Visitor from NZ

Almost as if by accident, in October 1990 I travelled 12,000 miles and joined the Sun Life Band. It seems a long time ago now - Saddam was busy invading Iraq, the All Blacks were the undisputed world champions, and Sun Life had just won the British Open.

My involvement with the Sun Life Band began in May that year [1990] when the Band’s Principal Conductor, Roy Newsome, came to New Zealand to adjudicate the National Contest in Dunedin. At one point I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Mr Newsome, and I made it known that I was interested in playing with one of the top British bands, should such an opportunity present itself. I had no idea that a vacancy was about to arise in his own band - one thing led to another and shortly I was on my way to England!

It proved to be a baptism of fire. The day after arriving in Bristol I heard the Band for the first time - from the middle of the stage, as we had a concert at Wincanton. I was sitting very nervously in the First Horn seat, waiting for Bryan Hurdley to begin the concert with Rimmer’s march Honest Toil. My expectations of the Band were high but I wasn’t prepared for the tightness, accuracy, dynamic contrast, excitement, and above all the sound of the Band. It was overwhelming. Unfortunately the second piece on the programme was The Accursed Huntsman, with its exposed horn lines in the opening. A few nerve-wracking moments to say the least! But the highlight of my first SLB experience was undoubtedly Tony Nash’s virtuoso performance of Arban’s Carnival of Venice on Bb bass - I only had off-beats to contend with but was horribly lost, trying to listen to Tony doing impossible things on his bass.

After Wincanton there followed a whirlwind week of nightly rehearsals leading up to a CD recording, yet another new experience for me at the time (alongside such milestones as my first English pint - warm - and my first English curry - warmer). Several weeks later followed my first job on solo horn, the Colston Hall Brass Band Festival in Bristol, which was also my first taste of shoulder-rubbing with Dyke, Faireys, Grimey, Desford and Britannia. This really reinforced to me that Sun Life was at the very least on a par with the other “big names” of British banding - and of course, when we played we had the Open shield on stage with us, and they didn’t!

But I was soon to learn that this flurry of activity was not the exception for SLB - it was the norm. There was always something going on, a huge contrast with my banding experiences in New Zealand where “top” bands will often only have half-a-dozen jobs plus two contests per year. Not only the number of jobs, but the quality of jobs: 20-25 concerts per year at Stroud, Folkestone, Oldham, Swansea, Uppermill, Kerkrade, will win every time over a rainy evening at the Rotorua band rotunda.

Other than the obvious difference in playing standard, one of the biggest hurdles I faced was my level of sight-reading. In NZ, I was an adequate sight-reader but at SLB, with its vast turnover of music and the short (if any) rehearsal times before concerts, I was very soon found wanting in this department. Needless to say, sight-reading is no longer a problem!

Like they say, though, you can take the boy out of NZ but you can’t take NZ out of the boy, and by the end of 1994 it was time to return home. The re-adjustment to the more relaxed pace of NZ banding posed two main problems however:

I was very conscious that, although having left SLB, I was still effectively representing them every time I picked up my instrument and every note was a reflection on SLB. In 1996 I was fortunate enough to win the most prestigious solo competition in New Zealand, and this would not have happened without my time at Sun Life. It provided tremendous motivation, but also tremendous pressure.

The frustrations of returning to bands of a considerably lesser standard have proved far greater than I anticipated. I am still finding myself continually despairing at the attitudes of the acceptance of mediocrity in so many areas. There are voices here who will have us believe that the top Kiwi bands are near to attaining the standard of their UK counterparts, and these attitudes prevent us from actually learning from them as we should. And in the Sun Life Band we have/had an excellent role model for those of us prepared to learn.

During my four years with Sun Life there were many, many highlights - late nights listening to Mr Newsome’s stories, pre-contest curries, the overseas tours (in particular winning the 1993 WMC Kerkrade and beating the National Band of New Zealand’s “record” points score), working with so many talented musicians... I could go on forever. The enduring memory for me, however, is of the friendships and camaraderie that existed between not only the players but also conductors, supporters, and ex-members - friendships that exist to this day. Dedicated people who would walk barefoot over hot coals for the Band. To me, the Sun Life Band held a unique place in the banding movement for so many reasons, and news of their demise was probably the saddest moment of my banding career.

Andy Williams
1999 New Zealand