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.

A strange coincidence or perhaps something more?

It’s curious how certain occasions can throw up the most amazing coincidences, without anyone trying or even most people realising what has taken place. Some call it serendipity and others would say that a “higher-being” was working their “magic”, but whatever your thoughts, I hope you find this little anecdote an interesting read.

As many of my regular blog readers will know, I’m a member of the Regimental Band of The Royal Welsh and for part of our Annual Camp this year, we were honoured to be invited to attend the 100th Anniversary Commemoration Service of the Battle of Passchendaele, held  at the Welsh Memorial in the small village of Langemarck in Belgium.

The Welsh Memorial at Pilckem Ridge, Langemarck in Belgium

The guests of honour included His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones, Belgian and Flanders politicians, high-profile Military representatives, plus members of the Armed Forces, Comrades and Veterans Associations and over a thousand members of the public, who had made the journey, many to honour fallen relatives.

Running in parallel with this Commemoration was the unveiling of a memorial stone to the Welsh language poet Private Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known as Hedd Wyn. He served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was killed in action on the 31st of July 1917 at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Prior to leaving home for action on the Front, Hedd Wyn had submitted a poem (under the pseudonym of “Fleur de Lis”) to the Chair Competition at the National Eisteddfod held that year in Birkenhead.

Royal Welsh Fusiliers Cap Badge 

When it was announced at the Chairing Ceremony that Hedd Wyn was the winning poet, but that he was not present to be acknowledged and honoured due to being killed in action, the Chair (ironically designed by a Belgian!) was draped in black cloth and was dubbed as “Cadair Ddu Penbedw” or “The Black Chair of Birkenhead”.

Despite his absence, the winning Bard was accorded the full honours and adulation that the winner is normally given, with tributes offered in verse, song and dance.

Now to the coincidence of my visit with the Band. The winning Bard is honoured with a rendition of the song “Rhyfelgyrch Capten Morgan”  or “Captain Morgan’s March” (sometimes known as “Men of Glamorgan”), sung by a member of The Gorsedd or Assembly of Druids. It just so happened, that the March (“The Welshman”) that the Regimental Band played, to lead the procession to the Monument that day, contained an excerpt of that very same tune!

As a young lad, I “cut my musical teeth” competing in numerous eisteddfodau all over Wales and whilst attending, heard this song performed on many, many occasions. Marching past the Hedd Wyn Memorial playing this tune, the connection and meaning was quite powerful to say the least!

Shan Cothi sings “Rhyfelgyrch Capten Morgan” at the National Eisteddfod Chairing Ceremony.

Hedd Wyn never got to hear that musical tribute in his honour back in 1917, but 100 years later, in a small village in Belgium, he was afforded that recognition and one hopes that he would have approved that we, as his own compatriots were the ones to deliver it!

The Memorial Stone at Pilckem Ridge