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IT'S NOT A TRUMPET

THE BRASS BAND BLOG

Tracks of My Years - Part One

Updated: Mar 20

The Music That Made Me

2024 marks 20 years since I started playing in brass bands. In those 20 years, I have created endless memories, found some of my closest friends, met the man who was to become my fiancé and so much more. All of these events have been soundtracked by a range of original music and arrangements for brass band - from the sublime to the ridiculous - and I thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane.


Fancy joining me?


My Brass Beginnings

In the summer of 2004, Olivia (I went by the full moniker then) - a shy, seven-year-old with a fear of performing - stepped into Old Hall Brass's band room, which was a rented space in a business park in my home village of Billinge, Wigan. Little did I know that I was at the start of, what was going to be, a fun-filled adventure that would forge the path for the rest of my life. 


I didn’t come from a brass band family. I wasn’t born with a cornet pressed into my hands - so when I stepped into the band for the first time, I was instrument-less and had no idea what I wanted to play at that point. So, my banding career began as a member of the percussion section. 


'Is This the Way to Amarillo?'

It was a sunny, Saturday afternoon and, after getting over the initial nervousness of being introduced to the members of Old Hall Community Band (the youth/community band that Old Hall Brass had, back in the day), I was directed to the percussion section. From there, I was placed on a seat behind the drum kit and handed a pair of claves. I couldn’t read a note of music, so as the conductor, Peter Littlehales, announced to the band that the first piece of the rehearsal was an arrangement of Tony Christie’s ‘Amarillo’ I had a slight panic, but luckily the two other young percussionists, Kevin and Jerome (if memory serves me well) were on hand to help me out. 


Being able to contribute to an entire piece (as simple as my part was) felt amazing, and after my first rehearsal, I remember spending every day at school willing the week to be over, so I could go back to band. 


My career as a percussionist was to be short-lived. After a few months of living in the land of the shed-builders, I started to look at the cornet section with longing in my eyes. It appeared to little, naïve me that the cornets always had the tune - and I wanted to play the tune (I was yet to learn that this wasn't the case). So, I went home and declared that I really wanted to be a cornet player -  to which my parents probably panicked, because I didn’t own a cornet…and they’re not exactly cheap. 


'Handbags and Gladrags'

When I look back, I realise how lucky I truly was. For the sum of £2 a week (less than a cup of coffee), the band loaned me a cornet and a few of the older members would take it in turns to take myself and the other ‘learners’ of the band out of the main rehearsal and into another room to teach us how to play. A lifelong skill learned for £2 a week - without which,  I simply wouldn’t be where I am or who I am today.


The third cornet part of Alan Fernie’s arrangement of Handbags and Gladrags was the first full piece of music that I ever learned. I’ve told you about my excitement when I managed to contribute my claves part to Amarillo; can you imagine how I felt when I had played actual notes on a brass instrument with a brass band for the first time? I don’t think the instrument was off my face for the entire first week it was in my possession. Oh how I wish that dedication had lasted...


Contesting 

Having progressed through the cornet ranks of the Old Hall Community Band, at age 13 I joined the ‘senior’ band, which was, at the time, a second section contesting band. Within less than 6 months I was to dip my toe into the world of contesting. Having only played in concerts and the odd march, brass band contests were a completely foreign concept to me. Since then they have been the birthplace of many great memories and an introduction to some of the finest music our community has to offer. 

'Rhapsody for Brass'

Dean Goffin’s Rhapsody for Brass, was my first introduction to brass band test pieces. It was the first piece of ‘serious’ brass band music that I had ever played and polishing a performance to a contest standard was a learning curve and a half! 


The contest in question was the (now extinct) Northern Open Contest, held at the Theatre Royal in St Helens, which was around 15 mins from where I lived. I thought I had experienced nerves before. This was something else. As I took my first steps onto the stage - a stage where I had watched many a pantomime as a child - I was absolutely blummin’ terrified - oh yes I was! 


The nerves may have been scary, but the feeling I had when I left the stage was electric and an experience that has kept me in contesting and in banding in general for years. It’s incomparable. My first experience of a contest day also made me a big fan of contesting - sitting in the pub having a laugh with your bandmates, post-performance, became one of my favourite pastimes. 


'Resurgam' 

The 2011 Regional Brass Band Championships introduced me to what was going to become one of my all-time favourite pieces of original brass band music, Eric Ball’s Resurgam. It’s the first piece of brass band music that really touched me emotionally (well as emotional as I could be at the age of 14). The cornet solo in that piece is just absolutely sublime and this was the piece that made me look at the Principal Cornet seat and say to myself ‘I’m going to work until I’m good enough to sit in that seat’. It would take another two years, but with the belief of our conductor, John North, and some elbow grease I would get there…


'Firestorm'

Two years later, Stephen Bulla’s Firestorm was my very fitting baptism of fire as the Principal Cornet Old Hall Brass. I’ll be honest, when John promoted me to the seat, I didn’t think I was good enough (this is to be a theme for my entire banding story), but luckily he had enough faith for the both of us. 


I feel far more at home with melodic playing than technical, but this piece has quite a technical solo (at least for someone who was still finding her feet) and to say I was panicking about my first contest outing as Principal at (again, the now extinct) Fleetwood Contest in September 2013 was an understatement. I cursed every damn note of that solo.


Well the hard work, panic and sleepless nights paid off, as I managed to hit the solo and the band played a blinder, which resulted in us going home with the first winners trophy in years. We then proceeded to fill said trophy with alcohol. Learning to handle a hangover was the next lesson I had to learn…quickly. 

'Partita For Band'

Philip Wilby’s Partita For Band was the chosen work for the 2014 Regional Brass Band Championships. I loved the hymn ‘Lord of the Dance’, before we played this piece. After two weeks of practising Partita I was sick to death of this tune. Having this melody stuck in your head for longer than Michael Flatley milked the dance tour of the same name will do that to you. I love Philip Wilby’s music - but this isn’t my favourite. 


So, why is it on the list? Up until Fleetwood, my experience of contesting had been a rather negative affair. With disappointing result after disappointing result, regardless (it seemed) of how well we thought or other people thought we had performed, I was starting to get a bit fed up of it. So, to finally earn a top three position at the Regionals, which bagged us a ticket to my first national finals was one of the most exciting moments of my life, at that point.  


For the Love of Banding

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that I have always been a band geek; that I was bitten by the banding bug as a seven year old and that was that. Although I did fall instantly in love with banding, there were times I nearly dropped out of it. Struggles with self-doubt, teenage angst and other factors nearly jeopardised my banding career before it began. If it wasn’t for the occasional reality check from my mother, I may not have carried on. Along the way there have been pieces of music that have created and fuelled my passion for brass bands and when I've come close to hanging my instrument up for good it's this music and what it represents that has managed to pull me back.

'I’ll Walk with God'

My view on brass bands completely changed when I was around 14, sitting in the audience of a Black Dyke Concert at St Helens Town Hall. I’d never heard a brass band play like that before. It was awe-inspiring. Watching the likes of Richard Marshall, Zoe Hancock, Gary Curtin and Paul Duffy was incredibly motivating for a young player. It forged an ambition to one day be a soloist in a Championship section band. However, it was the band’s performance of Goff Richards’ ‘I’ll Walk with God’ that I will never forget. 


When I was a teen, it was a well established joke in our family that I didn’t cry at anything. My mum used to tease that I must have a swinging brick where my heart should be. It was true. When Ellie died in Pixar’s ‘Up’, when Bambi loses his mum, even when the lads and lasses of Grimley Colliery play Danny Boy in Brassed Off - I was sad, but I never shed a tear. You can imagine my Mother’s shock when she turned to see me snivelling away as the band played I’ll Walk with God. To this day, I don’t truly know why this performance touched me emotionally. The only thing I remember is thinking, ‘I bloody love brass bands’.


'The Wizard'

Although this is a contest march, I’ve filed it under the For the Love of Banding section, as I associate this march with my favourite event of the year - Whit Friday. I took part in my first Whit Friday at the age of 14 and The Wizard was our chosen march. Considering my experience of marching, at that point, had consisted of soggy days in Southport, nearly tripping over and (on one occasion) nearly passing out through not breathing properly whilst playing and walking - I wasn’t looking forward to it. 


Oh how wrong I was. The pride of marching down the road with my band, as people cheered, having the opportunity to listen to other bands, laughing at the banter on the band bus as the evening sun streamed through the window (I had yet to learn that the sun doesn’t always shine on Whit Friday) and the rebellion of a blue WKD smuggled into my hands by an older band friend - I loved it and I’ve since enjoyed many Whit Fridays filled with friends, music and the odd beer... 


As it was my first Whit Friday March, The Wizard will always be synonymous with the Best Free Show on Earth and the laughs shared with friends.


Time to Move On

So, that’s it for the early years of banding. When I turned 18, it was time to move on from Old Hall Brass, a move that began the most eventful era of my banding career. I met some of the most important people in my life; the hardest challenges , both musically and personally, were faced and it was all soundtracked by brilliant music. I hope you’ll return for part two!


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