Tuesday 27 December 2011

I Do Love a Brass Band!

As a little diversion from my childhood ramblings, I wondered if you might enjoy my little foray into the world of Brass Bands. This took place whilst I was living in Manchester where my occupation had taken my wife and I, time wise was in the early 1970’s. The following is a little something I wrote much later on and is mostly true!

In the beginning
A transmission on television of the evergreen 'Songs of Praise', which covered the Northern heritage of ‘Whit Walks', and associated Brass Band contests, caused memories of a wonderful period in my life to come flooding back.

The first very loose involvement I had with the 'brass band' fraternity came as a result of looking out of my lounge window one late spring evening sometime back in the early 'seventies'.

As I gazed at nothing in particular, I remember seeing my next door neighbour dragging a very large, tarnished looking piece of complex tubing from the boot of his car, and carrying it indoors. I was curious from that moment! A couple of evenings later and my curiosity could be contained no longer. I took the initiative and leaning over the back garden fence, asked Bill, my neighbour, in a sociable sort of way, if he had taken up some form of sculpture.

To this, he replied in his quiet, matter of fact, Mancunian accent that he had "joined a brass band", and the strange looking object that I had seen previously was in fact a B flat Bass Tuba.
Bill went on to explain that a fairly recently formed Brass Band in the locality was on the lookout for bandsmen and he had gone along to an open evening, the result of which was him being invited to take up a vacant seat on the back row with the 'heavies', the B flat and E flat Basses.

I said that I hadn't realised that he was musically inclined, and he admitted that he wasn't other than having the occasional sing-song after a good night at the local hostelry! Bill asked me if I was interested in music and would I like to go along with him to a practice night? Rather taken aback, I replied that I would have to give the matter some thought and would let him know later.

A week went by before I saw Bill again. Having chatted the situation over with my wife, I told him that I would indeed like to go along to a band practice when it was convenient. We agreed on the following Saturday evening.

Meet the Chairman
The practice room for the rather grandly (at least, I thought) titled "Urmston & Davyhulme Silver Band", was a Scout Hut some two miles from home. Not possessing a car of my own at that time, Bill picked me up in his rather elderly Ford on the agreed Saturday evening, and we set off on an adventure which was to have a great influence on my life and that of my family for the next decade.

I knew we had arrived at our destination when I heard the strains of a rousing Sousa March fairly exploding from the rather rickety looking hut at the end of a rough unmade track. Practice had already started!

Entering the hut, I observed about fifteen musicians seated in a rough semi-circle around a slim man in his fifties. He was beginning to work up a sweat and was gesticulating fairly wildly with a baton to the assembled players he was facing.

Bill prepared to take his seat on the back row of bandsmen, and I found a spare chair away in a corner and settled in to observe the proceedings.

The 'practice' of a number of pieces of music continued for an hour or so before a 'tea break' was announced. Some ladies, who it later transpired were in effect the band 'groupies' had boiled up an electric urn, and now proceeded to hand out steaming mugs of tea accompanied by biscuits, to the players.

At this point a rather portly middle aged man approached me with a mug of tea held out in my direction. Giving me the mug, he introduced himself.

"I'm Des, the Chairman of the band", he said. I told him briefly how I came to be in their presence. "What do you play?" he asked. To which I truthfully answered, "Nothing other than the harmonica". "How do you fancy trying a Bass?" he said, as if he hadn't heard my last words at all.

Somewhat flabbergasted by the proposal, I replied that I "Hadn't really considered playing an instrument, could not read music, and had only come along out of curiosity as a friend of my neighbour Bill".

Des, not to be put off the possibility of recruiting another body to the band, whether or not he could play an instrument, pressed on with his mission as Chairman.

"We've a vacancy on the back row", he said, "we are still short of Bass players, would you like to try one?" he persisted.

Beginning to feel a little nervous and somewhat trapped by this man so obviously set upon recruiting me, I rather lamely gave in and said that I would "Give it a try", but without committing myself to anything definite.

Little did I know then that I would become hooked on the 'Brass Band' movement from that moment onwards!

Without further ado, Des disappeared into a back room, to reappear in a few moments with a piece of curled up tubing resembling a large funnel not dissimilar to that which I had seen 'Bill' carrying into his house. "There you are" said Des "take that home and give it a try".

Without allowing me time to protest further, he moved off to join the Band who, refreshed by their tea break, now embarked upon another piece of music under the thrashing baton of the conductor.

As you may well imagine, I was the subject of considerable mirth when Bill dropped both my instrument and me home later that evening. My two young sons both thought it was some sort of a climbing frame as they embarked upon exploring the instrument from all angles.

Over the next few days, after my tea, and before the children went to bed, I would tuck myself away in the spare room, attempting to produce musical notes on my newly acquired instrument of torture. All I could in fact achieve were rather rude noises, and the prospect of me actually contributing to the making of music as a part of the band seemed very remote!

For the next several weeks I would sit behind the Bass section and attempt to follow the manuscript as the Band practised. It all looked very complicated and I doubted that I would ever make enough sense of it to be counted as a playing member of the band.

I had by this time discovered that the 'Urmston & Davyhulme Silver Band' who's motto was 'Musica Supera Omnia Nobis', was quite a family affair. Our Conductor and Musical Director was called Joe, and he was Chairman Des's brother. Joe had played solo Cornet in a number of bands since his youth, and had formed this band following a falling out with his last band's Conductor.

Four of Joe's children held 'front row' positions as Flugelhorn, Tenor Horn, Soprano Cornet and Trombone players respectively. In addition there were cousins and nieces and other assorted family relations, the entire family making up nearly two-thirds of the players. I quickly realised that the 'Von-Trapp's' had nothing on this family!

Amazingly enough, and to the surprise of all my family, I gradually picked up the idea of how to make musical sounds by spitting a raspberry, into a mouthpiece somewhat resembling a large eggcup. The family began to relax as my frustration gradually subsided!

Progress of a kind
As with many brass instruments, musical notes on a B flat Bass are achieved through the depression of a combination of the three (sometimes, four) valves, coupled with the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue (called the ombuture). Although I still could not 'read' music properly, I had by now become fairly adept at pencilling the finger positions for the three valves onto whatever piece of music that was being attempted by this 'young' band.

The Bass parts of the music we were playing did not require the skills of a virtuoso, so it was a fairly simple process for me to read this 'fingering' code as we went along.

I had by now been invited to, and rather humbly, taken a seat on the back row proper, and was actually beginning to enjoy the practice sessions.

One evening as we drank our mid-practice mugs of tea, Joe asked me if I felt like sitting in with the Band at a local Gala due to take place at the weekend.

I protested that I could not as yet even play my instrument, but he countered that they would be short on numbers due to holidays and I only needed to look as if I was actually playing. I lamely agreed to go along although feeling rather foolish about the whole idea. On the day I actually quite enjoyed the event and any 'bum notes' could quite fairly be attributed to me!

My first real challenge was when the Band started to practice a Competition piece in readiness for a rather lowly Contest due to take place in the Floral Pavilion at New Brighton on the Wirral Peninsula some months hence. We were to play a composition entitled, 'Fantasia on the Dargazon' by Gustav Holst. Towards the end of the final movement the Bass part suddenly developed into a mass of rather nasty looking 'black notes'. It was OUR solo and a place to shine.

Having applied my trusted 'code' to the manuscript, I kept the neighbourhood awake for several weeks, as I practised the Bass solo at home in the evenings.

What to a 'middling' brass player, would have been nothing much of a challenge, it was some time before I could run through it without looking at the music.

Progress was being made indeed!

The Contest
The day of the Contest arrived and we all set off for New Brighton in a motor coach. Several miles short of our destination, we stopped at a large public house where we had reserved a backroom for a final practice. My own thinking on the matter was that any further practice would not improve things greatly.

Our Conductor however had different ideas and proceeded to put us all 'through the mill' for nearly two hours. Fortified by sandwiches and the occasional pint of beer the whole thing gradually became a bit of a blur.

Naturally, we arrived late, and for my part more than a little tipsy, at the venue for the Contest, only to find to our dismay that we had been drawn first band to play. This meant that we practically stepped off the coach and straight onto the stage of the rather grandly named 'Floral Pavilion'.

Our performance of the 'test piece' was finished so quickly that it was not until we were walking off stage that I noticed the little curtained-off 'hide' at the back of the auditorium in which the luckless adjudicator sat. He was probably at that moment praying that the bands that were to follow our opening rendition would make a better job of it and make his day worthwhile!

Our task completed, we gathered outside for a post-mortem and a tongue lashing from our Conductor, who for some reason did not appear too pleased with our performance. Eventually he gave up and we listened to the other bands interpretation of the test piece, which generally sounded as if they were playing from a completely different musical score.

With quite a large entry, this seemed to last interminably, and it was not until late in the afternoon that we were to learn our fate.

All the competing bands and their followers gathered together in the auditorium and listened intently as some local town dignitary read out the results, to the ecstatic applause of the winning bands. Naturally, we had not won anything!

We did receive the hand written notes from the adjudicator, appraising our performance which had taken place so many hours previously that I couldn't remember much about it. These notes would be read, re-read and dissected by our Conductor and used in evidence against us all for the next several weeks!

The Season of Goodwill
Christmas was by now nearly upon us, and a very hectic time of the year for the Urmston & Davyhulme Silver Band was starting.

Being a poor Band, we had to take every opportunity to raise money for the 'Uniform and Building Fund'. At this point we were making public appearances in our civvies, as we had not yet aspired to a fancy uniform.

From the beginning of December, every night of the week, enough players to form a 'band' would assemble to play Christmas Carols around every street in the district. It was neither practical nor possible to get the entire band together every evening, so an 'ensemble' of key players was formed on a rota system.

From 7pm until about 9.30pm, Monday through to Thursday, the 'ensemble' of the night would descend upon the streets accompanied by door to door collectors who were usually 'press ganged' from the player's families. At the weekend, it was the turn of the Pub's and Clubs to benefit from our efforts as we piled our instruments and ourselves into cars, to cover as many venues as possible in an evening.

I often gained the impression that we were an unwanted and certainly generally an uninvited intrusion upon the customer's revelries. The physical effort of trying to fit upwards of twenty musicians into an already crowded Public bar required considerable ingenuity and on more than one occasion, tempers became frayed causing us to make an early exit as some of our players were still of school age!

In addition to the already described activities, the Band would put on a Christmas Concert and also play on Saturday afternoons for a couple of hours in the local shopping centres. Throughout this period, I was usually only seen at home briefly for a meal in the week before disappearing for the rest of the evening.

Brass Band 'widows' are renowned for their tolerance in these matters, and my wife quickly realised that she too had no alternative other than to go along with the crowd. She quickly became embroiled in the various fund raising efforts organised by the Band and indeed it became a way of life for the ten or more very enjoyable years that I was to continue with the Band.

Day of Reckoning
Several years passed and the quality of the band improved greatly to see us entering bigger and more prestigious Contests. I even played in the Kings Hall at Belle Vue, Manchester (sadly, long since demolished) which was the Mecca for Brass Banding in the North of England.

My musical skills rather reached a plateau and there were very accomplished youngsters coming from schools where just about everyone learned a brass instrument.

I believed that the writing was on the wall and that at some time soon I would have to justify my position on 'the back row', so reluctantly I handed in my mouth piece, thus ending a wonderful ten years as part of a great tradition. To this day I still "do Love a Brass Band!"

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