Sunday 2nd July saw the 2023 Summer Rhythm contest take place at Spencer Community Trust FC, Northampton. Although it’s by no means the largest stadium bands will play at this season, show hosts Liberty have found a diamond in the rough here – the adjacent practice pitch provides more than enough warmup space, and the groundsmen at the club are more than accommodating (even helping to line the field!). The size of the stand also meant that it was standing room only at the show (unless you brought your own chairs like some fans did)!

Despite frequent pockets of rain on my 300-mile round trip, the weather held out and we enjoyed a day of glorious British summer. There were a few gusts of wind, but not so much as to upset the colourguard sections of any of the 6 performing bands on the day. Of those 6, we were lucky to have performances from two classes mixed with an exhibition too!

For those not familiar with how the British Youth Band Association (BYBA) runs its season, bands initially start in one of two classes: Associate Class (for overage bands) and Open Class (for the youth bands). Performance times are allocated via a random draw across all of the classes. Once we reach the halfway point in our season (end of July/early August), a score is chosen and any Open Class bands scoring higher than this are placed into Premier Class, whilst the remainder will compete in Championship Class. This scoring point is used for promotions and relegations for the remainder of the season, and performances are then allocated by rankings within the divisions right up to the National Championships in October.

The nature of this random draw meant that we were rather fortunate to see the full breadth of the UK’s marching activity. The band drawn to play first was the Phantom Knights, who had come second in last season’s Premier Class. Following them was Beeches Performance Ensemble, last year’s Associate Class champions, and rounding off the start of the day was a performance from Liberty – the 2022 Championship Class champions. Three big heavyweights of their respective leagues threw down one after the other – and they did not disappoint! The other bands to perform were the Stafford Brigades and Warwick Corps of Drums, before an exhibition from Hardingstone Scout Band brought the performances to a close.

Phantom Knights have always had a strong percussion section, and this year is no different. The Front Ensemble may not be using electronics, but that allows for a much wider dynamic contrast and sees them tastefully utilized throughout the performance. Their 2023 show, “Out of the Darkness”, explores a person hiding in the shadows and what they may be feeling – a concept which is not always the easiest to articulate, and yet comes across rather well as a field show!

They have chosen to move their front ensemble back from the pit box, which along with several screens serves to frame the field nicely – making some well-executed visuals from guard, brass or drumline (or all together!) stand out just that bit more. The screens are a gradient from black to white, a nod to the theme of the show, and also include one frame without a screen in the center. I had wondered in passing what was so special about this frame, and why it didn’t have a screen like the others, but it was actually part of my personal favourite moment from their show and so I’m glad it didn’t! During the ballad, set to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, two guard members stand either side of the frame – one dressed in white, one in black – and perform a perfectly-mirrored duet with each other.

Phantom Knights feature quite a few well-known pieces of music in their show, and I found my foot tapping along to the grooves on quite a few occasions – I’m sure I wouldn’t mind taking a few musical recommendations from whoever put their show together! They opened (and closed) with Queen’s Who Wants to Live Forever, also featuring Love the Way You Lie (Eminem feat. Rihanna) and Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson. The latter artist seems to have become a favourite of PK since their 2019 show, This Is It!, which paid homage to his legendary live performances and innovative dance moves. It saw the Phantom Knights enjoy an undefeated season in BYBA’s Championship Class and gain promotion to Premier class.

The next band, Beeches, were almost hard to miss. Boasting a corps that was easily twice as big as any other on the day, they also made extensive use of props to fill the field. It is certainly not difficult to tell that their 2023 show is “The Hunger Games” - the drumline are dressed as Peacekeepers, the brass and front ensemble as Rebels, and the colourguard as Tributes. The corps also all start the show under a massive backfield archway labelled “Capitol Coal” - a nod to District 12’s responsibilities in the Hunger Games – from which they all come out to a somber recording of The Hanging Tree. There is some fine individual visual work here across the corps to paint a picture of an oppressed workforce – guard labouring with their equipment, brass helping each other hobble around and wheel out props, and just a general sense of despondency and despair. You may be forgiven for thinking the corps didn’t want to be here today, such is the level of portrayal, but that instantly changes with the drum major’s salute as the energy levels jump and the guard leap straight into action. Some warm backfield brass playing is met with some tasteful percussion writing, before they turn around and let the audience have what for!

Besides the ballad, it did not feel like the drums stopped at all throughout the show, treating the audience to drum break after drum break. Whether that was the drumline jumping in after a big brass hit, or Beeches’ very capable drum kit player rocking out, each one was well executed and added a different dimension to the show. As a drummer myself, I thoroughly enjoyed each of these – and as a spectator, I could completely understand why too! The drumline alone this year comprises of 10 members (3 snares, 2 tenors, 5 basses), and the front line spanned from 35 to 35 in what must have been another 12 members or so – I’d want to show that off too!

However, it’s not just the percussion section I was impressed with. It feels like the whole corps has taken a step up from last year’s Alice in Wonderland-themed show. Brass have some technical runs, a few double-tounging passages, and then some nice warm chords to round things off. The colourguard, too, have taken things up a notch. When they’re not spinning customer equipment like pickaxes and tridents, the whole emotional portrayal is on another level. Mind you, I’m not surprised that things have taken a step up, as Beeches have announced plans for a trip to the US and Drum Corps International (DCI) next year!

The third band of the day was our hosts, Liberty. Their 2023 show is entitled “The Pocket Watch”, so as you can imagine there are plenty of references to clocks and time within their show. Despite Beeches’ size and raw power, I came away most impressed with Liberty’s show – and was excited to hear that they still have another piece of music to add to finish things off!

Featuring 5 clock faces to edge off the field and a large pocket watch prop, Liberty’s show tells the story of a pocket watch handed down from generation to generation. We hear that the watch was given to the narrator by their grandfather when they were just 10 years old. He had imbued it with some words of wisdom that the narrator was taught to live by – “always look forwards, but remember as it was”. The narrator then tells us that his own children found the pocket watch, but that the only sound was of time passed. He resolves to get it fixed, presumably so they can enjoy it as he once did. This is where Liberty’s show ends, and I’m excited to see where that extra piece of music takes us on the journey!

Liberty is another band whose show designer I would love to get music recommendations from – perhaps there’s a feature idea there! Their show began with Clocks by Coldplay, moving along to Harry Styles’ As It Was before finishing with Fix You by Coldplay. I’m not the biggest fan of Coldplay but I do have to hold my hands up and admit that their arrangements work really well for band, and that they are close to turning those two into some of my favourite piece of music! I particularly liked the time references that had been added into the pieces, making use of a wood block and rim clicks from the drumline to emulate the ticking of a clock, along with some clever visuals from the field performers to act as the hands of a clock.

A few members of Liberty’s colourguard marched with the Spartans at DCI last year and I was pleased to see that this has helped them to have a stronger colourguard section this year, but it is actually the brass section I was most impressed with. Having helped to run the virtual Individuals and Ensembles competition last November, I knew that Liberty had some good brass players, but they have continued to make strides since then. There are a number of brass solos and duets throughout their performance, all well-executed, as well as a number of running parts (particularly in the mellophone section) and even a small bit of double-tonguing to keep everyone on their toes!

The penultimate band in competition was the Stafford Brigades, who boast a more diverse instrumentation that the other bands performing today. As well as the usual brass and percussion sections, they also have a marching flute section!  I know I hear some of you out there moaning – woodwinds don’t belong in band! – but I must confess that they added to the timbre of the performance really well and really sparkled in their feature!

Stafford Brigades’ theme this year is pretty loose; they have a few fun pieces of music relating to stars that they want to share with us. I personally absolutely love the idea that the theme can be as flexible as you want it to be (or even non-existent) and, despite a few timing issues, really enjoyed the music they had for us! Boasting the second-youngest band on the day, there could actually have been some members younger than the music they were playing – Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars (2014), City of Stars from La La Land (2016), Rewrite The Stars from The Greatest Showman (2017) and OneRepublic’s Counting Stars (2013).

The music all had nice grooving undercurrents from the drumline and tuned percussion sections, whilst still allowing the brass and flute section to shine nicely over the top. The arrangements felt like they would be equally at home marching on parades or to carnivals, and surely helps to add another dimension to the band overall. I was lucky enough to see Stafford at the Indoor Music Games show in Leicester back in March, where I witnessed them play a completely different programme of music – so I’m intrigued to know how much more they have in their repertoire ready to pull out. Either way, it's no small feat to prepare two completely different books!

Stafford also made full use of the field on offer. Whether in large block forms (including some lovely swirls and a company front) or splitting off into pods, they covered a large deal of space and made the band look a few times bigger than it was!

Warwick Corps of Drums took to the field for the last judged performance of the day, and immediately had my intrigue. Their performance began with what looked like all of their members asleep on the field, and a few screens giving the impression of the inside of a house. What could this be? I wondered to myself. My question was answered almost immediately after the drum major took their salute, when a sample of Macauley Culkin’s Kevin McCallister wishing he never has to see his family again plays. Immediately it makes sense – this is a show based around Home Alone!

The portrayal of this story was made all the more real by the brilliant performances from Warwick’s cast – one member in a bright red jumper playing Kevin, and two guard members giving excellent portrayals of a variety of roles. My favourite role was the Wet Bandits, where Warwick made use of one of the best props I have ever seen – Kevin stood on top of one of the “walls” and sent a can of paint down a washing line, which provided a brilliant slapstick moment as it hit and defeated both of the bandits!

Warwick had the youngest band in competition, and yet they coped with the technical requirements of a number of classical Christmas works; Tchaikovsky’s Trepak (from the Nutcracker Suite) and Carol of the Bells were just a few! Although it was a little bit of a juxtaposition to hear that music in the middle of summer, it was all well-executed and had the hallmarks of a well put together show, so I was able to suspend my disbelief for a moment and get absorbed in the show.

Their performance finished with a heartwarming moment as we saw the member playing Kevin come from behind a screen with a trumpet in hand. This small child looked no older than maybe 8, and yet he stood dead center of the field and gave an unaccompanied rendition of Somewhere In My Memory as the remainder of the band assembled behind him. Bravo, little man!

The final performance came in standstill exhibition from a local scout band – Hardingstone Scouts. I found out that the band were invited by the hosts (Liberty) because they were actually quite well connected; Hardingstone’s bandmaster was an 18 year old brass player from Liberty!! Upon further investigation I discovered that he had started the band up over Zoom during covid and had been running the band ever since, so keep your eyes peeled as this young man is sure to go far in the activity!

Hardingstone consisted mainly of percussionists, boasting the second-largest drumline we had seen (5 snares, 1 tenor, 1 bass, 1 cymbal, and 1 junior on a smaller drum) and 4 bell lyres. The remainder of their 15 players were on trumpets and I was pleased to hear that they were still able to put a few harmony parts in. Although this instrumentation is different to that which I am used to hearing, and despite the fact that on paper they were missing a bass end to the sound, I found Hardingstone to have a nice, well-rounded sound and thought that they might have even held their own in competition.

Hardingstone were another band whose repertoire would not be out of place on a parade; some cadence-like drum beats sat nicely underneath the melodies from the brass and tuned percussion sections. Their choice of music was also one perfect for entertaining audiences – Frankie Valli & The Four Season’s December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!) and the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black, along with their cadence, certainly kept me entertained! Sadly, whilst I could speculate about whether Stafford’s members were alive when their music was recorded, I can say with certainty that none of Hardingstone’s members were around to hear the original versions of their music. With their bandmaster being just 18 and the members even younger, Oh What A Night was recorded a mere THIRTY YEARS before his birth (in 1975), and Paint It Black another nine years prior… That didn’t stop Hardingstone from giving a fab performance and entertaining the crowds though!!

Finally, we were onto the results – and there were no real surprises across the board. Beeches, being the only band in Associate Class, naturally took all the honours, with Phantom Knights doing the same in Open Class. Liberty placed third, and an interesting rivalry at the bottom of the board appears to be being set up between Stafford Brigades and Warwick Corps of Drums. It marked a reversal of last season’s National Championships, where Warwick came out on top, although they were still able to squeeze ahead on percussion this time round. It’s certainly going to be an interesting competition to watch as the season unfolds though!

Videos of all performances at the Summer Rhythm competition are available to watch on the British Youth Band Association YouTube channel. The next contest was the Midlands Music in Motion joint contest on Sunday 9th July.