The Blaina Band based near Brynmawr was formed in 1817 and it was claimed to be the first band in Britain to become ‘all brass’. In the intervening 203 years, the brass band movement in Wales has successfully produced some of the movement’s best and most successful players, conductors, ensembles, educators and teachers, composers and arrangers, administrators and commentators.
Welsh banding is firmly on the international contesting map
Names such as; David, Nicholas and Robert Childs, the Cyfarthfa Band, the Cory Band led by Philip Harper, T.J. Powell, Bram Gay and Philip Morris, Iwan Fox and 4barsrest are just a handful of names recognised not only within the Principality, but across the world. These are luminaries who have successfully put Wales on the “musical map”, and through their work have ensured that the movement has grown and flourished.
In 2013 no less than 4 Welsh bands were crowned National Champions of Great Britain in all but the Third Section. This was a truly remarkable achievement for such a small nation; however these successes, along with significant contest successes by Tredegar and the No.1 World-ranked Cory Band before and since, have masked the underlying decline of fortunes for Welsh banding at grass-roots level.
Demise of brass banding in Wales
With the demise of music in education due to austerity and the reduction of funding for the Arts in general, and with music services having to introduce charging for instrumental tuition in schools, the number of young player either joining, or being retained in the movement has reached extremely worrying numbers. More than ever, bands are relying on a small group of (mainly unpaid) volunteers, who are struggling to keep some semblance of a production line going in terms of young players. Bands in all sections are struggling to fill seats, with the pool of players ever-diminishing.
The administration and governance of banding in Wales, has to date lain with the respective BB Associations in West Wales, South East Wales and North Wales, with additional tiers added for the Welsh Regional Contest and the National Eisteddfod. These however, (with isolated exceptions) have almost exclusively existed in order to organise and oversee competitive banding in the Principality, with no clear structure or pathway mapped out to develop and nurture new projects and initiatives to benefit the movement in general.
Lack of a single unified voice to benefit from Arts Council Funding
Thus far, funding for any new projects has always been as a result of the diligence and initiative of hard-working individuals who have secured money from a variety of sources, usually benefiting an individual band, or small cluster of bands. Arts Council Wales have not been receptive to approaches for such funding, as the contesting tag has always been inextricably linked with most of the ideas presented and more importantly, the movement does not have a single unified voice to make those representations in the first place.
One representative body for Welsh banding
Surely the time has now come, before it is too late, to introduce a model similar to the Brass Band England organisation and have one representative body, speaking on behalf of the interests of ALL brass bands in Wales. This organisation would oversee ALL Youth and Senior Bands, ALL Competitive and non-competitive Bands and its primary function would be to nurture and encourage some “joined up thinking” across a wide range of stakeholders, including;
- All Bands
- Arts Bodies and Administrators i.e. Arts Council Wales, the 3 Welsh Brass Band Associations, Tŷ Cerdd
- Music Services and Hubs
- Schools and Colleges (including Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama)
- Peripatetic teachers
- Composers & arrangers
- Industry suppliers – i.e. instrument manufacturers, repairers, insurance providers, publishers
- Arts and Concert venues
- Influencers i.e. 4barsrest, Brass Band World, British Bandsman & others
- Arts Festivals
- Other Arts organisations e.g. Choirs, Folk Music, Theatre, Dance
These stakeholders could all contribute their knowledge and expertise and assist in the following areas:
- Administration – help with running a Band on a day-to-day basis, access to template documentation, running a library, contracts for engagements
- Governance – e.g. ensuring bands had a proper Constitution, Safeguarding & GDPR policies in place, advice on DBS checks, returns to the Charities Commission, Health & Safety and Risk Assessments
- Funding advice – where to access funding, assistance with completing applications
- Finances – accessing the best deals for; insurances (such as Public Liability or instruments), utilities, travel and accommodation
- Artistic and Creative Development – Encouraging collaborative work amongst bands, new commissions, workshops
- Education – developing new conductors and teachers, sharing good practise, collaborative projects
The new organisation would NOT be involved with;
- The organising or promoting of any competitions
Many of these suggestions are not new ideas and this concept has been attempted once before, when Brass Band Forum Wales was launched in 2012. Sadly it did not achieve the traction and impact that was hoped for, however nearly 8 years down the line, the banding movement is in a much more precarious position and things needs to be revisited – and fast!
The need to promote Welsh banding interests
This is also not an attempt to reinvent the wheel and for sure, Brass Bands England fulfils many of the above issues, indeed there is no good reason why Welsh bands shouldn’t be encouraged to join BBE, and make use of many of the resources already available. BBE however doesn’t promote Welsh banding interests specifically. We need an organisation to be run by Welsh banding for Welsh banding.
Until the Welsh banding movement has one unified voice to represent the interests and promote the movement for ALL participants, I fear that the very existence and future of our wonderful movement is in grave jeopardy.
I have no mandate from any banding organisation to initiate or promote this venture, just a deep love and passion for a form of music-making which has given me so many opportunities and experiences over the last 40+ years and sincerely wish to see it flourish and bring the same joy to others for many years to come.
If you agree or have thoughts to add to this letter, please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07973 869621 and together, see if we can formulate a plan of action for the good of Welsh banding.
4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the brass band movement in Wales”
As you say, the lack of young musicians stems from the lack of funding for Arts in general in schools today. The Welsh nation was built around its close musical roots in choirs and musical groups. The lack of funding and interest from teachers and support from the bodies like Gwent Music, who trained so many young musicians when I was a young bandsman has really hit the number of brass players in our schools. My greatest friends are from banding, my best times have all been linked to banding and the joy I get from music is unmatched. Our movement needs a voice and we need it fast!!
Thanks for reading the Blog and for your thoughts. I’m with you most of the way, however not sure that I entirely agree with your view that there is a lack of interest and support from teachers, however this may well be your personal experience and that is very sad if indeed this is true.
Funding is very much the root problem, however there needs to be more joined up thinking and discussion, with a willingness to forget “tribal” differences and pull together for the greater good.
We shall see in due course whether there is a willingness to embrace change, or not!
It would be useful to speak with Trac Cymru in Cardiff who promote Welsh folk music.
Thanks for reading my Blog and for your suggestion. Worth looking at for future collaborations!