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Brass Band Conference 2023: Honouring Heritage and Inspiring Innovation - Part 1

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

A Recap of the Brass Band Conference 2023


That was the key word that was mentioned throughout the 2023 Brass Band Conference hosted by Brass Bands England at Huddersfield University on 7th October. In hindsight, I should have kept a tally of how many times this one, thirteen-letter word provided the answer for the myriad of problems and opportunities facing the brass band community today, throughout the conference. From uniting traditions of the past with the innovations that will secure the future of brass bands to opening up our music to wider audiences making us the heart of our local communities once more - the answer is collaboration.

I had the pleasure and privilege to be invited by Brass Bands England to cover the day’s events on the blog and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Clair Donnelly and the entire BBE team for the invite and for putting on such an incredible event. It was my first time at the conference and I guarantee you it will not be my last - I’ve already put the date for next year’s conference in my calendar. If you are involved in brass bands in any capacity, I implore you to attend the Brass Band Conference next year. It is a hotbed of, passionate discussion, knowledge and inspiration that not only filled my notebook with ideas for the blog (and other banding projects) it reinstated the love and motivation for our community that, I’ll be honest, has been at severe risk of waning in the last few months. A feeling that I know I’m not alone in experiencing.

Now, I know what you’re thinking - you’re really selling this to me Liv, NOT! Please, I beg you to bear with me, because in order to illustrate the impact that the conference’s events had on my feelings towards brass banding, you need to understand the space I was in before I entered Huddersfield University on Saturday morning. Once you understand that, you will see why I will be encouraging every bander I see, from this day forward, to attend next years’ conference.

I went through nearly half of an A4 notepad with the amount of notes I made throughout the day, so, I’ll warn you now - this blog may be something of a magnum opus. It will also be the first in a long list of articles and other content that will be inspired by everything I learned last weekend. So, if you’ve not already, I would get yourself comfortable, grab a beverage, maybe a snack (or 5, it is a long one) and I’ll try the best I can to recreate the 2023 Brass Band Conference in words!

Prelude - Variations on a Frustration

Let’s set the scene. I, a brass player of (almost twenty years), who was once blinded by naivety and unbiased adoration of the brass band community, have been hardened into a bitter sceptic, who is filled with frustration having seen pretty much every negative side of this community in about 6 months. Politics, egos, outdated beliefs, hard work being overlooked or taken for granted and a sheer disregard of others’ emotions all in the name of winning trophies that no audience member gives a flying mute about; all variations on a frustrating theme of our obstinate insistence to rebuff change in favour of doing things ‘the way we’ve always done’ has got me to the point that has made me question - what are we actually doing this for? So, even though I was (and still am) incredibly honoured to be invited to the Brass Band Conference, try as I might, I will admit that I walked into the main hall at Huddersfield University with my cynicism as strong as the cup of coffee I had in my hand. I was envisioning smiling speeches declaring how marvellous we are and the blowing of smoke up the proverbial, when we really need to be fuelling the fires of change to cleanse ourselves of the historical sins that still restrain us from making the headway we need for brass bands to survive in this century.

Within less than an hour, the words I heard within that hall, from both the speakers and the audience, quashed this cynicism very quickly. Kudos has to be given to the BBE team for the speakers that they invited to the event for their insight, knowledge and passion.

Within the first session I realised two things:

  • I am far from alone in my thoughts and feelings on brass bands at the present time

  • There are many of us that are not only crying out for change, but are furiously sparking our flints, trying to light the way to the future.

It all started with a thought-provoking, eloquently presented opening solo in the form of the keynote speech from composer, Gavin Higgins…

Solo - Keynote Speech by Gavin Higgins

I was one of 150 delegates representing over 80 bands, organisations and press reporters sitting in the main hall, when Gavin delivered his impassioned keynote speech that both ruffled the feathers of those still living in the 1850s - sorry, those who are happy with the way banding is - and engaged the minds of those who are ready to push banding into the 21st century.

For those who don’t know, Gavin is an Ivor Novello-winning composer and musician. His roots with our community are deep, having come from a long lineage of brass band musicians dating back to 1895. He joked that he ‘came out of his mum with a cornet already in his hand’, which wasn’t too far from the truth, as he was given a cornet at the age of three and was taught to play by his Grandad, joining a long list of family members who were already playing in brass bands.

He stated that ‘ for the past decade, whenever the opportunity has arisen, he has tried to bring his love for brass bands to a wider audience’. This has been demonstrated during his time as Composer in Residence with the Rambert Dance Company where his work Dark Arteries’ saw the brass band (namely, Tredegar Band) collaborate with the dance company to tell the dark, tumultuous story of the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath. So, although his time is spent within the classical world for the majority of the time, like many musicians sitting in the UK’s orchestras today, he was brought up within the banding movement. He’s one of our own and his passion for not only keeping banding alive, but to gain the recognition and platform that we deserve, was demonstrated throughout his speech.

Speaking the Truth

However, he didn’t blame the lack of interest on the public. He demonstrated that in the ‘wider cultural world, there is interest and people are engaged in what we are doing’. He was instrumental in enabling the first brass band in over a decade to perform at the BBC Proms. As Gavin put it: ‘in order to evolve and grow, sometimes we need to speak the truth’ and that truth is:

  • We need to diversify the movement - younger and more diverse voices need to be involved in key decisions from picking test pieces to making changes within the movement.

  • We need to be more open with engaging and collaborating with musicians, composers, conductors and other artists outside of brass bands.

  • We need to work with people of influence, such as MPs, the culture secretary etc. to get brass bands into the spotlight.

  • Contests may be important for us, but they are not going to earn us that platform in wider society.

Although I agreed with a lot of what Gavin said, there were a few points that definitely need further discussion. I have 39 minutes of recorded audio from Gavin’s speech that I would happily take up the rest of this article unpacking - but I will dedicate the rest of the contents of that speech in further articles to give it the respect and independent discussion that it deserves.

Major Work: Programming Contemporary Music

The first breakout session I attended was the Programming Contemporary Music. This session was delivered by:

  • Beth Wells, Interim Director, BBC Philharmonic

  • Liz Lane, Composer

  • Andrew Baker, Composer and Musical Director

  • Dr. David Thornton, Conductor, Euphonium Soloist and Educator

The session opened with a discussion around the word ‘contemporary’ and the feelings this word evokes amongst the brass band community in regards to repertoire. Andrew Baker, has asked the question to brass bands in the past and has been met with, what he called, ‘some interesting answers’, one particular example being “stuff that doesn’t have a tune”. Of course, this response was met with a few giggles and knowing nods of the head from around the room. I think we’ve all heard more modern music (i.e. the kind that isn’t written on yellow paper) referred to as tuneless or something along those lines. However, it’s this kind of attitude towards music that has made prolific, well-respected composers, such as Judith Bingham, hesitant to work with brass bands again.

So, what causes this apprehension, when it comes to more modern repertoire?

I believe Beth Wells hit the nail on the head, when she outlined that the word ‘contemporary’ can trigger a negative response as it is ‘fear of the unknown’. She’s totally right, let’s think about it. When we think of the word contemporary or modern, I think the tendency is to assimilate it with the weird, the odd and the wacky. Take art or architecture for example. When you tack on the word modern or contemporary, it tends to conjure up images of random paint splatters on a canvas or a building made out of glass and shaped like a vegetable. So, it’s understandable that for an ensemble that is steeped in tradition or who feel like they’ve had their fingers burned with one or two pieces that they didn’t enjoy and they just happen to be from this century, to assume that all music under the banner of ‘contemporary’ is bad. So, we decided to rename contemporary music to new music or music of our time, in the hope that this traverses that fear.

Moving on, it was discussed that bands fear that the audiences have certain expectations when it comes to brass band programmes and may be put off by more modern music. A valid worry, because it’s the audiences that pay the band’s bills. However, Andrew said a little later on in the session that ‘contemporary music doesn't mean music that has to challenge your ears and scare audiences away’. From this point in the session it was clear that in order to programme contemporary music successfully, we had to strike the right balance of appealing to both older audiences, whilst attracting new audiences, as well as performing music that brass band players also find engaging. The next question was, how do we achieve this? Liz Lane, who is the Composer in Association with Grimethorpe, explained about a project that involved the collaboration between brass bands and Bhangra musicians, which has opened up the brass band to brand new audiences. Beth also spoke about a project where the BBC Philharmonic teamed up with a deaf composer who brought a fresh perspective to the process of music making that both the musicians and the audiences found really engaging. Collaboration makes finding this balance possible.

Credit Where It's Due

Later on in the session, Beth made a key point when she said “we don’t give our audiences enough credit”. We assume which music they’re going to engage with and the music they’re going to reject. Again, it’s decision-making fueled by fear, understandable fear - no one wants to play in an empty hall - but fear that is going to hold us back nonetheless.

This flow of conversation led to Gavin Higgins, who had attended this session as a spectator, explaining the concept of ‘selling the music’ to the audience, so they understand what they are listening to and the inspiration or story behind the music. Andrew talked about an experience with the Leyland Band where they were playing Simon Dobson’s ‘Lock Horns/Rage On’. They played the piece at two separate concerts, one where there was no context given to the audience about the piece at all and one where the story behind the piece was revealed to the audience before the performance. The audience were given feedback forms and the results of that feedback revealed that when there was no context given, around 60% of the audience reacted negatively. In comparison, when the audience was aware of the context of the piece, the statistics switched, with around 60% of the audience saying they enjoyed the piece. It’s clear to see that audiences are more receptive to modern music than we give them credit for, they just need to understand the concept of what we’re hearing, which I think is fair!

Speaking as a player, I agree that this approach is key for our players, as well as our audiences. I can think of many occasions where I’ve, ignorantly, brushed off a piece before I’ve actually learned what it’s about and then noticed the composer’s intentions and then appreciated the piece for what it is and therefore engaged with it. Again, I’ve got 40 minutes of recorded audio from this session that I really want to explore in its own article, as the points made by the esteemed and highly-experienced members of the panel deserve their own spotlight. However, the key takeaways I took from this session were that word - collaboration - with more diverse audiences, composers and musicians, alongside ceasing to assume what our audiences want and instead give them more credit by clearly outlining the repertoire we’re playing and selling the concepts behind the music to our players too. I also agreed with a comment that Iwan Fox made when the floor was opened up to the delegates that we need to ‘be brave’, and push the boundaries a little.

Time for a Break

By this point it was around 12:45pm and my brain was already swimming with information and inspiration and we were barely half way through the day! The next session was a Q&A with the CEO of Arts Council England, which following the references to Art Council cuts in Gavin’s keynote speech, was sure to be an interesting 30 minutes.

However, I appreciate that this has already been a lengthy relation of an action-packed day and I don’t want to rush you through. So, let’s make this a two-parter! Do you promise to come back? In the next part, we’ll be covering the Q&A (I had MANY thoughts during this session, as did many others around me) followed by a world premiere from the winner of the NewMoon Insurance Young Composer Competition, finding out Amersham’s journey to becoming the hub of their local community, as well as a successful banding organisation, and a panel discussion about the future of banding.

I hope I’ve sold just how amazing this event was, so far, but there is so much more to come - so keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment that will be published this week!

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