Brass tactics

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh trumpets the achievements of a newly formed community band in the north of England.

Brass bands always sound friendly - you can use them to sell homely stuff, as in bread advertisements. Or you can employ them as sentimentality generators, playing quietly outside the hospital ward of a dying man, as in films such as Brassed Off. The sound is lush and mellow in quiet sections and thrillingly dignified - Elgar with knobs on - at full volume. It would be misleading to perpetuate the belief that the instruments are easy to play, but you get to make an acceptable noise within a relatively short time.

All of which helps to explain why a visit to the community band at Fred Longworth school is such a satisfying experience. It is not so much that this is a highly accomplished band by national standards - as they undoubtedly know, you will hear more polished performances at the Schools Proms. However, the group is only a year old in its present form and director Duncan Silcock, a music teacher at the school, has a clear vision of the excellence towards which he aspires.

Both Mr Silcock and his head of department William Evans specialised in band musicianship on their Salford University degree course. Starting in 1976, this course pioneered brass band as a degree study. Graduates are now active across the country as teachers and conductors and there are now similar courses in many music departments and colleges. The effect on all kinds of bands - wind bands and big bands as well as brass - has been to raise both the profile and the standard.

The group was started partly to fill the gap between the school band and adult bands. The north of England - Fred Longworth is in Tyldesley, part of Wigan authority - is brass band country but, even there, though standards of playing are higher than ever, it no longer seems quite so easy for young people to move in. The problem is really cultural, suggests Duncan Silcock. "There are bands that bring young people through," he says. "It's not necessarily that the links are not there. It's more that it's a big step for a young person to go to a senior band and say 'Can I play with you?' It's part of the move away from a feeling of community."

Another factor in the genesis of the band was the pressure on rehearsal time during the working day. Duncan Silcock says: "We always had a school brass band with rehearsals at lunchtime. But lunchtime was only 50 minutes, and by the time you had everybody ready that meant 20 minutes' rehearsal, and even then there were problems with pupils being late for lessons."

If he band was to progress it needed a proper rehearsal spot. Straight after school would not work - there were too many other commitments. That meant meeting later in the evening, and this, says Duncan Silcock, opened up other possibilities. "We saw that we could bring in other young players from primary school, and also we could get older people in to help. And we would hold on to the players we'd been losing when they left school. It opened up a lot of avenues."

One immediate result has been to give the band a family dimension. The lead cornet player, for example, is 11-year-old Rebecca Taylor, a Year 7 pupil at Fred Longworth. Playing alongside her in the band are her sister Rachel, who is in Year 5 pupil at St John's primary, her father Brian, who is an accomplished player in a top band in the area, and her grandfather Charles. Now in his mid-seventies, with 65 years of brass banding under his belt, Charles, who could actually play any of the instruments, is currently a role model, tutor and steadying influence in the trombone section.

"I started with the Salvation Army when I was nine," he says. "And since then I've taught hundreds to play." He believes in pushing children to practise when interest starts to flag. "They need a bit of a shove," he says. "Too many are allowed to just give up when they say they don't want to do it."

His granddaughters seem to need little by way of pushing, though. Rebecca gets up at 6.30am to practise. "I do cornet from 7am to 7.30am," she says. "Then piano from 7.30am till 7.55am. Then I walk to school. In the evening I do another half hour on each instrument."

Head of music William Evans points out how valuable this discipline is. "She brings that same commitment to all her other work," he says. "So when a teacher tells her that she has to work hard, she understands what that means."

Deinniol Owens, who plays tuba, is coming to the end of his time at the school, and has also enjoyed his music. The band suits him very well, and he intends to continue. "The town band would be more demanding," he says, "and it would be difficult with A-levels." He regrets not doing music at A-level. "It pains me," he says. "But I have other priorities." This seems more than just a band. The students are effectively being treated to an extra lesson not just in music but in a whole range of social skills. William Evans sums it all up, in terms that link directly to national aspirations: "The Government wants transferable skills, higher-level skills, thinking skills - well, all of that's happening right here in this room."

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