A little over three years ago, the few remaining members of Skipton Brass were considering sounding the Last Post. Now with the traditional music of the coal mines enjoying a revival, Yvette Huddleston finds the band is thriving again.
SKIPTON Brass has seen some ups and downs in its 140-year history but just three years ago the final curtain looked set to fall. “It would have been an awful shame if the band had disappeared – it would have been a catastrophe and nobody would have noticed,” says musical director Adrian Lowes.
Now back up to strength with a number of local performances under its belt – including playing in Skipton town centre for the Tour de France’s Grand Départ – the band is looking for a sponsor. However, it was a very different story in 2011 when there were only a handful of players rehearsing in the crypt of a local church. They were almost at the point of deciding to disband.
“I had played with them before and I realised they were in a bit of a dire situation,” says Lowes. “I never want to see the band in that position again. When I was much younger I was in the National Youth Band but it got to a point where I couldn’t keep doing it because of work commitments. Now I want to give something back to the banding movement.”
Lowes, who has played the euphonium for 22 years, was invited to become Skipton Brass’s musical director – and the band hasn’t looked back since. “It was really just a case of motivating the players and getting them to enjoy what they do,” he says modestly. “As other people popped down to see us we outgrew the crypt and we moved to Aireville School to rehearse. We are still growing and we want to continue to grow. Anybody is welcome to come and play and learn – the only requirement is that they have to enjoy the music, not just competing.”
Starting out in the late 19th century as Jack Guy’s Skipton Mission Band, as a temperance organisation, the band is now thought to be Skipton’s oldest secular musical organisation. Reformed after the First World War as Skipton Prize Band, it enjoyed a considerable amount of competition success during the 1920s and 30s and by forming close connections with local schools in the 1970s it produced a thriving youth and senior band and rose to Championship Section status between 1977 and 1989.
One of the current players who contributed to that success is solo cornet Wilbur Paley. The longest-serving member of the band, he has played with Skipton Brass on and off for more than 60 years.
“I first joined in 1953 when I was 12 – it was called Skipton Prize Band then and it was a reasonable size at that time,” he says. “I played with them until I went off to college where I played with Leeds City Band. I came back after three years but I was playing rugby at the time which was more of an interest to me so I didn’t play for a while. Then I came back in 1971 and have been with the band more or less ever since.
“We are a bit out on a limb in Skipton for brass players and so we had to develop our own and we formed the junior band. They did a lot of gigs in the district all through the 70s and 80s. As soon as you start succeeding other people want to come and play with you and we gradually moved up to become a Championship Section band.”
He explains that the classifications in banding are similar to the football leagues in that you have to enter – and, obviously, win – competitions in order to move up. To use the football analogy, then, Championship Section is the banding equivalent of the Premier League and below that there are sections one to four. The band was riding high for a few years but then came a couple of competition losses, it lost its sponsorship, dropped down the rankings and people began to drift away.
“Some of the best players are quite ambitious and they went off to other bands that were more successful,” says Paley. “There is always that fragility with banding.” The band is competing again and, although it is a long road back to the top, its members are thoroughly enjoying themselves along the way.
“Everyone recognises that everybody is doing their best and we all feel happy when we are playing music,” says Paley, who was an English teacher for 40 years at Ermysted’s Grammar in Skipton where he ran the school’s brass band. He is now tutor and conductor of Gateway Brass, formed in June last year, which is open to all ages for those who have never played a brass instrument before. It is a sensible approach to development – as new players progress they can swell the numbers of the main band. In addition, there is a junior band with around ten players, so the future looks bright. “It has really taken off in the last year or so and we are all fired up to make it a success,” says Paley. “We are all working together to do that – and rehearsals are a joy to go to.”
New members have been steadily bringing fresh blood into the band, among them Marie Akers who, along with her partner, joined just over two years ago. “I am one of the new generation of players who have been attracted through social media and the website,” she says. “When we joined there were only 12 players and the band has expanded rapidly since then – there are around 25 to 30 regulars now and, although we are quite full, we still have a couple of permanent positions going.”
Like many brass band musicians Akers’ interest began as a child. “I was nine when I first picked up a cornet and I played for the school band,” she says. “Then I stopped for about 10 or 15 years and came back to it. Quite a few players in the band have come back to it after a period away.”
Apart from the joy of playing music, banding is also a very sociable pastime and Akers met her partner through playing. “I can’t say that our eyes met across a crowded band room,” she says, laughing. “But he found out it was my birthday at one rehearsal and he turned up on the day with a bunch of flowers and a card. We have friends who have met and got married through banding.”
Akers credits Lowes with reinvigorating Skipton Brass. “He is a great conductor and it’s also fun going to rehearsals with him – he’s got a brilliant sense of humour and he gets fantastic results. The band has improved so much in its performance – everybody has grown with the band. We are very proud to play in Skipton and we get a good response from local people when we do.”
Brass bands are very much part of our national heritage – and are a particularly strong tradition in the North where many grew up around coal mining communities – so there was some very good news for those involved in banding last month when Brass Band England, which is based in Barnsley and supports bands around the country, announced that it had been awarded funding by the Arts Council for a further three years.
“It means that we will be able to help more bands develop artistically and commercially through collaboration,” says national liaison officer Rachel Veitch-Straw. “We can put bands in touch with other local organisations who can support them and we will be able to fund network meetings so that bands can get together and share information. It will also enable us to strengthen our support for youth brass bands.”
Skipton Brass recognises the importance of establishing links with local schools and encouraging younger people to join. “We want to be a community band for all ages and abilities,” says band manager Karen Shore who joined in January. “I was with Harrogate for 17 years and then I went over to help Skipton out when their principal cornet left to have a baby. In March I became band manager and I started raising the profile of the band and looking for sponsorship.”
Shore has been involved in banding since she was 14 and she values the special bond that develops between people who make music together. “We all enjoy playing and want to improve,” she says. “I travel over from Harrogate to rehearse, which is quite a commute, and that’s because they are such lovely people. They are all so passionate about the band and I really want to help them – they deserve it.”
Anyone who is interested in joining the band or being a sponsor should contact band manager Karen Shore on: firstname.lastname@example.org