Diary of a contest day

15th October 2022: National Finals of Great Britain, Championship Section. The Royal Albert Hall, London.

6.20am: My alarm goes off. It’s too early for my night owl brain, but I get up anyway because I’m excited. I’ve received a few good luck messages on Twitter – thanks folks! Time to get ready for the day. Our taxi leaves for percussion check at 7.30am and we need to be stage-ready just in case we’re drawn early.

7.50am: We arrive at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) for percussion check. It’s busy in the corridor as timpani and tuned percussion are wheeled in, and representatives from each band turn up for the draw further down the corridor. I say hi to a few friends from other bands who are waiting.

8.15am: The draw comes in via text from another band member. 7th. Cue the analysis of whether it’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ draw. Generally later is better, as it’s tough to be memorable from an early draw when every band plays the same piece, but we’re also interested in who is playing either side of us and where our major rivals have drawn.

8:20: Percussion check. Each band uses the same percussion instruments, and this is our one chance to try them out before we take to the stage. For my part it’s vital that I check the vibraphone motor and pedal, and play a couple of entries on the xylophone to check the bar spacing.

8.50am: Breakfast. I was hoping the draw would allow time for hotel breakfast, and thankfully it did.

9.35am: Warm up. I like to have a few minutes to warm up alone before the band arrive, so I can settle the nerves. I run through the trickiest passages from the xylophone part — mostly the first movement chromatic runs — and the slow vibraphone fade at the end of the second movement.

10am: Full band rehearsal in the hotel. We keep it simple before a contest: a couple of hymns to warm up, and a final run through the few entries that weren’t perfect in the Friday night rehearsal. It’s vital we don’t overdo it, as brass and percussion are physical instruments, and we don’t want to sound tired on stage.

10.45am: We take the coach to the RAH. There’s a buzz on the coach, we’ve done a lot of preparation and are excited to play.

11.15am: We arrive at the hall and are let into our dressing room. This is my least favourite part of the day, when time appears to slow down as we wait anxiously for our moment. As percussionists there’s very little we can do aside from read through our parts, as we have no instruments to warm up.

11.45am: We file through registration, the last step before we take to stage. Each band member has a photo card with their name and band, which has to be checked. There are strict rules about registration and how many players a band can have, how many guest players are allowed, how many times you can transfer between bands etc.

My registration card. On the left side is a list of the contests I’ve performed at, the date and signature of the registration official (blurred). The centre panel lists the band(s) a player has been registered with and for how long. One the right panel is my photograph and signature (blurred).

12.10pm: Showtime! We are allowed a few minutes on stage to set up, and as the previous band’s layout was a little different to ours there’s lots of activity on stage to get ready. Once we’re set I take a few deep breaths to lower my heart rate and we’re off…

A view from the choir looking down on the stage. The band are in formation ready to play, Simone Rebello is standing at the lectern to announce we’re about to start, and our conductor Paul walks on from stage right. I’m standing behind the xylophone preparing for my first entry.

12.45pm: Whooooosh feeling the adrenaline rush after we’ve performed! We’re all delighted, which is a good sign — it’s rare that everyone comes off stage happy. The test pieces are intricate and detailed, and it only takes a momentary lapse of concentration for mistakes to creep in. My family meet me at the stage door, hugs and smiles all round. We take some photos in front of the famous hall, and check social media to see what the pundits are saying (yes there are pundits for brass bands, and live commentaries!).

A group of smiley banders standing on the steps in front of the Royal Albert Hall. Photo by Charlie Chan

1.15pm: We get the coach back to our hotel to pack up our rehearsal space. It doesn’t take long with everyone helping, and I’m grateful to others who have better spatial awareness who somehow manage to fit four timps, tubular bells, a xylophone, vibraphone, auxiliary percussion and a couple of tubas in the space under the coach. It’s an impressive game of band tetris.

1.45pm: Our work is done, and we head to the pub. The Gloucester Arms is a favourite of banders, and particularly apt for us as a Gloucester-based band. We spend the afternoon chatting and joking and catching up with old friends.

5.15pm: I head back to the hall to listen to the last few bands. I don’t like to listen before we’ve played, as each band will have a different interpretation of the piece and it can be distracting and nerve-inducing, but afterwards it’s interesting to hear the different versions. I hear two of our major rivals (Cory and Fodens) who are drawn late in the day.

6pm: The contest closes and the stage is prepared for the gala concert by the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain. The pundits publish their predictions and we’re tipped to do very well. The nerves which had been dampened somewhat by pizza and pints during the afternoon start to build again.

7pm: Results. There’s a fair bit of pre-amble before the main event, as a representative of each band is introduced onto stage, and the contest organisers and adjudicators give their overall comments on the day. There are about ten of us sat together in the hall nervously waiting. The wonderful Simone Rebello who has compered the day reads out the results, counting down from sixth place.

Sixth: Tredegar. Delighted for my Welsh friends who I performed with at Euros and Proms earlier this year. Another great result for them.

Fifth: Hammonds. A somewhat surprising result, as they didn’t feature in the pundit’s predictions, but nevertheless fantastic for the band from Yorkshire.

Fourth: Flowers! A moment’s disappointment after our 1st/2nd place tip is swiftly replaced with delight. Fourth is a fantastic result at national level, it equals the band’s best performance ever and means we automatically go through to represent the West of England at next year’s final (all but the top four will need to qualify through the spring Area contests).

Third: Cory. Second: Black Dyke. Champions: Fodens. No real surprises there. All three are consistent championship performers.

8pm: We get back on the coach for the drive home to Gloucester. There are only a few of us as most are staying in the capital to celebrate, but I’m keen to get home to my own bed, and get away from the polluted London air which makes me feel slightly out of breath.

10.30pm: We arrive back at the bandroom and unload the percussion, music stands and basses from the base of the coach. We say goodbye to our coach driver who was such a great supporter for the weekend, and was immediately invested in the rivalry between us and our near neighbours Aldbourne Band. Thanks Barry! I wander back to my car for the final stretch of the journey.

11.30pm: Home. My family are keen to hear about the day but I’m too exhausted to hold a conversation. Tomorrow there’ll be plenty of time to share anecdotes, photos and recordings, but after an 18-hour day I’m ready for bed.

Flowers will be back at the Royal Albert Hall for next year’s National Finals. Provisional date 21st October 2023: https://kapitol.co.uk/finals/dates-1

A recording of our performance at the National Finals can be accessed at wobplay.com (subscription required).

Upcoming performance dates are on our website: https://www.flowers.band/engagements

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Coco Chan

Digital professional, musician, textile artist. Tweets @_crmzchan_