Blown Away? Our great heritage of brass band music

Britain’s brass bands are famous all over the world but it seems some of them are facing an uncertain future. Chris Bond reports.

THERE’S something magical about listening to a brass band, whether it’s the Salvation Army warming the spirits on a cold winter’s evening, or one of Yorkshire’s famous names playing to a packed house at the Royal Albert Hall, there’s nothing quite like the sound of brass in full swing.

They are as British as Buckingham Palace, fish and chips and the Union Flag. For decades they have been part of the fabric of community life in towns and villages across the country and while some colliery bands have disappeared following the coal industry’s demise, others have managed to keep going, even enjoying a mini renaissance on the back of the hugely popular 1996 film Brassed Off.

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But although brass bands continue to evoke warm memories for a lot of people, it seems they are facing an uncertain future. Even the world-renowned Grimethorpe Colliery Band, which inspired Brassed Off, has admitted its future is looking far from rosy.

Band manager Nigel Dixon says it’s a hard slog right now, even though it’s less than six months since they appeared at the London Olympics in front of a global audience of tens of millions. “We are living hand to mouth and we’re having to do a ridiculous amount of concerts in order to survive.”

The main problem is one of funding. When Grimethorpe’s colliery closed in 1993, its then owner Richard Budge of RJB Mining agreed to continue sponsoring the band, and later incarnations of his firm, UK Coal and Powerfuel, continued the arrangement. But when Powerfuel went into administration in 2010 the money stopped, and although the band continues to bring in cash from concerts it still faces a shortfall of around £30,000.

Dixon says an individual benefactor, who wished to remain anonymous, has come forward to help with day-to-day costs that will safeguard the band’s future for the next 12 months. “We’re keeping our head above water, but you can’t rely on one source of income because that can dry up.”

He says that like many arts organisations up and down the country, brass bands are having their public funding squeezed and he’s worried about the impact this will have. “Music services are closing or being cut right, left and centre and children are now having to pay for the privilege of learning to play a brass instrument,” he says. “What we want to do is get children involved from less well-off families, whose parents can’t afford instruments and lessons. We believe in the power of music and that playing an instrument can enhance the lives of young people, but we need support and we need funding.”

Peter Gilby, chairman of the Yorkshire and Humber Brass Bands Association and a member of Ripon City Band, points out that even though it’s an amateur business, it’s still an expensive one. “There’s insurance and the cost of repairing and replacing instruments. It costs us about £4,000 a year just to stand still, but compared to the bands at the top of the tree our costs are minuscule,” he says.

Some people may be surprised to learn that some brass bands are struggling when the big names regularly play to packed crowds in some of the world’s greatest venues. But the costs of getting to and from venues, as well as the instruments and their upkeep, quickly mounts up. “If a brass band does a garden fete they might get a £200 fee, but a band may have 25 or 30 people and that’s not much for three hours’ work, especially if you have to pay to get there which is often the case with smaller bands. So the costs are out of kilter when they’re set against what they can charge and you end up with players and conductors who keep the tradition going just for the love of it.”

Despite their popularity he says there has been a steady decline in the number of brass bands since the collieries closed. “Some have amalgamated and have others ceased to exist. You hear of some calling it a day but it’s very rare that you hear of a new band starting up. In village bands a lot of the players are getting on a bit and finding new players to take their seats has been hard, so at a grassroots level there is a danger they could die out.”

Gilby says in Ripon they have a beginners’ band and a junior band that feeds into the senior one. “We try and encourage youngsters to get involved because this is a hobby at the end of the day. But once you get to senior levels boyfriends and girlfriends take over and they go off to university and if you started off with 10 you’ll be lucky if you end up with one who’s still playing at the end.”

Being in a brass band is hard work, but Nigel Dixon says the rewards can be great. “You often get up at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning and sometimes don’t get back till 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, and then you’re off to work on a Monday morning and doing rehearsals twice a week. But we went to Australia in 2011 and 40,000 people came to see us. They couldn’t enough of Grimethorpe, it was amazing.”

However, he is concerned that in Britain audiences tend to be older. “We play to one or two thousand people most weekends but about 80 per cent of the audience is over the age of 65, so we have to get younger generations interested and show them that brass bands are a great form of entertainment.”

At Grimethorpe they have started a youth band which already has 110 children on its books. “This sounds fantastic but when you think we’re probably getting every child that’s between grade four to eight from our region then it doesn’t sound quite so many.”

As well as touring, Grimethorpe Colliery band has started an education programme with local schools in South Yorkshire, winning funding from brass instrument manufacturer Besson. “We want to give as many kids as possible opportunities through music to broaden their horizons. It’s something we are really passionate about.”

And it’s already making a difference. The band sponsors 12 children at Birkwood Primary School in Barnsley, where they have over 40 children learning to play brass instruments and a waiting list itching to join.

Who knows, they could one day follow in the footsteps of Roger Webster, an internationally acclaimed cornet player from South Yorkshire and a former member of Grimethorpe Colliery Band. He was first given the chance to play an instrument when members of the band came to play at his school. “It’s a working class area and you didn’t have many choices when I was young, you either worked down the mines, played football or joined a brass band.”

Webster, who now teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music, worked as a miner himself for eight years while continuing to play the cornet, and has gone on to tour all over the world as a soloist. “Brass bands have allowed me to do so much work and I’m very grateful that I was able to get free tuition, because without that start I might not have done any of this.”

He thinks brass bands are viewed differently in this country. “In places like Scandinavia and mainland Europe they don’t distinguish between brass bands and symphony orchestras, but in the UK we take them for granted and we perhaps don’t nurture them. I’ve just come back from Switzerland where I was doing a concert and the audience was much younger with a lot of teenagers and fewer older people. It’s the same in Japan.”

Brass bands like Black Dyke Band and the Brighouse and Rastrick Band, as well as Grimethorpe, are household names but he says they all need our support. “In Yorkshire, we are in the enviable position of having some of the finest brass bands in the country, but some of the bands I played with in the past no longer exist and without some sort of financial assistance others could vanish.”

Dixon agrees, saying brass bands are worth fighting for. “Get someone to a concert and they’re hooked. They are part of culture and heritage. We gave football to the world and we also gave brass bands to the world, so we can’t let them die.”

British brass band history

The brass band tradition in this country dates back to the early 19th century and England’s industrial revolution.

By 1860 there were more than 650 brass bands in England. Two of the earliest bands still survive to this day – Besses o’th’ Barn Brass Band and Black Dyke Band, established in 1855.

The Grimethorpe Colliery Band was formed in 1917 as a leisure activity for the workmen at the colliery.

In 1996, the British movie Brassed Off, starring Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald and Ewan McGregor, introduced brass bands to new audiences throughout the world.

Today, brass bands still follow the tradition of being all-volunteer.