. For example, Fountain City Brass Band from Kansas City, MO were grand champions this past year, as well as Most Entertaining. Even though the Eastern Iowa Brass Band did more moving around and staging than Fountain City, they had specifically choreographed every step of every move. It reminded me of watching “Blast,” only not quite as professional and entertaining. They also played exceedingly well and looked very sharp. The Ohio Brass Band usually comes to the competition with the most extravagant and over-the-top entertainment ideas of everyone. They are so over-the-top that many times they are more annoying than entertaining. This past year, they had a huge Muppet theme, where people were dressed in wigs, had fluffy boas and different colored t-shirts for each section. They did a piece called “Ma-na-ma-na,“ that I thought was very funny. It’s a fairly well-recognized piece, and is fun to play (or sing). They had one of their trombone players come out wearing a suit, an orange fuzzy wig, a boa, and HUGE plastic sunglasses. The tenor horns came up to the front to play the melody of the piece and dance. The trombone player only had four notes, and if he tried to break into a solo and dance, the tenor horns would scold him, and he’d go back to playing the four notes he was assigned, that were representative of the “Ma-na-ma-na.”
The Ohio Brass Band also did a drum set solo piece, where one of the percussion members dressed up as Animal from The Muppets, and was running amuck around the stage. Towards the middle of the piece, he was given a pair of drumsticks, and sat down at the drum set and started playing. Sadly, his drum skills were not all that great, and we were not very impressed.
Another part to the US Open competition is doing a Buskers group. These are all small ensembles that usually play very entertaining and creative pieces, and have shtick comedy. They are performed in between each large group off to the side of the stage, while the stage crew sets up for the next group. As you can see from above, they have a separate competition for the Buskers, and a separate award. This past year, the Easter Iowa Brass Band did two pieces with a Tuba and Euphonium ensemble. I believe there were only four in the group. Their first piece was a piece about a locomotive. I don’t remember what the name of it was, but they had a train whistle, and percussion. It was supposed to sound like a train leaving the station and chugging down the tracks. It was pretty cool. Their other piece was a rock tune, where Todd, our first Euphonium player was going to do a solo with a Silent Brass practice mutes paired with an amplifier. He put it on the electric guitar setting, but unfortunately didn’t turn the amp on before he had his solo. You couldn’t really hear him, and it didn’t sound anything like a guitar.
All in all, the bottom line of finding a winner in these competitions is how each band sounds and plays together as a group. You can have the most entertaining band in the world up there, but if they don’t have great sound and technique, they aren’t going to win. There are competitions where all the judges go by is how a group plays. I have never been to NABBA (North American Brass Band Association), but I am told that their competitions are blind. There is no entertainment score at all. There are also different divisions to compete in, which is different from the US Open, where everyone is lumped into one group. Some may think that the lack of divisions in the US Open puts bands at a disadvantage. I honestly have to agree for the most part. There are a few bands that come to the US Open who constantly get low scores. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad bands. It just means that they are small fish in a big pond. They are up against the bigger, more experienced bands of the US. This is where I think having size and ability level divisions would come in handy. It would make competitions fairer.
One more subject I’d like to discuss is how the US Open handles competition from the UK. Three years ago, a British brass band called Wingates Brass Band entered the US Open competition. The rumor was that they wanted to boost their winning ratings by coming over and winning the US Open. I was not at this competition, but I’m told that they played very well, and were rated much lower than they should have been. I did, however, hear that they did nothing for the entertainment aspect of the competition, which might have lowered their score a bit. Some people think that the reason they got lower scores is because they thought they could simply come over to the US and clean up. I have no answers to these possible reasons for their scores, but it is interesting to observe.
All in all, the final judging comes down to the best musicians. If a band is able to play technically and beautifully with cleanliness and energy beneath all the choreography and humor, they have a better chance of taking home the trophy.