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A hymn to the brass band

I found an unusual point of agreement this week with a very serious, very intelligent professor of aeronautical engineering. Those of you who know me will see the unlikelihood of her finding common ground with a dilettante social scientist with a historical bent, and a fondness for oratory and prose over equation and mathematical substance. But we were brought together by her musical hobby and mine.

You see, I have a secret, a dark, sinister, shameful secret. I want to be a bass trombonist in a brass band.

Cue the Hovis music, but I have played Away In A Manger in the softly falling snow (well drizzle, but you get the drift) on Queen Street with my dad and grandfather, who still has a cornet at 91. My wife is a brass-bander. In fact, when it became public that we were courting, the first reaction of my late and sadly missed Hon. Uncle was to see which band she was registered with. I spend my Saturday mornings teaching primary children the coordination, social skills, confidence, teamwork and bladder control that comes from membership of that great, underrated, superb academy of life that is a brass band. Why?

The brass band is one of a few truly glorious British eccentricities, along with real beer, cricket, amateur rugby union and public meetings. Of course, my view’s coloured because I’m somebody with a taste for the florid in matters of the wardrobe. All of the great
pastimes have their sartorial glory, and banding is no different.

Brass bands dress superbly. It takes a particular type of pride to play a concert in the full mess kit of the Royal Equestrian Dental Corps, with gold braid, vivid jackets, red-striped trousers and bow ties. The nylon grey slacks of “walking out” uniforms are unfortunately becoming rarer, but exotically coloured blazers still abound. Since my comprehensive school abandoned proper uniform ageneration before I passed through its doors, playing in a band may be my only chance to wear a piped blazer.

But enough of me. Dear readers, let me quickly give you a potted overview: it’s time for Brass Band 101. The core of our British brass band is roughly a dozen cornets, a slack handful of tenor horns, a brace of baritones and euphoniums, and a quartet of large, low-pitched ones at the back (the instruments, rather than the players). A flugel horn adds mellowness, and a soprano cornet sits on top, wobbling above hymn tunes and hanging on a bit at the end after the rest of the band finishes. An assortment of percussionists thump tubs and tuned percussion with varying degrees of complexity. The prince of the brass band is the Euphonium, a tenor tuba by any other name which plays as sweet, but more impressively quickly (and usually sharper) than its identical and occasional orchestral twin. On that note I should remind you that, despite the images on most CD covers, we’re
not talking about French horns or trumpets, because they are orchestral instruments and therefore mentioning them is regarded by the brass-banding faithful as somewhat akin to a public display of incurable syphilis.

Of course, orchestral musicians sneer affectionately at brass bands. Urban legends abound. Nobody knows if it is actually true that the late and great Maurice Murphy, then at the pinnacle of brass playing and straddling the Olympian heights of the Star Wars soundtrack as the  principal trumpeter of the world’s finest orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, was introduced to a brass band concert as the “tonight’s soloist, the former principal cornet player of Black Dyke band.” But the story’s too good to miss. My own favourite is real,  for I recall the surprise of a tenor horn player that there existed an arrangement for orchestra of that well known brass band standard, Holst’s “The Planets”.

But brass bands are not musically second-rate, as most inhabitants of a metropolitan dining room would have you believe. The top bands attain a level of technical skill, proficiency, and in some cases musicality that easily matches the finest orchestral musicians in the  world. Professional brass band player is no longer an oxymoron. New contesting music, known as test pieces, are challenging, well written and a rare example of genuinely valuable modern music among in the vapid dross of John Rutter or the atonal rubbish with which BBC producers pollute concerts of real classical music in order to justify Radio Three’s support of half-a-dozen regional orchestras through the licence fee.

Banding is a competitive sport, of course. The twists of the banding season, complete with player transfers, are covered breathlessly by The Bandsman and the racier online sites. Anonymous posters on forums swap the secrets of mouthpieces. They compete by practising the same pieces for weeks, night after night, before coming together in “contests” that combine the sportsmanship of the Coliseum and the fraternal bonhomie of Medici Florence. The effort of bands various are weighed by The Adjudicator, a bloke in a tent with a whistle, a supply of biros, and a bucket of sand in case he’s caught short. The rankings are handed down on tablets of stone by the committee man. And JFK’s assassination attracts fewer conspiracy theories than the result of your average brass band contest.

The utter seriousness of contests, of course, is not to be confused with the lighter entertainment of a concert. In the latter it’s acceptable – even desirable – to add modernity and even populism, for who other than the most cold-hearted traditionalist could argue that the slow movement of the Mozart clarinet concerto is not inestimably improved with the addition of a slow, expressive, sensitive rock beat?

There are, of course, two types of bander. They overlap now, but the history of the movement has been a divide between the contesting and the converting.

William Booth and his Victorian band of Salvationist rebels had a lot to answer for. The Salvation Army quartet of William Fry took to the streets of London because the drunks and rowdies were shouting down the minister. I’ve long suspected many a cabinet secretary at the dispatch box has wished for a quartet at the testier moments of an all-night sitting. But as well as campaigning to raise the age of consent and save the souls of the East End from gin and vice, the Salvation Army introduced the brass band to us as an instrument of religious warfare. And they continue to turn out brass players by the hundred with heart to God, hand to man, and an ear for the second cornet line.

Like many former Salvationists, I entered the playing profession as an orchestral musician, with the liver to prove that a childhood spent learning about abstinence didn’t resonate so clearly when I was old enough to get served in the pub. My own career as an orchestral musician was a deservedly short-lived spell of notable mediocrity, but scratch the surface of the great brass sections of the world’s finest orchestras, and you’ll find players who learned their craft – and the ability to play an eight-bar phrase without breathing – on Sunday mornings from the hardbacked blue hymn tune books of the Salvation Army. There’s huge respect for the “Army” bands among the contesting banders, especially now the Berlin Wall of Salvationist Publishing & Supplies has fallen, allowing the musical gems of Eric Ball to grace the contesting platform. My Salvationist past – once having played on the platform with the International Staff Band – is a rarely spoken shibboleth that nevertheless allows grudging acceptance for a French
Horn Player [Audience: “boo”] into conversation of the contesting Bandsfolk.

Brassed Off wasn’t simply powerful because it was a story of love, betrayal, and hardship. It was the story of so much of our community in industrial Britain. It’s no coincidence that the bands lead the march at the Durham Miners’ Gala. Banding, for it is indeed a verb, has a great history and it is the history of Britain’s political left.

Know the history of brass banding, and you’re well on your way to knowing the history of modern Wales. The names of our bands are a roll call of civic pride in the Tredegar Town Band, industrial greatness in The Cory Band and the colliery bands of Lewis Merthyr and Markham, and of social reform long gone in the Tongwynlais Temperance Silver Band. Like our lodge banners and our miners’ institutes, the brass bands of South Wales are visible reminders to us of working people’s determination to raise their lives above a mere existence.

Across Britain the story of the banding is a recitation of legends of industrial greatness that live on today in their bands: Black Dyke Mills, Williams Fairey, the mighty Grimethorpe Colliery. These are names that smell of engine oil and coal smoke, that reasonate with the sounds of hard work and harder lives, and that tell stories of musical greatness despite the odds of industrial danger and the trauma of
Thatcher’s foul earth-scorching. Even the titles of the instrument makers speak to our heritage: Boosey & Hawkes ought to stand with Rolls-Royce and the John Brown Shipyard as one of the great names of British engineering.

It’s not just the bands’ history that makes them valuable, but also what they do for kids. When politicians speak of our national decline, they should visit in a bandroom on a weekday night and see generations together in harmony (ish) that give the lie to a “Broken Britain” narrative. Want to know how to engage NEETs and “feral youth?” You could do a damned sight worse than bringing back free instrumental music lessons for children and giving them the chance to play in a band.

One of my university tutors explained that he wished his child to learn humility, so he was going to take up the viola. I want him our son to learn about the country he grows up in, to appreciate the roots of the community in which he lives, and to understand for life what it is to be part of a disciplined, uniformed, loyal and comradely bunch of people (and ideally doing so without getting shot at).

So not for us the feline scratching of the trainee violinist, or the armies of identical be-pigtailed microflautists grinding their way through the nerves of the parental population of our middle class. He may or may not play rugby for Cardiff, go to university, have a family of his own one day. But our son’s definitely going to play the bass trombone.

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