A little background

This blog is about my impressions of the brass band world having returned to it after a gap of nearly four decades. I played in several brass bands back in the 70’s but then had a break until 2016, by which time I had been a professional musician, composer, producer and music publisher in a career spanning four decades.

Back in 1976 I was an ambitious young musician. I’d recently had the honour of playing the opening notes of the first ever Schools Prom in the Royal Albert Hall and I was about to do my first gig with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

My home town of High Wycombe had a fantastic music centre with a concert band, orchestra, big band and any number of chamber groups and choirs, and the fact that the music profession is populated with many of its alumni speaks volumes for the quality of the music education we received back then. I was playing euphonium in the concert band, bass trombone in the orchestra and big band, singing in a choir and I had just heard that I’d passed the audition for the Bucks County Youth Orchestra on tuba.

At that time I also had the pleasure of playing with a number of brass bands in the region: Amersham Band (then a 4th section band and far removed from the Championship outfit they are today), West Wycombe Band and the Ercolani Band (attached to the furniture factory of the same name) were regular names in my diary.

But my time in NYJO and my love affair with big bands took me in other directions and I didn’t play with a brass band again until 2016 — that’s a gap of nearly 40 years!

So, what happened? Well, NYJO was a great training ground for professional musicians and, after I graduated from University in 1981 (where I majored in composition and orchestration), I went straight into the ranks of those who got paid for blowing down a piece of bent metal!

I played trombone for a living for most of my 20’s before the lure of composing and producing took me in other directions, writing and producing music for TV, adverts and the occasional film.

I also became a music producer, overseeing recordings for many bodies, from corporate TV companies such as ITV and BBC to groups such as Sir Simon Rattle’s Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the ABRSM, for whom I was Exec Producer of all piano recordings for over a decade.

During the 90’s I gave up playing entirely and only came back to it when Paul Fisher invited me to join Amersham Band — then newly promoted to the 2nd section — in 2016. For those of you who may not know, Paul is a marvellously energetic and vibrant Musical Director who has taken Amersham Band from the 4th section to the Championship in record time!

So, I left the brass band world as a callow young musician but returned to it decades later as an experienced composer, producer and music publisher who had made a good living in the music industry for over three decades.

A different perspective

As a returning musician I enjoyed playing with Amersham Band, but the playing wasn’t the big ‘draw’ for me. I wanted to make my mark as a composer. By 2016 I was pretty well known in classical music circles. I had just contributed four orchestrations to a Decca CD that went straight into the classical charts at no.1 and my album The Soul Rests Eternal, for cello and orchestra featuring Caroline Dale and the English Chamber Orchestra, had just been named ‘Great British Discovery’ on Classic FM. I’d recently signed a global publishing deal with Edition Peters and I was heavily involved in composing two new pieces for musical theatre.

So, things were reasonably good. Yet, in terms of brass band composing I was a complete nobody — a totally unknown commodity. I had to start from the ground floor and try to win people over with the quality of my music. I had to earn my spurs all over again and it was like being right back at the beginning of my career!

For me, the challenge was to understand the direction of travel for the new repertoire that brass bands were playing, and to see if I could make a useful contribution. I was well prepared for this in one sense: during the 90’s I had been Managing Editor of the Music Sales Group, which owns (among many other companies) Chester Music and Novello & Co.

So, I found myself overseeing the editing and production of scores by John McCabe — who became a good friend — and Philip Wilby, whom I regard to this day as a genius. So, not a bad schooling!

I determined that it would be a huge mistake simply to churn out more pieces that sound like Philip Sparke or James Curnow — two of the most successful composers for band — and I decided that, come what may, I had to plough my own furrow.

So Far So Good

And so it was that I started composing for brass band in earnest in 2017. I worked hard at creating a musical language that I hope will become recognisably my own — a combination of jazz influences (particularly in my harmonic language) and the best of the contemporary composing techniques I had studied as a young composer at university allied to a desire to create memorable melodies that players would enjoy playing.

My attempts to break into the world of composing for brass band have met with nothing but support and encouragement from the banding world, and I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have found such a receptive community to write music for.

I am honoured to have premieres of new pieces with Foden’s, Steven Mead and Brighouse & Rastrick this summer, and I was delighted to be asked by Carole Crompton and Steven Mead to compose a new piece for the Bolsover International Brass Band Summer School. I’ve recently been contacted by Philip Harper of Cory Band, who says they would like to try out some of my music — something I am particularly excited about. I know most composers would give their right arm for such opportunities, so, please believe me, I am very, very appreciative of just what a privilege it is for such an unknown composer to have his music so readily accepted. 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Having armed you with enough information about my own background I’d like to return to the main theme of this blog. I was fascinated to see what had changed in the brass band world in the thirty-odd years I’d been away from it and, perhaps more interestingly, what had not. So here, for whatever they are worth, are my thoughts on the state of the brass band world as I see it. This is just my personal view, of course, though I do think my career to date does give me a broad perspective from which to make these observations.

One of the highlights of my week — as an avid rugby fanatic — is a podcast called ‘The Rugby Pod’ in which Andy Goode (former Wasps, Leicester & England fly-half) gives his summary of the state of the game in a segment called ‘The Goode (get it?!), The Bad and The Ugly‘. So, as an homage to the Rugby Pod, here is my own personal GBU for the brass band world. But I’m adding a new section at the end: The Curate’s Egg. 

The Good

The Good — The Standard of Musicianship

The standard of musicianship and technical playing ability is every bit as high in the very best bands as it is in the top orchestras I sometimes get to work with. I can personally vouch for this, as I have had the pleasure of working with The LSO, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, The English Chamber Orchestra, The Aurora Orchestra and The BBC Concert Orchestra. These are all outstanding ensembles, but I can also personally attest to the playing standard of bands like Cory, Brighouse & Rastrick, Foden’s, Black Dyke, Grimethorpe and so on (forgive me if I missed your favourite band — space is limited). At this year’s Brass Band Festival at the RNCM I witnessed a superhuman effort by the Fairey Band under MD Garry Cutt when they performed a new piece that was frankly unplayable; yet somehow they managed it. Special mention to Kevin Crockford who should send all his future dental bills to the composer!

The Good — The Standard of Conductors

I had an interesting conversation once with a leading musician on a recording session I was conducting. He had played with the Philharmonia Orchestra for over thirty years and had recently taken up a job as a section leader at the Royal Opera House. He was very kindly saying some nice things about my conducting and that led us into a conversation about conductors he had worked with — which was basically every major maestro on the planet. He shocked me by saying that in all his years there were no more than five conductors who commanded his respect. “The rest” he said, “were utter charlatans who wouldn’t know a downbeat if it poked them in the eye!”

When I challenged him and said that I had personally witnessed electrifying performances under some of these so-called ‘charlatans’, he agreed. “That’s because we were all on the edge of our seats crapping ourselves as to where it would all fall apart! It’s just a question of listening like crazy and watching the leader’s bow — no wonder it sounded exciting!”

Last year at the Proms some friends of mine were playing with a leading London orchestra under a very famous conductor. I watched him closely and couldn’t follow anything he was doing — the piece was a complex modern piece with many time signature changes and tempo changes. I knew the piece well, yet I was baffled by his gestures. I texted one of my friends from the orchestra in the interval and asked her “how did you find the conductor in that piece?” and she texted straight back saying “I closed my eyes for most of it and used my ears. Every time I opened my eyes he was still stirring his soup!”

I offer these little anecdotes by illustration of my next point, which is to stress the unbelievably high level of conducting and musical direction (these are NOT the same thing) that most top brass bands get. There are so many truly great conductors out there: musicians who have been there, done it and got the T-shirt. So, when they speak they do so with the absolute authority of one who can really play, and who understands the issues for the players.

The first time I worked under the baton of Mike Fowles I was blown away by the economy of his gestures  and the very clear impression that every movement, however small or subtle, means something and is geared towards getting the best out of the band. When I later got the unexpected pleasure of playing with Foden’s under the baton of Russell Gray the same was true, though his style is perhaps more lyrical and expansive.

More recently I had the absolute pleasure of working with Stephen Cobb. I was playing principal euphonium and he berated me for playing too loudly! I was used to being asked for “more, more, more”, but he forced me to play about two dynamic levels below what I normally did and the effect was electrifying. Suddenly I had all the air I needed to make real tonal changes in my playing. At last I had the ammunition to shape phrases in the way I wanted to. It was a very exciting moment for me and I thank him to this day.

There are so many fine conductors out there — Philip Harper springs to mind, as do Garry Cutt, Ray Farr and a whole host of Championship band conductors. There really aren’t any bad ones and I don’t think that any band worth their salt would put up with a duff conductor.

At this point I should add a word about two of my dearest friends in the business: Duncan Stubbs and Stephen Bell. Duncan was Director of Music for the RAF for many years and he came to Amersham Band a few times and it’s fair to say his effect on the band was transformative. He is quite simply one of the finest conductors I have had the pleasure of working with. If your band needs a shot in the arm, or a change of perspective, give Duncan a call. He is brilliant. Stephen Bell is mainly an orchestral and choral conductor, but again he is a fine musician. I know he is working with GUS now and I’d warmly recommend him. He really knows his stuff.

The Good — The Camaraderie

The bonds of friendship in the banding world go deep. I regularly see top players turning out for other bands, and the banter on social media is exceptional. It’s great to do a Whit Friday and see bands of all standards mixing it come rain or shine — mostly rain!  And the regionals are a whole sub-culture all of their own, with friendship and rivalry rubbing along quite comfortably. Some of the friendships I’ve made since returning to banding — whether with Amersham Band or, more recently with my new band, Staines Brass —  feel very permanent.

The Good — Excellent New Music

There is no doubt that some of our finest composers are writing for brass band. Philip Wilby, Peter Graham, Paul Mealor, Judith Bingham, Liz Lane, Paul Lovatt-Cooper, and my own personal favourite, Jonathan Bates (who is quietly moving into a class of his own with each new piece) are all making telling contributions. And there are many more that space prevents me from mentioning.

The Bad

I offer these thoughts under the heading ‘bad’ in a spirit of affection and from a standpoint of being a supporter of banding, so please don’t take offence — and by all means post a reply to me if you have a contradictory viewpoint.

The Bad — Cultural relevance

Are we, as a movement, really doing our best to break out of what we might call the ‘brass band bubble’? Whilst not denying the cultural relevance of brass banding in the same way that we would acknowledge the importance of, say, Morris Dancing, it’s difficult to argue that brass band music is as culturally relevant as mainstream classical music, with its centuries of tradition and global reach. The adherence to old fashioned uniforms, the limited sonic palette of the ensemble, and the insistence on playing anachronistic music (in the main), are the hallmarks of a musical genre that, one could argue, is stuck in the past.

Tradition is important, and I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water, but I do feel, when I hear bands complain at the lack of ticket sales for their latest concert, that perhaps they could do more to make themselves more popular, or perhaps the word is ‘relevant’. How can we be culturally relevant — by which I mean having a real connection to our communities and, by extension, to our potential audiences — if we are stuck in a past that simply doesn’t resonate with the wider community?

How many bands really try to engage with the Arts scene in their area? Have you considered sharing a concert with the local symphony orchestra. or choir so as to reach a wider and different audience? Have you tried to get your music played on your local radio station? 

Russell Grant

In talking to my good friend Russell Grant recently I discovered that he spent part of his childhood in Staines and has fond memories of the brass band. So I put them in touch with each other and now Russell has become an ambassador for, and keen supporter of, the band. Since his time on Strictly Come Dancing Russell’s massive popularity with the public has soared. Whenever I’m with him in public he is constantly approached by adoring fans, and  his support and advocacy can only help Staines Brass to reach a higher profile.

Question: Why do we still take to the stage looking like a convention of bus conductors? On the other hand, the uniforms of brass bands are part of our cultural heritage, and perhaps should be celebrated just as much as the penguin suits of the classical orchestras. Maybe so, but many brass band uniforms look like they haven’t been updated since the 1870s! And boy, are they uncomfortable to wear when the temperature rises!

The Ugly

And so to the ugly which, in my book, means something that really needs fixing. There is really only one thing, but I’m afraid it is a contentious subject.

The Ugly — Diversity: a step too far?

It remains the case that there are far too few non-white faces in the brass band movement. Why is that? When I work with orchestras, choirs and — especially — jazz groups there are plenty of representatives from across the cultural spectrum. I suspect the answer lies in the traditional roots of the brass band movement, from the working class, the temperance movement and the Salvation Army. But we are in the 21stcentury now and our movement is suffering with falling numbers. Bands are closing down in record numbers because of a dearth of young players coming through. At a time when school music tuition is under pressure like never before, perhaps the banding movement could reach out to the wider, more racially diverse parts of the population and spread the message that banding is good for you, and it’s fun.

The Curate’s Egg

Repertoire choices and programming

Why do we persist with musical styles that are so mixed up that they give schizophrenia a good name?! I would say the programming of most brass band concerts I’ve experienced is at best confused and at worst, downright perverse. This is where the Musical Director is so important. Call me narrow minded if you like, but I don’t think it’s a very credible or satisfying musical experience to have ‘We Will Rock You‘ followed by ‘Nimrod‘, followed by some awful impersonation of big band swing.

Here I’m going to take a small diversion to address the elephant in the room: in my experience most brass bands can’t swing — hell, they barely dangle!

I’ve heard some top Championship bands do swing very well, but for the most part…

What I say is,”let big bands be big bands and let brass bands be brass bands” — end of!

Well, it felt good to get that off my chest!

But back to my main topic in this section — programming & repertoire. The most satisfying concerts I’ve attended have been ones in which there is a clear theme and strain of thought that takes the audience on a journey, with a consistency of musical styles. Like a good book, a good concert should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it should speak in a consistent language all the way through. I would argue for some uniformity of sonic references and musical styles. If your concert is made up of what my old professor used to call ‘light music’ and perennial lollipops, then tell the audience that this is a light, fun concert. If, on the other hand, your concert features more serious-minded pieces, perhaps with a premiere of a new piece and a smattering of transcriptions from the classics along with some Sparke and Curnow, then package your publicity and messaging accordingly.

By trying to cover all bases — all the time — and trying to appeal to every conceivable type of audience I believe we are guilty of falling between several stools and falling flat on our faces!

In over 40 years in the industry I don’t know of any other type of musical ensemble (orchestra, choir, jazz band) that shows such a wilful disregard of stylistic consistency. I’m sure this is one aspect of the brass band world that limits our appeal to the wider audiences we would all love to have.

Ask yourself this question: how many people would you have in your audience if you didn’t have the support of that fairly narrow circle of friends and family, who routinely turn out to support your efforts?

Although there is a lot of what my old professor used to call ‘light music’ in brass band repertoire, there is also a lot of well composed, intellectually rigorous and beautifully crafted music using many of the extended compositional techniques to be found in more mainstream new ‘classical’ music.

Despite the challenges I’ve mentioned there are so many good things happening in the brass band world it would be churlish not to end on a positive note.

Excellent new music coupled with intellectual credibility

As I mentioned earlier, we have many composers writing some wonderful new music. Some composers cross over from contemporary classical to brass band with great facility — think Judith Bingham, Liz Lane and Philip Wilby — while composers like Peter Graham, Philip Sparke and James Curnow (to name but three) have been pushing the envelope for years.

Many of our leading musical directors and composers have real intellectual credibility; search their biographies and you’ll find a plethora of academic qualifications at the highest level, which is a testament to how seriously the tertiary educational world takes them: Professor David King, Professor Roger Webster, Dr. David Thornton, Professor Nicholas Childs, Professor Steven Mead, Dr. Liz Lane, Dr. Peter Graham, Professor Philip Wilby, Professor Paul Mealor  etc.

The Royal Northern College of Music is a powerhouse of brass band music that has academic bona fides to match any conservatoire in the UK.

With regard to programming and repertoire selection, Philip Harper at Cory is a deep thinker on the subject, and tours the country giving compelling presentations to Musical Directors of bands from all sections. Hopefully Philip’s excellent work in this area will have a ‘trickle down’ effect and we’ll begin to see the same level of thought and preparation that’s typical of a Cory concert being shown by the Associated Fettlers and Warp & Weft Adjusters Silver Band?

And if you don’t know who they are, have a look at this.