Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Brusque No-Busking

This weekend was the 11th annual U.S. Open brass band competition in St. Charles, Illinois. As the Fountain City brass band, we competed and took first place for the third year in a row and the sixth year out of the last seven.

What was not expected - especially for me - was that my brass quintet decided to compete in the Busker's competition that runs as a companion to the main stage competition. In between performances by the full bands, the time as people are shuffled and chairs are moved is filled by small ensembles playing in one corner of the stage. A hat is passed through the audience for a free-will donation. An anonymous judge is somewhere in the hall, and whichever group is picked as the winner is awarded the contents of the hat.

When the other members originally approached me to ask if I wanted to compete, I gave a quick denial. The Open is not my favorite playing opportunity in our concert year - not because of anything about the contest site or organizers, but because I don't care for the "entertainment" aspect of the show. I have been informed over the years that this is a perfectly normal contest type in Britain, but that hasn't ever made me more inclined to view it favorably. I enjoy going, but I maintain a certain distance from the proceedings. Getting more involved by competing in something that is EVEN MORE focused on being entertaining isn't my idea of a good time.

But by the time all of the other members were now going to be playing members of Fountain City, I acquiesced to the second request. Still not particularly thrilled, but not wanting to be a complete party-pooper, I agreed to compete. After all, what else am I doing that day?

And we won.

And now I'm in a pickle. I'm glad that we won, but I still don't particularly care for the idea. I have to lay all the credit on the other members, who did all the planning, production value, and arrangements. I was just a stick-in-the-mud. So I have this feeling like I shouldn't get to have an opinion about this, since obviously my original choice would not have netted us the over $200 haul we ended up with. Our quintet has expenses, and it's great to start reimbursing members who have put money and time into this mutual endeavor.

I suppose it's an aspect of the age-old intersection between art and commerce.  In order to make money, at least part of the output has to be popular, not necessarily for artistic merits. By artistic merits, our busking performance was sub-par: a great many missed notes on all parts, I continually flubbed some recurring key changes that I should have fixed, and I have no idea how our inter-part balance was in a completely unfamiliar hall.

But the audience loved it. They loved the shtick with the fighting soloists, they loved the signs individual players gradually turned around as the piece progressed, and they loved that we accelerated to uncontrollably fast speeds for the end.  And I love that they loved it, because it wasn't that hard to do and it made a bunch of people happy.

And since we were playing entertaining pieces for an entertainment competition (the informal part of that competition, to boot!) then everything is right with the world. The busker group with the chicken hats played well, as did the one where everyone was wearing tacky clothing from thrift shops. We didn't have our best performance, but we did produce an entertaining product.

That we managed to win was definitely the biggest surprise of the day for me.

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