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.

Returning to your roots and giving something back.

Going back to your roots, whether it is researching your family tree (as I have recently started doing), visiting your old school or driving past a former home, I always find to be a rather surreal experience. It doesn’t matter whether some or all of the people have long gone, there still remain some sights, sounds and even smells that that can trigger a myriad of deep-seated memories, which have lain dormant for countless number of years, transporting you in an instant back to a bygone age.

My “blast from the past” has been a return to both my spiritual and musical roots. One might argue that they are one and the same, as they are inextricably linked.

I was brought up in the small village of Llangyndeyrn in the Gwendraeth Valley – a very rural part of Carmarthenshire, Wales. So rural in fact, that the last bus into Carmarthen (5 miles away) and any semblance of civilisation, left the village at 5.05pm. Even worse was the last bus back left at 5.45pm, thus curtailing any potential fun and nighttime revelry, before it had even started!

Bearing in mind that the local Primary School only had a total – yes total! of 14 pupils at the time I attended it, one had to be fairly creative as a result, when it came to childhood “recreation” and “entertainment”.

My good luck and salvation was music. Both my parents were extremely musical with my Mum having sung in the London Philharmonic Chorus, under the great maestros such as Beecham, Boult and Barbirolli. Dad meanwhile was a keen singer too, having sung on the Eisteddfod circuit, with a certain degree of success too. In addition to this, he also played in the local brass band – Crwbin Silver Band (The difference between Silver and Brass I hear you ask? Silver was deemed posher, as it was a more valuable commodity than brass, therefore gave the band a tad more credibility).

So at the age of 7 and with a limited number of friends in the village to fulfil any meaningful sporting activities – cricket or rugby played by 3 people has its limitations you know! – and with a suitable number of trees climbed (and fallen out of), one looked to new horizons and took the obvious choice of learning to play an instrument in the local band. I was given a cornet to play. Like Father, like Son.

Lessons commenced, with my first teacher being my Uncle Stan, who also conducted the Band. Although I viewed him more as a grandfather figure, he was certainly no soft-touch and ensured that all who attended behaved and put in some hard work each rehearsal. Hymn tunes were the first melodies attempted once we had “mastered” enough notes and my first public performance was on the hymn “Hursley”, quickly followed by “Whitburn”.

Opening new bandroom

Stan Jones (pictured left) who was my very first brass teacher. He is pictured at the opening ceremony of the new band room in Crwbin.

Much practising and hard work followed over the next couple of years and this was eventually rewarded with “promotion” to the full senior Band. Now things got serious as rehearsals were held 3 times a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons if memory serves me correctly. Hard to imagine a Championship Section Band attempting that sort of commitment nowadays, not to mention a Fourth Section Band, but it certainly beat 1-a-side cricket and falling out of trees, so this was my pathway to a lifelong musical journey. No chance of getting bored now!

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Yours truly sat in front of the Bass drum. Stan and my Dad are either side of the Drum, with my Cousin Julian in the back row (6th from right).

So, back to the reason for the blog. Having started my musical journey some cough, splutter, ahem years ago – okay, okay it was 45 years ago, happy? It was a huge privilege, buzz and pleasure to be asked back to the Band as a guest conductor a couple of years ago, with the working relationship getting stronger especially over the last few months, as the previous Musical Director had moved on to pastures new.

The return to the old band room where it had all started did indeed reignite all those memories with a sensory overload to boot. Apart from many friends who are still members in the Band, my cousin Julian (Stan’s son) also still plays, so a stronger link from past to present you couldn’t wish for. Pictures of family and friends (and one or two of me) on the wall, as well as memorabilia from times past, the view of the Gwendraeth Valley down to my home village, not forgetting the “Welshness” of the surroundings, where Welsh is still the main language spoken most of the time. Something I rarely get a chance to do even though I still live in the Principality.

Crwbin 3

Crwbin Silver Band c. mid 1960’s. (Back row 4th from left is my cousin Julian, centre front row in the bow tie is my Uncle, Stan Jones (Bandmaster) and on the right hand end of the front row is my Father, Morley).

Imagine my delight then last weekend (03.08.19) when the Band were crowned 2nd Champions at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Llanrwst. This was a true return to my roots in every sense, allowing me the opportunity of giving back and thanking the organisation and some of the people who helped nurture me into the person that I am today.

Diolch Seindorf Arian Crwbin.

Thank you Crwbin Silver Band.

National Eisteddfod Llanrwst 03.08.19

Crwbin Silver Band – 2019 National Eisteddfod 2nd Section Champions

For more information about Andrew Jones and Music for You, please visit http://www.andrewjonesmusic.com  Contact andrew@andrewjonesmusic.com or 07973 869621.

Music for You – it’s just that!

 

What’s that funny looking thing sticking out of the end of your trumpet?

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I was at Llys Prês, a Cardiff-based instrument repair workshop the other day, and found myself taking a keen interest in the wide variety of tools that Denis Wedgewood had at his disposal. He patiently answered all my innocent (perhaps naïve) questions as to why that was a certain size or this was a particular shape and why he needed 3 or 4 very similar looking tools to complete a certain job, however I left the premises with no more skill; these things come under the heading of D.I.Y. – Don’t Involve Yourself, but certainly far more informed and enlightened as a result.

This then made me think about my own job and the tools that I have to use and I remembered Mrs. Wife asking me similar questions about playing the trumpet. One such question was regarding the “funny things you stick in the end of your trumpet” and what was the point of it all, so this has prompted me to explain a little to those of you who don’t know either.

These “things” are actually called mutes and their function is to change the tone and sound of the instrument, so as to create a variety of effects, moods and timbres to the music.

There are a multitude of mutes available on the market nowadays, with manufacturers constantly striving to develop unique, newer or improved products, so in the Blog I will cover the main mutes used by most trumpet players, however there will be many that I have left out due to the myriad out there.

The Straight mute – This is the most commonly used by players, but there are variations even for this type, as they can be made of metal, wood, fibre and plastic and have distinctly different sounds.

Straight Mute (Metal)

Straight Mutes (Metal) – The mute on the left is for a PiccoloTrumpet and the one on the right is a standard sized one.

Straight Mute (Plastic)

Straight Mute (Plastic)

Fibre Straight Mute

Straight Mute (Fibre)

The Cup mute – This as its name suggests, has a cup shape and makes the sound much mellower and softer. Some cup mutes have a moveable cup that slides closer to, or away from the bell of the trumpet, in order to change the tone slightly.

Cup Mute

Cup Mute

The Harmon mute – The Harmon mute is another mute where the tone can be altered, using a movable stem. The general tone is quite “nasal” and constricted and this is often used to portray a trumpet playing distantly. The further out you pull the stem, the darker the tone gets until you can actually remove it completely.

Harmon Mute (Stem in)

Harmon Mute (Stem in)

Harmon Mute (Stem removed)

Harmon Mute (Stem removed)

The Bucket Mute – This clips on to the bell of the instrument and is lined with a soft padding. This absorbs most of the brightness of tone, making the music sound muffled.

Bucket Mute

Bucket Mute

There are many more mutes, as I have already mentioned; such as the Plunger mute, the Solo-tone and a Practise Mute (designed to keep your neighbours happy when you start ripping through the Haydn Trumpet Concerto at 2.30 in the morning!), but I hope that this gives you an insight to these “things”, commonly known as mutes.

For more information about Andrew Jones and Music for You, please visit www.andrewjonesmusic.com