1. You’ll need an instrument!
First things first, there are lots of Brass Bands all around the world playing at all levels of musical proficiency. Only the very top bands have their own really decent instruments for you to use, or if you’re lucky your local town brass band will have received some sponsorship from a kindly local business to fund the purchase of a new set of instruments.
However, in the majority of cases most UK brass bands cannot afford to lend you an instrument so you will need to buy one. Now, as a starter instrument I would not recommend spending a lot of money on the best instrument you can find in the shop! Start with a student instrument, or pick up a decent second hand one off eBay. If you stick with it you can always upgrade in a few years time, or you may even be lucky enough to join a band who have a brand new instrument you can use.
2. Get some lessons!
Brass Bands are very good at teaching aspiring musicians how to play in a group, how to read sheet music, how to be confident performing on stage in front of large audiences etc, but they rarely have the time or money to also act as a music school. So before you phone up and get your child an audition to Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, first you need to get them some lessons.
If you search on the internet or check your local newspaper, you will find lots of excellent resources for locating a music teacher, or alternatively just ask your local school if they have a peripatetic teacher who comes to the school. After a period of time (different for everyone) your child will be able to hold a tune and play most notes in the lower and possibly also the middle register (don’t worry too much about upper register just yet, plenty of time for that!!). Once they reach that stage then it is time to start looking around for a band to join.
3. Why should I join a Brass Band?
Good question! Well, there are a lot of explanations I could give, and you will no doubt hear different points of view from everyone you talk to. For me though, the main benefit of joining a Brass Band, is that over time it will teach your child not only how to play good music, but it will also help them to find out who they really are as a person. Pretty deep explanation I know (and I will expand on this last point in a future article), but true nonetheless. Being part of any brass band means your child is part of a team. They have responsibilities to themselves and the team (practice every day, turn up on time to rehearsals, listen to the conductor and fellow bandmates etc), they learn how to perform as part of a team and how to think as a single unit.
When they move up into more proficient bands they start mixing with more and more adults which gives them a glimpse at what the “real world” is like, and by sitting next to an experienced musician on the bandstand, they will be able to emulate their playing to help their own. They will also pick up some life tips and make some really good friends. All sounds a bit Harry Potter I know (!!), but if you boil brass bands down to their raw parts, this is what you get! Like it or lump it!
There is a social side to brass bands as well of course, but rather than go into all the gory details about what really happens off stage, I will leave that to your imagination!!!
4. Which band to join
Well, this is normally an easy decision, thankfully. Your local school may have an association with a local band, or you may know someone who is in a band, or failing that, just check out the local papers for concert listings and go from there.
If your child hasn’t played in a brass band before then I would start off with a Junior band of some description. These are generally run by a group of parents with a fairly experienced musician or ex-musician as the Conductor, and if you’re really lucky they may also have a Senior Band that your child can move up into when they become a more proficient musician.
If however your child has already played in several brass bands and is looking to take the next step up the ladder, then I would recommend they try and audition for the best brass band you can find, or at least the best band that will have them!!
5. What should I expect from Brass Band life?
In general terms it varies depending on the level of band you play in, how serious they take their music, which personalities play in your band, which concerts and contests you play in etc.
Some of the things to look forward to though are the overnight stays after a concert at the other end of the country, tour’s abroad, all day contests (e.g. the local “areas”), playing at “The Nationals”, playing at Whit Friday, rehearsing a test piece for a major contest, doing concerts with special guest soloists or a Professional conductor, doing recordings, playing on the radio or TV….the list goes on and on, but I think you get the idea!
6. What are rehearsals like?
Again, this all depends on the band you’re in. Typically though, most Junior or lower section Brass Bands tend to rehearse once a week, but they aspire to rehearse twice a week like the majority of bands do. A rehearsal tends to last approximately 2 hours, with a break half way through for 20 mins or so. The exception to this is when you are preparing for a major contest when you might expect daily rehearsals in the week or 2 prior to the contest itself, this could also include sectional rehearsals as well as full band rehearsals, depending on the piece being performed.
Some of the top brass bands will hold public rehearsals in the lead up to a major contest, this is partly a PR exercise, but also an opportunity for the band to play their test piece in front of an audience, so they don’t get a shock when they walk out on stage and see several hundred people watching!! A regular band rehearsal is not focused on a set test piece and will generally be closed door, with only band officials (and sometimes parents) in attendance. It will cover a range of music and will tend to be addressed at making sure the band is as prepared as they can be for their next concert.
I have always found that if you take your parts home with you to practice, when you come to rehearsals it makes life that bit easier for you and everyone else!
7. Are the “famous” Brass Bands really that good?
Short answer is yes, they are. If you read my biography you will learn that I played in Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band for a number of years in the 1990’s. At the time they were the number 1 band in the world and went through a period of winning everything in sight for years, and if it was not us winning, it would be Black Dyke, or Grimethorpe, or one of the other leading bands.
The one thing that makes the likes of Brighouse, Black Dyke and Grimethorpe so good, is that the players in the band are either professional musicians, or they are really good amateurs who play to a professional standard. The dedication you will experience in one of those bands’ rehearsals is second to none, and the difference in standard between the top few bands in the world and the rest, is huge. Two of the biggest differences that makes the best Brass Bands stand out from the rest is 1) their range of dynamics (in other words, their “ppp” is a lot quieter and their “fff” is a lot louder than the majority of other bands) and 2) their accuracy of playing is second to none (i.e. every note in every piece is spot on and can be played that way time after time).
If your child can make it into one of the big name bands, then they will definitely have to prove their worth. They have no time for hangers on, or players who don’t give the right level of commitment as too much is at stake! Unfortunately these days it seems not even the big name bands can get a full set of “bums on seats” at every rehearsal though, so if your child has the experience and think he/she is a proficient enough brass player, now might be their chance to join the top ranks.
There will be more on Brass Bands and other areas of Brass music in future articles.