From: "Ian McKechnie" <>
Date: Thu, 17 Jul 1997 21:58:20 +0000
Subject: Re: "Brassed Off"-- a question for Brits...LONG post!

Peter A. Sokolowski wrote :
> I finally saw "Brassed Off" recently, and I enjoyed it very
> much.....
> I attended with a friend who used to teach music history at Julliard,
> and he came away asking the following question:  how can this be an
> amateur band??  The players depicted *presumably* could not have
> attended music school, or even forked out for regular private
> tutelage.  Yet, as he said, there is no amateur group of any kind to
> his knowledge which could play with such musicality and command.
> Did these players really just learn from their parents, who learned
> from theirs??  Are there no ringers in the group, say, music
> teachers??

Well, as ever, reality is both more complex and simpler than it appears.

The current brass band movement (they are very proud of calling themselves that - there is a political element which cannot be ignored) is absolutely packed with music students, music teachers, failed pros and the like.

After all, the definition of amateur (well, at least it was the last time I checked) is "earns less than two thirds of income from PLAYING" - teaching music is not counted.  Add to that the fact that the major bands pay serious "expenses" payments to their players, and you have a number of bands which are about as amateur as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

On the other hand, there are literally hundreds of bands in the country.  Few of them achieve the standards of the top twenty or so, but the standard is nevertheless quite astonishing.  And many of the better players are either self taught or have been brought up through the brass band : there is, after all, no better way to learn a brass instrument than to sit next to a good player for hours and just work at it.  (I owe most of what I can do now to joining a brass band when I was in my late twenties, and watching and listening.  Of course, the man I was watching and listening to, the "amateur" principal cornet of the band, had just spent fifteen years as co-principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra.)

But it is difficult to give an impression of the hard work and commitment that many of the real amateur players put into their playing.  For example, I am officially "signed up" as a member of a band which is based some fifty miles away.  If I help them out, it's on a strictly "one rehearsal, one concert" basis (I did three rehearsals for them when they won the East Anglian Regional Championship).  But a good friend of mine, who plays in the band, drives the fifty-odd miles, on back roads, each way at least twice a week to rehearse, and will do six or seven rehearsals a week before a contest.  These are three and a half hour rehearsals, no breaks, hard
playing all the way through, and no reimburesement of petrol costs.

I couldn't do it.  And that sort of commitment is not at all uncommon.  I know people who drive from one end of the country to the other to conduct bands (OK, it's a small country, but it's still a long drive).

So, on the one hand, I am amazed at the sacrifice that these people are prepared to make for the pastime that they love.  You just have to be impressed at the commitment and hard work and respect the qualty of the results they achieve.  (The real brass banders that is - - you would expect no less from the top bands.)

On the other hand, there are a number of points to make about the whole exercise.

First, I don't think it's really about music.  By the time the average band gets to the contest or concert platform, they have spent so much time on the "test pieces" that it has become an athletic event, not an artistic one.  Usually, all the spontaneity has been rehearsed out.  The band that wins is the one which makes least mistakes (usually because they were the least nervous on the day, or because their cornet section had swallowd the most beta blockers, or drunk just the right amount of alcohol) or plays the piece in the way that
the adjudicator expects to hear it, or makes the "sound" the adjudicator wants (one band I played with kept losing contests after a certain level - the adjudicators remarks usually said "too orchestral").

Secondly, they are so irritatingly insular it's unbelievable.  Many of them have no interest in events outside the brass band world (and why should they? he asked in a rare moment of generosity)

Thirdly, though they are good at what they do, what they do is very limited.   If music is a decathlon, they are good triathletes.   (For example, the nonsense about soprano cornet being hard to play.   Well, it's harder than a Bb cornet, maybe harder than an Eb trumpet, but is a piece of cake compared to a picc.  And they never have to transpose, either.......)

Fourthly, so much of the repertoire is such crap.  Bad arrangements of popular tunes which are unsuited to the medium abound.  Frankly, brass bands can't swing, and can't play jazz, rock or pop.  But they try.  Oh god, they try.

Fifth, they ignore much of what they're good at.  When they were a progressive musical development, there were lots of arrangements of popular classics, and lots of good quality original writing.  They avoid this repertoire now because it's "old-fashioned".  But there is nothing to replace it, and they have failed to evolve.  If the Sousa band evolved into the Eastman Wind Ensemble,  Black Dyke Mills evolved into........Black Dyke Mills.

Sixth, they are very working class, even if a lot of the players are middle class.  This has been a bad thing for music in this country, and particularly for brass musicians.  String players and woodwind players can be artists, but brass players see themselves as hard-drinking thugs.  This is an over-generalisation, and a caricature,  but it's an image that lots of brass players like to live down to, and it gives the rest of us a bad name.   I still find
orchestral fixers amazed when it's possible to provide a brass section which will 1) turn up 2) be sober before AND during the concert 3) not disappear to the pub in the interval  and 4) try to play with, not against the other musicians.

> I realize that my surprise may sound like skepticism, and I don't
> want to offend anyone.  In Shakespearean scholarship, many folks
> really *want* to believe in the democratic but unlikely myth of the
> unlettered, barely-educated commoner who grew up to be the greatest
> writer in history.  These folks would say, "see, you can be anything
> you want to if you put your mind to it!" and point to William
> Shakspere of Stratford.  In fact, the writer of the plays most
> certainly knew four languages fluently and was in the constant company
> of books, royals, courtiers, and professionals--in other words, a
> nobleman.  It destroys romantic notions but it explains logically
> what orthodox scholars have called "genius" for four hundred years.

Well, there was a time not long ago in this country that if you worked hard you could make something of yourself.  There is a tradition, and, in my view a noble one, of self-education for the working classes.  Brass bands are a manifestation of this tradition.  I know lots of people who have not let their lack of connections or
material wealth stand in the way of their intellectual development or artistic development (and not only in this country : Andre spent some time in mining, didn't he?  I don't know many upper middle class miners........)   The tragedy of the brass band "movement" (see, it's that class war word again) is that it has not moved with the times.

And, going back to poets, I would say that Robert Burns could give Shakespeare a good run for his money.  He DEFINITELY was not a nobleman.  (But then, he digressed, you are heading for one my pet theories, that the English don't care how good you are, as long as you are well bred, and the Scots don't care how well bred you are, as long as you are educated.  Americans, of course, don't care what you are as long as you're rich........)


(Inserts defensive smiley to save time replying to the "irony challenged")

> *Are* all the players in the Colliery band miners or former miners??
> Is it possible for so many excellent part-time players to live in one
> small community??
Not since about 1930.  See above!

> Please explain the tradition of amateur
> musicianship in England so that I can pass it on to my doubting but
> musically literate colleague.

This is the real point : brass bands are not the only manifestation of the amateur music tradition.  Another (and in my view more important one) is the choral tradition.  Brits (well some of them) just love choral singing.  There are good choirs everywhere.  Where I live (about 150,000 in the town) there are at least six good (I mean really capable) choirs, each about fifty to a hundred strong.  There is some duplication of membership, but not a lot (I mean, if they each rehearse one night a week, how many can you join?).  I do more orchestral work accompanying choirs than anything else.  But again, I think the music is secondary to the herd instinct : they like choral singing, not solos or small groups.  It's team spirit on public display!

Sorry, everyone, I seem to have got a bit carried away!  But there is no short answer to the brass band question.  Partly, they're a wonderful training ground for brass players : where else can you get three solid hours of precision playing in a night?  Partly, they're our cultural heritage.  Partly, they're a dying anachronism.  If you see trumpet playing as a tradition that stretches back to pre-biblical times, then brass bands are an offshoot of the main stem, but one which is growing ever farther away from its roots, and will eventually wither, and die.   Brass bands might still be sort of popular, but they are becoming an increasingly marginalised passtime, and without real popular support, I doubt if their educational worth will be enough to let them survive.  Certainly, their artistic merits won't.

They are about as relevant to the real world of music as trooping the colour is to modern warfare.

Here endeth the lesson...........

Ian McKechnie