An Open Letter to the brass band movement in Wales

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

Ebbw Valley Brass – 2013 National Champions (Section 4)

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
  • Conductors
  • 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
  • Educators
  • 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 andrew@andrewjonesmusic.com or call 07973 869621 and together, see if we can formulate a plan of action for the good of Welsh banding.

Are brass bands guilty of wanting something for nothing?

I’m not sure whether I’m going to regret “sticking my head above the parapet” here or not, but here goes.

Once again, the British brass band movement is mobilised into social media action, with the announcement of the 2018 Regional test-pieces.

For months, there has been speculation, rumours and whispers regarding the choices of the works that all bands will have to tackle at their respective Area Contests, for the right to represent their Region in the National Finals in Cheltenham and the Royal Albert Hall next year. The waiting is finally over and the decisions of the “wise men” on the Music Panel representing Kapitol Promotions have been announced.

Now let battle commence!

There will now follow some fairly intense moaning, along the lines of “that piece is rubbish”, “that’s way too hard”, “this piece doesn’t have a trombone solo” etc. If we listened to some of the so-called “experts” on Facebook, we’d be having the Derek Bourgeois “Concerto Grosso” for 2nd Section and Philip Wilby’s “Paganini Variations” in the 3rd! You can’t please everyone that’s for sure, but what irks me more than anything – now it’s time for my whinge! – are the complaints about the cost of purchasing the chosen pieces of music.

Paganini Variations by Philip Wilby

In a brass band, there are usually 28 players if all positions are covered and often more. Given that some of the test-pieces chosen are new works and that all bands will need to purchase their respective piece, we are looking at an average cost of say £75.00 – maybe more, maybe less. This works out at less than £3.00 per player (or less than a pint of beer or glass of wine, depending on where you drink), for a piece of music that will probably go out on the stands either this month or at the latest next month, and potentially get used, on and off, week in week out for the next 4-5 months.

Many will respond, and rightly so, that there are numerous printing mistakes found in a lot of these pieces, however this can’t be applied to all new publications and the banding community are quick to forget about the indiscriminate amount of photocopying that goes on during the rest of the year, robbing the publishers and composers/arrangers of any income they are rightly entitled to receive!

Whilst I freely admit that brass bands are genuinely struggling, both with membership and financial issues, the “something for nothing” culture is killing the movement. Players will moan about venues, entry fees, admission prices, adjudicators and anything else that you can think of, but compared to other hobbies and pastimes, we invest very little, other than time and effort. Most players enjoy the benefits of a free instrument (worth usually in excess of £2,000), a uniform, tuition, rehearsal facilities and much, much more. Compare this to something like golf – would you have a free set of clubs, a round of golf and coaching all for nothing? Unlikely and their membership/subscription rates and green fees are eye-watering in comparison!

Granted many band players pay monthly contributions and do fund-raising activities throughout the year, but that has always been the case and that will be a necessary part of their organisation’s survival, but we (as a movement) are on a very slippery slope if we think that £3.00-4.00 per person is an excessive amount to invest in our primary hobby.

To clarify and give the blog some perspective, I have been involved in brass banding since the age of 7 and have done my share at all levels, paying weekly contributions, missing out on paid work to go to rehearsals and contests, done my hours tidying up the bandroom, cleaning toilets and sorting out the library as well as playing Christmas Carols on a freezing cold December night. No, I don’t want a medal or a pat on the back, but just that you realise I’ve been there and done it and not preaching from an ivory tower, about something I have no experience of.

Do you agree or am I missing the point? Send me your thoughts in the comments section below.

Nationals Trophy Pic

The National Championship Trophy, which will be the spoils for the victor at the Royal Albert Hall in October.

 

Why, in the world of music, does mediocrity win over genuine talent and skill?

Its been a while since I last wrote a blog, but I’ve been inspired to put cursor to screen having witnessed music-making of the very highest order this week. Both events were polar opposites, but the levels of skill and talent on display were never in question.

First up was my brass band  “Fest” watching the live streaming of the European Brass Band Championships from Oostende, where 12 of Europe’s finest (including the Cory and Tredegar Bands from Wales and Brighouse & Rastrick Band representing England) were vying for the coveted title.

Tredegar Town Band, 2002 European Brass Band Championships, Belgium

The  24 performances – each Band performed a set-work (Kevin Houben’s “Where Angles Fly”) plus an own-choice work – over the 2 days was quite frankly astounding. I’ve been privileged to have performed at the Europeans on 8 different occasions and the standard of playing since I first appeared in 1990 has risen year on year, to a point where you’d be hard-pressed to say that these weren’t professional ensembles.

Cory Band, 2015 European Brass Band Championships, Germany

Wales once again were at the forefront come results time, with Cory (defending Champions) being placed third and Tredegar coming in fifth. The winning Band this year were Eikanger-Bjorsvik from Norway, led by their inspirational conductor Ingar Heine Bergby, who won following a near 30 year gap since the last time they lifted the trophy. Their stunning own-choice performance of “Fraternity” by Thierry  Deleruyelle will live long in the memory.

Following the Europeans, my next source of inspiration was at Cardiff’s St. David’s Hall, where the wonderful, zany, jaw-dropping, breath-taking etc. etc. “gentlemen” of Mnozil Brass wowed the audience with the mastery of their art. Musicality, power of recall – playing everything from memory, humour, timing, stamina (where do they develop that staying power?), diversity, subtlety and innuendo and so much more. A sheer joy to hear and watch, leaving the audience shell-shocked and spellbound in equal measure. Superlatives are often over-used, but each one I have used was hugely earned and justified.

So, the point of today’s blog is, why do the general public get pawned off with rubbish on television and radio and the publicity given in column inches in the press/social media, when there is so much REAL talent out there? Admittedly, the European Brass Band Championships is very much a niche market, but when Cory Band last year (2016) won the “Grand Slam” of European, National, British Open and Brass in Concert titles (an amazing achievement), they barely made a mention in the local paper. Eikanger’s win at the Euro’s last weekend earned them a massive welcome reception at the airport on their return, with TV and media crews in attendance! Says a lot for what we think of our Champions doesn’t it?

Mnozil however, is an ensemble that could easily be featured on mainstream TV, or at very least on one of the Arts-focused stations. But no, we are subjected to performing dogs or yet another 11-year-old bashing out a Celine Dion hit and being told she has “amazing talent” and will go far etc. etc.

As “defenders of the faith”, perhaps we need to be more pro-active in demanding that the TV companies and media do cater for the more discerning audience and not settle for the rubbish that is often forced down our throats.

A small ray of sunshine in this gloom of mine, was Cory’s invitation to appear on ITV’s ‘Tonight at the London Palladium’ programme hosted by entertainment star Bradley Walsh.

Their performance was recorded live in front of a packed audience of 2,200 people and subsequently broadcast to an estimated audience of over 5 million people last night (03.05.17). Perhaps this is a significant step towards redressing the balance and highlighting the TRUE talent that can and should be presented to audiences the world over.

Here endeth the Lesson!

Stomvi Piccolo Trumpet