In an earlier blog, I wrote about exploring “new horizons” and doing something different, in order to “spice things up” in one’s career.
Since writing that, I have been very lucky to have been given yet another opportunity to push the boundaries, but this time it’s not a new experience, but one however that has challenged me (in every sense) to the very limit and given me a much deeper appreciation, of the standard of music-making that goes on around us, on a day-to-day basis, much of it unacknowledged and without suitable recognition.
My musical upbringing was in the brass band movement, learning to play the Cornet aged 7, with the Crwbin Silver Band. With just 2 pubs, 2 chapels and a church in my home village in the Gwendraeth Valley, there wasn’t much for a young person to do, so joining the local band seemed the obvious thing to do, especially as my Father, Uncle and Cousins were already playing in it.
Where it all began – Crwbin Silver Band c.1974 (I’m the one sat in front of the bass drum)
I remember my first competition with them, was at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea in 1976 on Edward Gregson’s “Voices of Youth”. Having performed in the 4th Section, I recall spending the rest of the day, not only sitting, gazing at the fantastic murals on the walls of this fantastic venue (some might disagree), but listening in awe to the bands in the Championship Section tackling Gilbert Vinter’s “Spectrum”. Names like Parc & Dare, Tredegar and Cory led by Ieuan Morgan, Bram Gay and John Childs.
These names were for me, the equivalent of Chelsea and Mourinho and Manchester United and Van Gaal for a young kid today. Superstars and demigods whose skills and talents were of a different planet to mine. The music too, was also of a “language” that I was totally unfamiliar with, yet there was something about “Pageantry”, “Variations for Brass Band” and “Contest Music”, that caught my ear and made me thirsty to hear more and more.
Little did I know at the time, that listening to these and future performances in that Hall over the coming years would shape and influence my dreams and ambitions for the future. I certainly never expected things to have panned out as they have now.
Fast forward approximately 40 years and I have had the great honour and pleasure of not only having played for Parc and Dare and Tredegar at the National Championships, the British Open and European Championships, but also conducted both bands in concerts and competitions, attempting in some small measure to follow in the footsteps of those icons who were my childhood heroes.
Parc and Dare Band – 2014
The scrapbook will this weekend be somewhat more complete however, as I take to the stage of the European Brass Band Championships in Freiburg, Germany, performing as a guest player with the Cory Band, where they will compete with bands from England, Norway, Belgium to name but a few, to win the coveted title.
The circumstances for being invited to play are extremely sad but that aside, I am extremely excited (yes, even aged 40 something I can still get animated about my music-making!) to be performing at one of the premier events in the brass band calendar.
Each band performs a test-piece (this year written by Rolf Rudin entitled “The God Particle”) on the Friday evening, then the following day return to play an own-choice work. The aggregate points awarded for each performance will then decide who is the victor. Having been a former Champion and the No.1 ranked brass band in the world for the past 8 or so years, it’s safe to say that Cory are in with a shout at least! Not that they are taking that as a God-given (sorry, no pun intended!) right to win the title. It will be down to good old-fashioned hard graft, blood, sweat and a few tears perhaps.
In the last few weeks, since trying to get to grips with “The God Particle” and the other work (I can’t tell you what it is, as it’s highly classified information!) I have been reminded of the amazing standards and levels of commitment that our nation’s brass bands are capable of. Listening to them perform is one thing, however, when you’re at the coal-face and getting stuck in as a player, one instantly can appreciate the intensity of concentration and sheer effort given to every single note produced during those rehearsals. Not that the conductor doesn’t earn his corn either mind, as I well know. Philip Harper, Cory’s Musical Director, has worked tirelessly in his preparation, meticulously dissecting the scores to get the very best out of his players.
With still a few nights’ rehearsals to go, I know the band will move up another few gears in terms of their performance, which given how well they are playing already, is scary to think what levels it could potentially achieve. The purpose though of my writing, is to highlight that for all it’s successes and the incredible standards achieved, the brass band movement never really gets the plaudits and acknowledgment it so thoroughly deserves, either in the press and media or often from its local community.
For Wales alone to have 2 bands (Cory and Tredegar), in the top 3 world rankings must count for something surely? However, a dog performing tricks on a prime time TV “talent” show will get more air time and social media publicity than any of our brass bands ever will sadly.
In the meantime, know that regardless of their status in the rankings, the brass band on your door-step may not all be world-beaters, but they work their socks off, contributing to the local community when needed for Carols at Christmas, playing at a Charity Concert when raising much-needed money for the local hospice or children’s hospital or providing music for the annual Remembrance Parade. Not to forget also giving great pleasure to many people along the way. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ll also give you and your kids the opportunity of learning to play an instrument, (usually for no more than a couple of quid a week) AND they’ll probably lend you an instrument free of charge!
Let’s hope that Chelsea win the Premier League this week and that come next Monday, there may be a few spare column inches on the front page of the paper to hopefully announce that a certain Welsh brass band has become Champions of Europe!