Ever since I was younger, I always said “ one day I will play at the Royal Albert Hall”. I spent nearly all my time listening to the best of the best, learning from them and knowing that I needed to get there with them. It was one of my major musical goals in life. After several years busting my arse in the practice room, missing classes at school to practice, shedding blood and almost throwing my cornet at the wall trying to make a difference, trying to make one little improvement each day. It made the decision of accepting the opportunity and the challenge of sitting principal cornet in Brighouse and Rastrick an easy one.
Not knowing what I was getting myself in for, I boarded the plane to Manchester and got on my way. Arriving in Manchester I had a real feeling of surrealness, It was just one day before my first appearance at the Brighouse band room and I was surprisingly calm, but that was all about to change. The big day arrived, the day I was going to walk into the Brighouse band room for the first time, I could feel myself growing more and more nervous by the minute. Driving to the band room that night was terrifying but also extremely exciting. When I arrived and walked into the band room I could feel a strong sense of curiosity in the air pulsing from the band towards me, they had no idea who I was, I was just some young cornet player from the other side of the world coming in to sit on the end of their band. It was literally minutes before the baton was dropped and I played the opening solo to the British open test piece, Reflections on swan lake, I was still very unsure what I was in for because the opening solo was unaccompanied, but when the band came in I was in shock. Recordings of these bands just do not give you a real idea of just how good they really are, I had never heard that power before, I was completely blown away, It was a wake up call that’s for sure. Following the first rehearsal I remember driving home with probably the biggest smile on my face I have ever had, that was it, I was here, where I was meant to be.
I remember thinking “phew, the hard part is over,” but I couldn’t be more wrong. Every day after that involved intense lessons throughout the day with Professor David King. They were never easy, in fact they would have to be the hardest, most stressful and challenging but rewarding days of my life. I learnt what the definition of hard work really meant.
Aside from practice I needed to have a social life and make friends. I spent a lot of time hanging with people at the Royal Northern College of music where I met some remarkable people, people from all bands in the area as well as around Europe. People from bands such as Black Dyke, Grimethorpe, Faireys, and Fodens. I can say that being surrounded by all these classy players is very inspiring and motivates the hell out of you. It was definitely an environment I was not familiar with. One big thing I first noticed, that was different to the New Zealand Brass Band Movement, is that the British Brass Band scene is such a tight-knit community. Like I said before, just at the Royal Northern College alone there are players from so many of the top class bands in England. Everyone plays and studies together, everyone is friends but also opposition. Just ten minutes down the road from the Brighouse band room is the Black Dyke band room. There are contests after contests, concerts after concerts. It never stops.
After a very intense build up to my first British Open Championships over no more than just a few weeks, it came time to board the bus and get on our way to Birmingham. On arrival to Birmingham we then had our final rehearsal and a pep talk before the biggest day of my life as of yet. The morning of the contest, all the bands wait for a text with draw, deep down hoping for a late one. With Brighouse getting a later draw the band then dispersed for the day until we meet up before its our turn to play. That day felt like a week, waiting and waiting, constantly going over in my head “what if this happened, what if that happened,“ it was tense. The time came to put on our walking out uniform and make our way as a band to the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Sitting in the final waiting room I remember hearing the final chord from the band before us, and the immensely huge raw from the crowd, which was enough to get the blood pumping. When I walked on the stage and noticed the shear size of the crowd I could feel my heart beating faster and faster, my heart was almost hitting the principle euphoniums head on the other side of the band. The moment that baton dropped we were off. It was truly an incredible, exciting and emotional experience that I will never forget. I would say to any brass bander if you ever get the chance to see the British Open contest then go, don’t hesitate, you will not regret it.
I remember waiting in the bar after we had played with a beer in my hand nervously waiting for the results. The moment I heard “2nd place, Brighouse and Rastrick” I was like “dam,“ but then remembered I had just played at my first ever British Open Brass Band championships with a band full of incredible musicians and just unbelievably amazing people and felt a sense of achievement, that was a massive turning point for me. Coming 1st is great and of course everyone wants to win, but realising 1st place isn’t for everything, and coming 2nd, 3rd, 4th and so on isn’t loosing, its been given the passageway to improve, to fight and keep going no matter what.
The following morning we returned to Manchester to do it all over again, the build up to National Brass Band championships of Great Britain just one month after the British Open. Back to hours everyday over the test music, concerts almost every weekend, the pressure was always there, it never disappeared. Not once did I think it was getting easier, if anything it got harder because the more you do, the more work you put into something, the more you expect from yourself. It’s a never ending fight.
Between contests the band does many, many concerts. Thinking back to the rehearsal before my first concert, it was the first time I stood in front of the band and rehearsed a solo. The piece I was playing was, My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose. I was so nervous, it wasn’t anything like sitting in the band playing through the test music. I had played solos with bands many times before but this particular time was different. I was stood in front of worldwide acclaimed musicians listening to everything I did, it was incredibly hard. Playing became a marathon, I was short of breath, sweating, shaking, everything a brass player could do without when trying to play a nice melody. I remember being so ashamed of myself , but the scariest thing of all is that was my first and final run through before my concert debut. When I stood up in the concert a few days later with that rehearsal in the back of my head I was thinking “this is it, make or break, if I stuff this up I’m going home,” but it went better than ever. That was my most favourable concert I did.
After a month of rehearsals and concerts it came time to get back on the bus and head to London for the mother of all brass band contests, the national finals at the Royal Albert Hall. I had to go and see inside the hall when we arrived, I couldn’t believe how enormous it was. When we walked on stage to perform Spiriti by Thomas Doss I couldn’t look out, not until after my solo about three quarters of the way through the piece. Right after my solo there was a passage where the back row cornets are blasting the tune and the solo cornets weren’t playing, that moment I felt the assistant principle tap me on the leg and say “you can look out now”. When I looked out it was truly the most magical moment, it was like everything slowed down for a minute. That’s a sight no one can forget.
Deciding to come home was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever faced. Giving up everything I’ve worked so hard for and dreamed about all my life, but at that time I didn’t feel I had much of choice. I had a two year visa, but finding a job that would allow me to stay longer proved to be very difficult, so I felt there was no other option but to return home to my job in New Zealand Army Band and stand down as Principal cornet of the Brighouse and Rastrick Band. On the other hand I was excited to come home to my friends and family and tell them all about my amazing time in England. I was looking forward to start working again and had a real motivation to improve in all aspects of work and life. After my final performance with Brighouse at the European championship in France, I was sitting there on stage as the audience applauded the band thinking “what have I done,“ I didn’t want to leave, but I had to.
I learnt a great amount during my time in England. It inspired me to keep learning and pushing to be better, that’s why I decided to finish up my job in the New Zealand Army Band and start a degree in music at Victoria University in Wellington. So overall, going to England was a life changing decision that I will always keep close to my heart. I made some incredible life long friends, and I would recommend to any passionate brass player to go and experience it, it will change your perspective of the brass band world and will change the way you approach playing.