How the booming power of brass bands is uniting one Yorkshire village in true adaptive spirit

A symbol of British tradition was silenced when concert halls closed, stifling the enduring call of a brass bands' booming tenor or the uplifting echo of a flugelhorn.

Rachel Taylor with her brother Robert Jagger from Skelmanthorpe Brass Band pictured with their cornets, at Skelmanthorpe. Picture by Simon Hulme
Rachel Taylor with her brother Robert Jagger from Skelmanthorpe Brass Band pictured with their cornets, at Skelmanthorpe. Picture by Simon Hulme

Yet with innovation and no small measure of adaptive spirit a band of remote 'buskers' in a small Yorkshire village has forged a reversal in fortunes.

The Skelmanthorpe Training Band, coaching a new generation of brass band players, has found a new network by reaching out in extraordinary ways.

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The small band now has its own YouTube and Instagram channels, DVDs delivered to nursing homes, and successful crowd funders hosted through the art of doorstep serenades.

Robert Jagger from Skelmanthorpe Brass Band pictured with his cornet. Picture by Simon Hulme

What it has resulted in, said band secretary and cornet player Rachel Taylor, is a renewed community the likes of which it has never seen before.

"People couldn't come to us, so we had to do it in reverse and reach out to people in the village," she said. "This has really brought us together as a community.

"In a way it's made us fight for what we've got, and fitter for the future."

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Rachel Taylor with her brother Robert Jagger from Skelmanthorpe Brass Band pictured with their cornets, at Skelmanthorpe. Picture by Simon Hulme

The village of Skelmanthorpe, birthplace to former Dr Who star Jodie Whittaker, is recorded in the Domesday book as Scelmertorp and likely dates to Viking times.

Small as it is, with a population of around 5,000, it is home to four brass bands including a community band, beginners section and training band for those aged seven and over.

Primary school teacher Mrs Taylor, 54, has been a member since she was 19, and said she can still recall the rundown red hut where practice was held before it could buy its own.

When lockdown hit last March, members had halted everything. Then, moving slowly as tutors mastered the technology, weekly lessons for its youth cohort were moved to Zoom.

Robert Jagger from Skelmanthorpe Brass Band pictured with his cornet. Picture by Simon Hulme

There followed in time virtual performances, shared on Facebook and Instagram and through its newly launched YouTube channel, and small rehearsals in groups of six when it was allowed.

Doorstep carols

At the start of December, they had begun a crowdfunder where people could call on a small socially distanced group of self-scribed 'community buskers' delivering doorstep carols.

On one occasion, the group had been approached by a young woman who chased after them to ask if they could sing outside the home of her 94-year-old grandmother.

Skelmanthorpe Brass Band cornet. Picture by Simon Hulme

It would likely be her last Christmas, she had explained.

"It's something we would never normally think to do," said Mrs Taylor. "We would traditionally have been too busy with concerts.

"For some families it is sad, but at the same time it has brought them so much joy.

"It's that sound. It evokes a lot of emotion in people. Music is really wonderful. Something as simple as turning up on the doorstep has meant the world to people."

Reconnecting with community

A great many brass bands have struggled over recent months as concerts were cancelled and rehearsals scrapped amid a confusing litany of ever-changing rules.

For the Skelmanthorpe training band, said Mrs Taylor, it has thrived. Not only has it reconnected with its community, but it is inspiring a new generation of players.

"A lot of bands are struggling and that is a really worrying thing," she said. "When this is over, will there be the same number of brass bands as there were 12 months ago?

"When you feel so passionately about something, it is important. The youth members are our future. By keeping the academy and training bands going it is good for all brass bands.

"It would have been easy to close the doors and wait it out," she added. " Instead we've taken the bull by the horns and fought for what we want to do better.

"We've had to go to our community rather than them coming to us. It has been so successful."

Innovating

A lockdown DVD created by the Skelmanthorpe Training Band helped raise funds for its survival, proving an almost sellout success before being delivered to care homes.

Backing tracks, recorded by members at home, were pieced together by director Robert Jaggar and friend of the band Joy Newbould.

Brass band arranger Alan Fernie fronted a virtual introduction, with artwork donated by folk singer and songwriter Roger Davies, while the Denby Dale Lions delivered it to care homes.

"Brass has changed," said Mrs Taylor. "A lot of people assume it's all hymns and marches. People have put so much into it to reach a wider audience. It has stretched all our skills.

"There is no way we could play as a band at the moment. We are hoping that in the summer, because playing in the village has been so successful, that we can do it again. We've got our eye on some sturdy gazebos."

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