Labour and Love: What is Life Like as a Brass Band Musician?
Behind the Scenes: A Peek into the Brass Band World
Whether it's workmates asking about my plans for the weekend, relatives enquiring about my hobby or the topic of 'what I do in my spare time' popping up in small talk - explaining what it's like playing in a brass band to someone who isn't in the community is surprisingly difficult! I speak for our entire community when I say that it is rare (if at all) for the wonderful world of brass bands to be depicted accurately in the media. Even our beloved 'Brassed Off', which is the closest to an accurate representation, doesn't quite get it quite right. As much as I would love to play the finale from the William Tell Overture at the national finals - that isn't going to happen.
For non-banders, playing in a band is seen as a hobby (read as: a pastime used to relax and unwind away from work). So, naturally when a lot of your time is taken up by playing in a band and you have to explain that you 'can't just miss the Regionals contest' or 'yes, missing one rehearsal to go out on the razz would be a bit of a big deal actually' - it's met with a little bit of confusion.
So, if you know someone who plays in a brass band, you're looking to start getting into a band yourself or you (like me) find it difficult to illustrate what life is like in our little community to non-banders - this blog is for you!
Let's open the doors to the brass band world and show you the real day-to-day reality of being a brass band musician.
The Routine of a Brass Band Musician
Of course, every bander's routine is different, dependent on their work and home situation and what their respective band expects of them. However, having played for a few different bands over my (almost) 20 year career in banding, the routine has been mostly the same. So, I shall use my routine playing with the Wingates Band as an example of the average life of a brass band musician!
Most weeks consists of two, two-hour rehearsals per week. During a contest week (don't worry non-bander readers, I'll explain contests shortly!), I have rehearsals most nights! Our rehearsals take place on weeknights, so if I'm in the office, it's a quick turnaround from driving home, quickly eating tea and getting out to the bandroom.
WFH days are usually a bit easier, as I have a fraction longer to have a bit of a chill after work, have tea and get out. It's a little bit hectic I'm not gonna lie! Luckily me and Rob (my other half, who is also a bander!) are both playing in the same band now, it was a bit naff when we played in separate bands, as we were out on different nights, which was a pain!
So, on top of a minimum of four hours of rehearsal time during the week, it's also a responsibility to find time for personal practice at home. Whether it's perfecting solos, getting my head around tricky technical passages in the test piece we're working on or putting the finishing touches to our latest concert set list - there's always something to practise! Even when we don't have an event to work on, it's good to 'keep your lip in' through looking at exercises, working on aspects of your technique that need a bit of polishing or challenging yourself with sightreading or working on a difficult pieces for the sake of learning it!
Concerts, Contests and Events
So, evenings are filled with either rehearsals or personal practice, but at least I have the weekend to relax, right? Erm, no not usually. Many weekends in the year are dedicated to performing - no point putting all that work into rehearsals and practice, if you're not going to show it off, right? Wingates Band's time is taken up with a mixture of concerts and contests. Other events we take part in are recordings and marches too.
Both concerts and contests take a lot of rehearsals, but contests in particular are big events in the banding calendar. The main two in our calendar are the Regionals at the end of February and the British Open Grand Shield in May.
In the week leading up to a contest, the band will have rehearsals every night bar maybe one or two (for good behaviour 😉) before the contest itself at the weekend. The contest itself can take up an entire day or sometimes an entire weekend. It's a great opportunity to learn new skills and a litttle bit of healthy competition is always good. Actually that's a bit of a lie, it's more than a bit of healthy competition with brass bands in the UK. It's very competitive and the topic of most conversation in our community.
I used to be all about the results with contests. However, now it's all about giving the best performance I can on the day (and enjoying that performance), supporting friends in other bands and catching up with them in the pub afterwards!
As well as being the Flugelhorn player for the Wingates Band, I'm also the Marketing Manager (seeing as I working in Marketing for a living, may as well use those skills at band too!). So, in between practising and going to rehearsals, I create all our press releases, social media campaigns, graphics etc. As the role is part of the committee, I've got to factor in committee meetings too!
A Helping Hand - Depping
Sadly, the banding world is a little short of players. Lack of funding and people not returning to the community after Covid, through choice or health issues are just a couple of reasons our numbers have dwindled over the years. So, sometimes bands reach out to myself and Robert to 'dep' for a player they are missing at a concert, contest or other event. Although depping does take up even more time, alongside the time we put into our own band, it's something that is important to do every now and again. For one, it's good experience playing with different bands in different seats than you may play in your own band - for example, I'll sometimes play cornet for another band rather than the flugel. Another important reason is, if the time comes where Wingates need a dep, then we can reach out to the bands we've helped out in the past, to ask for a dep.
On top of everything I've already mentioned, I also write and create content for this blog and its associated socials and I've just undertaken a complete rebuild of this website.
Who needs sleep anyway?
I do, me - I need sleep - at a time that normal humans go to sleep! As it stands I'm typing this at 11:18pm on a Sunday. I need a shower. I've got 5 million things I need to sort for tomorrow. But here we are.
More than a Hobby
To my fellow banders, none of what I've written will come as a surprise at all. To non-banding readers, it may seem that banders don't care about their social life or sleep.
To be honest, when I saw the meme that said:
"I'm not a night owl or an early bird - I'm some kind of permanently exhausted pigeon"
I felt that in my soul and, to be fair, I think it's safe to say that most of us in the banding world are permanently exhausted musical pigeons. Working 40+ hours a week, 4 hours of band rehearsals a week, countless hours of personal practice and weekends taken up with performing. Hell, some of us even have spouses and kids to deal with on top of that! So, why do we do it?!
The first original brass band test piece ever written was called "Labour and Love" . This is what the life of a brass band musician is. It's a lot of labour that takes up a lot of time, but it's because we love it with every fibre of our beings. As cheesy as it sounds, it's part of who we are.
Would I like a normal sleep schedule? Yes. Do I wish that 'sorry, I can't, I have band' wasn't the most common phrase to leave my lips. Also, yes. Would I give up band for those two wishes? Absolutely not. Being a brass band musician is as much a part of me as my eye colour and having five fingers on each hand. I'm proud to be a permanently exhausted brass banding pigeon. I just maybe won't use that analogy to promote my hobby next time it comes up in a conversation.
In short, yes it's something I do in my spare time, but being a bander is who we are, not just something we do.
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