Brass Banding: Music-making the British way9:00, 7th June 2017
The British brass band is a peculiarly UK phenomenon which arose during the 19th century. At the height of its popularity, it touched almost every town and village in the British Isles, from St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly to Lerwick in Shetland, a distance of some 750 miles as the cornet blows. This British invention is also a popular export, now embedded in many European countries, Australia, New Zealand and, most recently, parts of the United States.
One byproduct of brass bands’ musical activities was the sense of cohesion and identity they provided for local communities involved in the rapid change from agrarian to industrial society. What separates the British brass band from the bands which arose throughout Europe and its colonies at the same time, fulfilling virtually the same social functions, is their all-brass, saxhorn-inspired instrumentation, and their organisation into a national competitive league system of band contests. Regional contests feed into national leagues, with annual promotion and relegation based on contest results. The British were amongst the first to organise football in similar fashion, and although football continues to flourish, brass banding has dwindled as a national and local amateur passion, presently involving only some six or seven hundred bands and around 17,000 officially registered players.
In the 21st century it is my contention that those brass bands which have survived the de-industrialisation of Britain have a responsibility to prioritise this identification with their localities over the holy grail of competing, not only to survive, but also in order to distribute the beneficial effects of music more widely to a greater number of people.
Most brass bands that continue to flourish (Salvation Army Bands have similar instrumentation but a different ethos) are amateur, entrepreneurial and competitive. This last attribute has both positive and negative consequences: on the positive side, the technical levels of the best bands equate to the highest professional levels in the UK; and on the negative side the modern test-pieces that they play, with notable exceptions, seem to be aimed towards a fearsome technical examination of the best bands rather than musical communication of universal truths to a music-loving audience.
To me, a brass band is not a musical machine that churns out contest results, but a resource for everybody to enjoy. While it contests to hone its musical skills, the primary reason for its existence is to irrigate its locale with live music and help give its local community, young and old alike, some sense of rootedness and continuity in the face of the rapid changes, not all of them beneficial, which are transforming our lives on the back of the global digital revolution.
That is why I and my group, the Wallace Collection, are working with the band with which I began playing at the age of seven, Tullis Russell Mills, to bring a new sort of brass band performance to life at the East Neuk Festival, at the invitation of its artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown. Returning to our agrarian roots, we will perform in a huge barn in Anstruther. Our performance of De Profundis will involve more than 50 musicians of all ages from Tullis Russell’s intermediate and senior bands in a devised piece built on plainchant and evocations of Fife’s coal mining past. A brass band marathon in different localities along the Fife coast will also take place during the course of the day, and the whole area will be enlivened by joyful noise.
That is why I will also be working with the inspired individuals who run the Junior Band to attract beginners to come and give music a chance to transform their lives. Although there are bright spots in our music education systems across the UK, they are endangered by the creeping darkness of the current UK, Welsh and Northern Ireland’s governments’ narrow anti-arts and humanities education policies (Scotland and the Republic of Ireland are both in a more enlightened place). There are few better places to have your initial musical experience than a brass band. Music played on a brass band is as valid in the 21st century as it ever was. Brass bands develop creativity through music-making, and as a prominent feature of the life of our Island nations, deserve far greater attention than they currently receive.
John Wallace CBE is a trumpeter, educationalist, composer, founder of the Wallace Collection and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments and The Trumpet. De Profundis is performed at The Bowhouse, Anstruther at the East Neuk Festival on 1 July at 6pm. Further info and booking: www.eastneukfestival.com