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Brass Band Conference 2023: Part 2

Exploring the 2023 Brass Band Conference Afternoon Sessions

You came back!

That is assuming you’ve not clicked on this link before reading part one? If not, you can read part one here.

Thanks very much for coming back for part two of my recap of the 2023 Brass Bands Conference hosted by Brass Bands England. The afternoon session was just as jam-packed as the morning, with a Q&A, a world premiere performed by the Hepworth Band, an inspiring presentation from Amersham Band and a panel discussion about the future of banding.

So, let’s not waste any time shall we? We open the second part of this recap with a Q&A with the Chief Executive of Arts Council England, Darren Henley CBE…

Call & Response: Q&A Session with Darren Henley CBE

Darren Henley CBE, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, has a multifaceted career spanning arts, media, education, and government, including a previous role as Managing Director of Classic FM. He has chaired the UK National Lottery Forum and the National Lottery Promotions Unit management board. Henley authored two influential government reviews, resulting in England's first National Plan for Music Education, Music Education Hubs, Heritage Schools, the Museums and Schools program, the BFI Film Academy, and the National Youth Dance Company. His book, 'The Arts Dividend Revisited: Why Investment in Culture Pays,' explores the positive impact of public investment in culture on community well-being.

So, on paper, it looks like we’re on the same page when it comes to the importance of investing in brass bands. I also can imagine how it must feel to sit in the hot seat and face questions from a musical community that has been significantly underfunded, undervalued and underappreciated for decades. I imagine it’s akin to sitting on a raft in an ocean of hungry sharks, with a box of steaks. There’s only a limited amount of steaks and a lot of hungry sharks. A tricky situation to navigate, indeed. To be fair, if I had the choice of taking on a group of hungry sharks or a group of passionate, but frustrated bandspeople (especially, following the impassioned pleas in Gavin’s keynote speech), the answer would be an easy one - pass me the scuba gear. So, I do admire Darren putting himself in the position to be grilled by the day’s delegates and allowing no question to be off the table.

Before the conference began, delegates were invited to submit questions for Darren to answer, so let’s take a look at a few questions and answers from the session:

A delegate from Boarshurst Band asked, “What can the Arts Council do to get music back into the curriculum and to improve brass teaching in schools?” Darren began by emphasising the importance of music and creativity in education, stating: “creativity is the third pillar of a really good, sound education for every young person. He discussed the challenges of finding quality music teachers, which is a very real concern. During my research, following the conference, I delved into the current state of music education and the 2022 government Music Subject Report, does bolster Darren’s statement, as its findings demonstrated that ‘many pupils did not have access to the high quality staff, resources and practical music making opportunities necessary for high quality music education.’

Henley mentioned a national plan for cultural education. Although there wasn’t much explanation on what this plan was, a quick Google search following the event filled in the gaps. This plan will be developed with a panel of experts, of which Darren is one, alongside the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and it aims to:

  • Support all children and young people to access high-quality cultural education

  • Tackle disparities in opportunity and outcomes in cultural education

  • Champion the social value of cultural education

  • Connect relevant organisations to provide cultural and creative opportunities for children and young people

  • Strengthen talent pipelines into cultural and creative sectors

In terms of Arts Council England’s latest national portfolio, Darren articulated that around 80% of affiliated organisations, of which Brass Bands England are one, are working with children and young people.

He also praised the “intergenerational learning” within brass bands, where older members share their knowledge with the younger generations. Darren’s final point was the suggestion for all those in the room who are passionate about music education in schools, to become a school governor, as this would place them within a position of influence to promote music education within schools.

The second question of the session came from Marrianne Garbutt, Programme Administrator for Salford Business School at Salford University and baritone player, who is currently undertaking a doctorate that looks to improve the number of women in influential roles within banding, who asked: “What are the top three things we can do to ensure our movement continues into the next century?” Darren acknowledged the brass band community’s commitment to “creative and artistic excellence”, suggesting that we should continue to “do what [we] do really well and be proud of it”. He recommended challenging ourselves by seeing things from the audience’s perspective to break down barriers and to share the stories of our instruments and individual bands to grow our audience, in a way that is ‘absolutely uncompromising about the artistic integrity in the work that [we] do’.

Whilst I appreciate that these are valid points, that we should continue to pursue and I have seen evidence of our community making efforts to bring something new to our audiences - the Fairey Band’s collaboration with Aardman is a good example - I was left wanting more concrete examples of what has worked for other organisations or information on how the Arts Council can support our endeavours. I believe the passion, pride and drive to push our community forward is there, we just need guidance on how to achieve it, which could have been explained in greater detail, in my opinion.

When the questions were opened to the floor, the topic soon turned to the inevitable - roughly, how much has Arts Council England invested in the brass band movement in the last twelve months? This was the question posed to Darren, who accepted that he didn’t know the number off the top of his head, but followed this up with the insistence that Arts Council England are really interested in investing more. He also stated that the National Lottery Project grant is the ‘obvious route’ for brass bands to go down to try and secure funding and he expressed his interest in working with Brass Bands England to organise some workshops to help brass bands navigate applying for this funding. In terms of numbers, I did find that, as from April of this year until March 2026, Arts Council England are supporting BBE with £405,809 of funding per year which is a significant increase from £210,000 per year. However, I will throw in that the English National Opera will be receiving a grant of £24 million between April 2024 and March 2026. This is a grant bestowed to a single organisation, rather than an institution that supports 100s of musicians. So, I will ask the question, what can we be doing to receive more? Brass bands cover the length and breadth of the UK, but in England alone, it covers championship competitions and all of their associated bands in:

  • North West England

  • The Midlands

  • Yorkshire

  • West of England

  • North of England

  • London & Southern Counties

As well as the contesting bands, we have countless community, non-contesting and youth ensembles that both provide the birthplace of many new brass musicians and the nurturing of hundreds of musicians and provide benefits or could provide benefits to their communities with funding and support. Although, I am beyond happy to see BBE gain more funding for the projects they have and continue to carry out the promotion of grassroots banding and further the community as a whole (it is very much needed and should continue, and be increased accordingly) and supporting institutions like ENO is also important and I don’t resent the funding they are getting, I would love to know what funding is being allocated to individual bands to add to the total given to BBE as a single organisation.

*Puts away soap box*

A World Premiere - Hepworth Band presents Becky Lund’s ‘Tessellations’

After the jam-packed sessions of the conference’s first half and some time for the delegates to digest both what they had learned and their lunch, it was time for a musical interlude provided by the Hepworth Band.

They started their programme with the dramatic “Night on Bare Mountain” by Mussorgsky. As an avid Disney fan and lover of the film “Fantasia”, all I could imagine during this stirring opener is the image of Chernabog, the demon depicted in this section of the film, rising from the mountain’s peak, to show everyone his new manicure, have a bit of a dance with his evil minions before wrapping himself up in his wings for a nap. Just Youtube that scene from Fantasia now - completely takes the scary factor away from it.

I digress - sorry, bad habit - if you’ve been following It’s Not a Trumpet for a while, you’ll be used to it by now.

Manicured demons aside, it was time to move on to a world premiere of “Tessellations” from the pen of newly crowned winner of the NewMoon Insurance Young Composers Competition, Becky Lund. One listen to this piece and I’m obsessed - I’m glad I recorded a good chunk of it to listen back to! I’ll let the composer explain her work in her own words and you can listen to an excerpt below!

“The theme of this conference is heritage and innovation, so that’s kind of where I’ve gone with the piece. It opens with quite a driven, quick section, which is more contemporary, I suppose. Then the middle section goes into a classic hymn, which we all use to warm up in the band room and then the close is a kind of combination of both sections. It layers themes from both parts.”

Here is an excerpt from the ending of Hepworth’s performance of “Tessellations”:

I cannot articulate how much I want to play it! Great to see (and hear) the talent of banding’s younger generation in the spotlight!

And Now, the Results: BBE Award Winners

From one award winner, to a whole host of them - the time had come to announce the Brass Band England award winners, which celebrated a wealth of talented, dedicated individuals and innovative projects.

Band Project of the Year - Supported by Rooms 4 Groups

This year saw the first time the Band Project of the Year Award was decided via a public vote and it was by ‘Bandamonium’ by Hatherleigh Silver Band. By chance, I spoke to the representatives of this project at the beginning of the conference, and I’m already eager to sign up to it - it sounds an absolute hoot, or should I say toot? Sorry. Inspired by Whit Friday, Bandamonium, is a brass band festival in Devon that involves an afternoon of Whit Friday-style concerts hosted in…pubs! After the bands reach their final destinations, everyone makes their way back to Hatherleigh where there is a massed band performance before the prize giving. Musicians can either attend with their band or take part as an individual and join one of the scratch bands on the day!. Now, I know what you’re thinking - where do I sign up. Check out their Facebook page here.

Outstanding Contribution Award - Supported by World of Brass

The winner of this award was Ann Headworth, who has dedicated 75 years of her life to brass bands, having been a member of the Clacton Co-Operative Band, since its formation in 1948. She was the band’s only female musician for 14 years of her time with Clacton Co-Operative and later became their principal cornet. Alongside contributing musically to the band, she has also had a significant influence within the band, holding various committee positions and is currently their Secretary. An outstanding contribution indeed!

Young Bandsperson Award - Supported by ABRSM

Those of you who follow the brass band press, will know who Elise Hale is. Her Brassing Around social media page has gathered a significant following sharing brass band commentary, results and interviews. Alongside Brassing Around, Elise has also won the BBC’s Young Reporter of the Year Award for her article, ‘Why Brass Bands Still Matter’, which saw her feature across the BBC News channels and the One Show. Fantastic to see a proactive, young voice in the brass band community being recognised! You can follow Brassing Around here.

Services for Youth Award

The recipient of this award is someone who has dedicated many years of his life to the promotion of youth music. Graham Helm has been the Musical Director of the 2nd Rossendale Scout Group for 23 years, helping many players discover their musical talent and nurturing that talent. A great achievement and contribution to the banding community in and of itself, but what shows Graham to be an incredibly determined and driven individual is the fact that he is registered Blind. Despite no longer being able to read scores, having played from being a child and conducting for a while before being registered as Blind, he has been able to continue. What an absolute star!

Lifetime Achievement Award

The name of the recipient of this award is as recognisable as the sound he produces on his cornet. Phillip McCann is a globally renowned soloist, conductor, teacher and adjudicator, who has held principal cornet seats in some of the biggest bands, including Fairey’s and Black Dyke. The accolades already sitting in his trophy cabinet include, the All England Masters Dedicated Service Award, the Mortimer Medal and the Iles Medal from the Worshipful Company of Musicians - he is the only person to have achieved both.

The Heart of the Community: Amersham Band

Following the awards presentation, it was time to attend the final breakout session of the day. I chose to attend Amersham Band’s presentation - A Community Bandroom: How Did We Do It, presented by Paul Fisher and Emma Hill. This was one of my favourite sessions of the whole day, I could have happily sat there for hours listening to how the Amersham Band became the heart of their local community.

In his own words, Paul is a ‘passionate brass bander, through and through’, who grew up playing in brass bands in Wrexham, before studying at the RNCM and becoming a professional trombone player. From the get-go, his enthusiasm was infectious and both himself and Emma ran an incredibly engaging session. Again, I plan on exploring everything that was covered within the session in greater detail in its own dedicated article.

In the opening of his presentation, Paul highlighted that our bands are communities - it’s where we go to meet our friends and make music and it’s that statement that has built the ethos of Amersham Band. They have an open door policy - everybody is welcome. With that in mind they ensured that their band room is always ready for guests and highlighted the importance of making your rehearsal space a welcoming environment for both players and visitors alike. They make time in their rehearsal for a brew and a chat, either before they get down to business or during a break. So, the first lesson I took away there is that community starts at home. I’ve played in a band where the ethos was like this and it was where my most fond banding memories were made - so there’s a lot to be said about it!

Moving on to the wider community, Amersham - alongside running an organisation of 9 musical ensembles, including 7 brass bands, a big band and a brass ensemble, Amersham have opened the doors of their bandroom to the wider public for their use. So, alongside their musical endeavours, the band room provides a space for local health and wellbeing classes and also a programme that allows the local community to become close to nature.

It was on this last point that I was really inspired. These initiatives have enabled Amersham Band to have access to multiple revenue streams, which they then invest back into the organisation. Their initiative has also enabled them to reach out and build relationships with local churches and schools, with their ‘Playground Proms’ becoming a popular addition to their local primary schools.

Emma gave us a glimpse into how the band has not only become a community hub, but also the base for multiple environmental initiatives that benefit both the local land and the local residents. The band room is positioned next to a chalk meadow, and the band and Emma have collaborated with local environmental agencies and band leaders to sustainably develop and conserve the local plant and wildlife. The meadow is also used for a range of activities that allow local residents to get close to nature to benefit both their mental and physical wellbeing.

By the end of the session, I was simply left in awe and completely inspired - I wanted to hand my notice in at work, pack my bags, move down and ask for a job! Hopefully, I would love to be able to dedicate my life and career to creating a project that had a similar impact both on the local community and the banding community, one day!

Looking to the Future

The last session of the day was a panel discussion around the future of brass bands. The panel was chaired by BBE Chief Operating Officer, Sarah Baumann, who was joined by:

  • Gavin Higgins, composer

  • Iwan Fox, 4barsrest

  • Andrea Price, percussionist, composer and educator, Chethams School of Music

  • Abi Groocock, Concerts Project Manager, The Glasshouse International Centre for Music

Again, it was the word collaboration that was thrown around the room. Collaboration provides the answer, from building programmes that entice new audiences through the door, to working with the younger voices of our community to ensure that we stay relevant and keep younger people within our bands to making our bandrooms the hub of our communities, like Amersham and finally to throw open the doors to new possibilities and opportunities for brass bands.

There were so many takeaways from this year’s brass band conference, but the key takeaway for me is that collaboration is the bridge that allows us to honour our heritage whilst welcoming and fuelling innovation.

Although both parts of my recap have been lengthy - and I do really appreciate anyone that has managed to get to the end of all of this, you’re real troopers - I hope that it has provided an illustrative glimpse into what the Brass Band Conference has to offer. It is a date that has been firmly underlined in my diary for next year and as I said in part one, it was an event that reaffirmed why I love brass bands, in a time that I was really questioning carrying on. There is so much to preserve and so much opportunity for us to grasp. So, I really do implore you, make yourself free on the 19th October 2024 to come down to the Brass Band Conference.

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1 Comment

Alec Gallagher
Alec Gallagher
Oct 19, 2023

Thank you for this very positive view of the BBE conference. It's good to read a well-written article free of cynicism.

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