Many are struggling for new recruits, but in one of Yorkshire’s most remote villages Tony Greenbank finds a brass band at the top of its game.
Tucked away near the head of beautiful Swaledale, the village of Muker may lack the picturesque thatched cottages and half-timbered Elizabethan dwellings of the archetypal Merrie England village. Yet the 80 slate-roofed homes huddled together on the banks of the River Swale are home to a very British tradition. Currently celebrating its 120th birthday, Muker Silver Band began life in 1897 when £50 worth of subscriptions paid for 14 second-hand silver-plated instruments. The colour was important. While they were – and are – essentially brass band instruments, silver lent a sense of gravitas to the band.
Formed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, in an age when communities like Muker made their own entertainment, that same philosophy has survived today.
The doughty band is still playing on and veteran conductor Duncan Bythell has waved the baton for 32 years. His dedication and drive is one of the reasons the band has not fallen by the wayside according to several members. He in turn pays tribute to the fact that Muker’s community “bands together”.
“Nearly every village in the dale had a brass band before the last war,” he says. “Today just Muker and Reeth are left. Not all those who now play in the band are from Muker as would have been the case through the years. Before everyone had a car, bands originally comprised folk like local farmers exclusively from their own village.
“Nowadays people don’t mind driving a 40-50 mile round trip to attend band practice on Monday and Friday evenings in the village institute below the church with its wonderful acoustics.”
He cites the example of two schoolboy brothers who regularly attend from remote Ravenseat Farm. Coast to Coast walkers who pass by the remote farmstead occasionally catch the strains of While Shepherds Watched and Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at as Yorkshire shepherdess Amanda Owen’s son Reuben, 16, practises on his trombone and younger brother Miles plays his cornet.
Duncan agrees that increased mobility widens the pool of players, making more “banders” available from the length of Swaledale including Richmond – and also from Wensleydale over Buttertubs Pass. Incomers buying homes for their retirement are also a useful musical band resource.
“Very often they have come with imminent retirement in mind and are keen to join an organisation to be part of that local community. Most have never considered playing in a band before,” he adds.
“That’s one of the many good things about a brass band. It’s open to all ages and abilities. There aren’t many organisations that appeal to everyone in a small village, especially when you can keep playing into your 70s. We have three players who have played in the band for 60 years.
“Brass band music is written in such a way that some parts require more skill and technique to play while other parts require less. The best players play the hardest parts while the less capable still contribute.
“‘Comprehensive is the word and like a comprehensive school it contains people of all abilities, all ages, men, women and children. As of now about 50 per cent of the band is female.”
Duncan moved into Gunnerside some years ago and it was a neighbour – Philip Calvert, lead cornet player – who told him over the garden fence about the band.
“He’d said ‘I think we might be needing a new conductor’ so I applied. I’d conducted choirs and orchestras as a sideline since studying history at Oxford University. It was one heck of a learning curve but I’m glad to still be here today.”
A key to long-term success has been the role played by the Guy family whose members have lived round Muker for generations. There are 14 Guys here on the evening that I visit band practice.
“In the early 50s the band recruited a new generation of young chaps virtually straight from school. Most were from the Guy family, hence their connection. They’ve aptly breathed new life into the music and have kept the band going – with three generations of the family playing in the band,” adds Duncan.
A euphonium player breaks in to say: “When some of the band’s older members joined in the 50s there were players from the original 1897 band still playing. That’s a direct link with the band’s ancestors from the year dot.”
The older band members nod in agreement when a poster on the wall of a quote by playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw is mentioned: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
“Another thing which helps the band prosper is that there’s no shortage of fresh hot-off-the-press music to play,” adds Duncan. “Brass bands are hungry for new tunes. Any new music that tops the charts, not just classical recordings, but dance, film, big band, pop, you name it, is all grist to the mill. Popular music quickly gets arranged for brass bands.”
Chris Watts who plays bass trombone says: “We pick the most appropriate music apt for wherever we play. Our menu for Swaledale, Wensleydale and other Yorkshire venues has been fine-tuned over the years. But recent tours have included Holland, Dublin, Limerick, Rhineland and Wales. We’ve gladly adapted to different cultures and played melodies proper for the occasion.”
So if you’re ready for a blast of Slaidburn, some inspirational marches and brass band versions of the Game of Thrones theme song, Bohemian Rhapsody and With a Little Help from my Friends, grab your diary and make a date to see a very British pastime reinvented for the 21st century.
Muker Silver Band will play Muker Show on Wednesday. Mukerband.co.uk. To order a CD of the band’s music send a cheque for £10 + £1.50 pp per CD to Mr and Mrs Chris Watts, South View Cottage, Gunnerside, Richmond DL11 6LE.