Brass bands are cool. Pupils are queuing up to be the best blowers in the business - and they are cutting their risk of asthma at the same time, says Stephen Manning.Is it art? Is it competitive sport? Or is it just good for your health? It may be quite an archaic musical form, but there seems to be plenty in brass band music for the very young to get their teeth, and lips, into.
Just ask the Bare Trees Community Band, a 40-piece brass ensemble of seven to 13-year-olds, all current, or recent, pupils at Bare Trees Junior School in Oldham, Lancashire. They make regular appearances in theNorth-west, but next week will return to the London stage for this year's Music for Youth Schools Prom, the annual highlight of the musical calendar for schools.
In fact, "return" isn't quite right. Though the band has appeared at the event once before, in 2004, the steady stream of new members means that all but four are making their debut. Armed with tubas, trombones and horns, their repertoire mixes marches such as Death or Glory with the less traditional, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean theme.
One pupil, Jodie Russell, 10, will give a solo flugelhorn rendering of I Don't Know How To Love Him, from Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. But they don't succumb to the temptation of brassing up modern-day hits. This is hardcore.
The band is organised by John Collins, formerly a teacher at the school and now a brass peripatetic for Oldham music services. A euphonium player, he created the school band nine years ago. There were no brass instruments then, so he bought a job lot that had belonged to The Salvation Army, total cost pound;200.
John thinks the appeal of the brass band for these youngsters, who start tuition in Year 3, is that it's a mix of art and sport. "It's the competitive element as much as anything else that attracts young players," he says. "There are a lot of brass band contests around here. You try and outplay rival players."
Apart from rapping, it's hard to think of another musical form that lends itself to battle in this way. Maybe jazz, but that's still about pushing artistic boundaries rather than sheer conflict.
But perhaps that competitive element is why there's no shortage of wannabees. "The kids have a hunger for this that's more like the passion of supporting a football team," says John. "It demands commitment."
John, now 36, was advised as a child to take up a brass instrument to combat asthma, to develop breathing exercises before inhalers. That initial health consideration is still relevant. Oldham music services have for the past five years run a project called Bronchial Boogie (www.bronchialboogie.co.uk), which allows peripatetic brass teachers to teach "asthma education" via playing wind instruments in primary schools.
Asthma is six times more prevelant than 25 years ago, with 25 children dying each year from attacks. According to Bronchial Boogie, Oldham, as a fairly deprived area, has a death rate 36 per cent above the national average. So maybe a nation of children parping their way through John Philip Sousa classics should be at the forefront of a healthy schools initiative.