On the road with the young maestros

An Aberdeen school band is on its way to a prestigious music festival. Jean McLeish finds out what all the noise is about

Jean McLeish

Even 12-hour coach trips fail to dampen their spirits - being on the road with the band is all part of the fun. There are more than 50 teenagers to pack onto the bus with their assortment of tubas, trumpets, trombones and triangles.

It's a long way to London from Aberdeen and by the time they get to Stonehaven, some of their teachers may be wondering why they do this. But when they hear the band strike up, they'll remember.

Aberdeen Grammar School Concert Band has a repertoire of stirring stuff for brass, woodwind and percussion. It's a range that includes a spectrum of moods from bouncy American hoedowns to the kind of patriotic marching tunes that could persuade pacifists to fix bayonets.

The band love what they do. They love the mood swings of this sometimes boisterous, sometimes gentle music, love playing their instruments and even enjoy these long coach trips taking them to play at events such as the National Concert Band Festival (NCBF) in London. And they're good - very good.

This is the fifth consecutive year they've been invited to take part in the prestigious national final of the NCBF. Last year they won a platinum award at the Scottish regional event of the festival and a gold award at the UK final. Trumpet soloist Mark James twice won the outstanding soloist award.

"Their success is based on hard work," says their conductor Alan MacDonald. "The children and their parents support an ethos of very intense preparation prior to a festival. In the fortnight before, they will be rehearsing perhaps three or four school evenings and at the weekend as well," says Mr MacDonald, brass instructor at the school and its feeder primary schools.

After this afternoon's rehearsal, many of them go on to further rehearsal for other bands and orchestras or to do more practice at home. Their commitment is laying groundwork for those who have their sights set on careers as professional musicians. For others, playing will be a lifelong pleasure, something they can enjoy after the day job's done.

Sixth-year pupil Kirsten Urganci began playing percussion in primary school. "I went in halfway through first year just as a standby to do tuned percussion and I've been here for the rest of my life basically."

Tuba player Callum Reid, 16, plays with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (NYOS) and wants to study music: "The dream is to be in the Berlin Phil," says Callum, who also plays piano and organ.

He enjoys playing big, powerful instruments: "I like having a sense of power," says the fifth-year pupil, who recently played with NYOS and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a concert in Glasgow to celebrate the Olympics.

His twin, Lewis Reid, 16, plays percussion in the band and is auditioning for NYOS after playing double bass in the National Children's Orchestra of Scotland. He also likes big instruments: "It's awesome, you just get such a feeling of power," says Lewis, who's also considering studying music.

Thirteen-year-old trumpeter Alice Brown is in second year and like many teenagers has a packed schedule. As well as the concert band, she plays in the school's jazz band and dixieland band at lunchtimes.

She has been travelling with the band to London for the Easter National Concert Band Festival. Two best performing bands there will then perform at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the Olympics and one will also perform at Carnegie Hall in New York.

"It's so fun when all the music comes together and you're playing with your friends," says Gloria in a break from rehearsal.

"After this I will go home and practise for another hour or so. I do ballet, hockey and swimming too. I've quite a lot going on," she says.



Music teacher Alan MacDonald is living proof that music doesn't only make you feel good - it actually does you good too.

"I'm an asthmatic and undoubtedly being a brass player helps," says band conductor Mr MacDonald, who plays the trumpet. "The type of breathing you're doing when you play tuba, for example, is opening up all the airways.

"I have two inhalers and am on constant medication for asthma, but I don't let it stop me," says the wind band conductor. "I confound the nurse when I have my asthma check every time because even at the point where I am struggling with my asthma, if they ask me to blow into a peak flow meter I can go beyond the average person's ability."

In the current economic climate, he's cautious about encouraging young people into careers as professional musicians. With funding for the arts in a precarious state, talented young people are pursuing degrees in subjects other than music, so they have something to fall back on.

"I think that is probably a trend that is being encouraged by teachers like me," he says. "I can't put my hand on my heart and say to my pupils who are at that level, `Go into music', although that's what I would love to say to them. Because if I am being completely responsible, I have to say to them: `Think about it very, very carefully.'"

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Jean McLeish

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