Excitement is mounting in a West Lothian school whose brass band has reached the UK final of the National Concert Band Festival. Julie Morrice reports
Nearly 40 parents turned up one sunny Friday afternoon recently to hear the school's wind band rehearse, and it clearly came as a surprise. There was a great flurry as more and more chairs were assembled for the unexpected crowds, but even so, it was mostly standing room only in the drama studio at Inveralmond High School in Livingston, West Lothian.
Conductor Juliet Hosie shooed the parents out as soon as the rehearsal ended to give the players a pep talk. For the band was also celebrating getting into the UK final of the National Concert Band Festival.
Next Friday, all 53 members, aged between 11 and 17, will be performing at the Royal Northern College in Manchester, one of only eight ensembles in their class, chosen from all over the UK.
"It really means something to us," says Karen Prophet, depute head of Inveralmond. "Our catchment area includes Craigshill and Ladywell, two areas of real deprivation. We're not a school with high numbers of middle-class parents who can give the sort of support other schools have."
She knows full well the reason for Inveralmond's success - West Lothian is one of the few authorities who have retained free instrumental tuition, since local government was re-organised three years ago.
"It would be a nightmare for us if they introduced charges," she says. "I feel there is a political agenda to do that. But if they want kids off the street, motivated, doing something worthwhile, then this is the way. All credit to West Lothian for so far maintaining, and in some areas increasing, the level of provision."
It seems that wherever you find a school achieving something out of the ordinary, there is a network of staff supporting and promoting the activity. In Inveralmond's case there is Karen Prophet, whose background is in music and physical education, and who clearly puts the concert band firmly on the whole-school agenda; Stefan Pawlak, the principal teacher of music, who has been at Inveralmond for 20 years; then there is Juliet Hosie, the conductor, whose purpose and ambition for this band are palpable as soon as you speak to her; and Brian Duguid, West Lothian's arts manager, who works away behind the scenes making things happen.
The result is a group of young people who are getting something wonderful out of school music. Ronny Black plays tenor sax in the band. "We've worked hard for this," he says. "We weren't really taking it seriously and then we got a gold in the Scottish final at Falkirk in November. And we thought, well, we'll have to rehearse now."
For most of the Inveralmond pupils, Friday school finishes at lunchtime, but for those who play an instrument the afternoon is for band practice. It means that everyone, from the earliest stages, is guaranteed the experience of playing with others. As Karen Prophet puts it, "What's the point of practising alone in your bedroom for years on end?" West Lothian, with its long tradition of brass bands, is all about shared music-making, and the proof was in that 20-minute concert in the drama studio. This is a band that grabs the attention, swinging confidently through a range of styles, from the triumphal sound of Stephen Bulla's complex "Prelude to a Festival", to the golden warmth of negro spiritual, and the sheer excitement of "King Across the Water", a kind of aural Braveheart inspired by Bonnie Prince Charlie and written by Fife composer Bruce Fraser. Whether Manchester brings them gold or not, this band is a winner.