Oldham to New Orleans

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The traditional sounds of a northern industrial town and the music of America's Deep South are two of the highlights from next week's 30th anniversary celebration of young musical talent. Gerald Haigh reports

Remember the scene in the 1996 film Brassed Off in which Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) comes new to rehearsal with her flugelhorn and plays the ravishing Adagio from Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"? If it prickled the hairs on your neck in the cinema, see if you can stifle the tears when you hear it played at the Schools Prom next Wednesday, by the Bare Trees Community Wind Band, with 13-year-old Catherine Cordwell on the flugelhorn.

"It was my idea to do it," says Catherine, who's also principal cornet. "I saw the film and I wanted to play the piece. It's difficult, with quite a few twiddly bits." Catherine sits next to her niece Natalie, also 13, second cornet and a soloist on the flugel in her own right. "My best piece is 'Gabriel's Oboe'," she says. (They know how to wring out an audience, these girls. Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe", used in Roland Joffe's 1986 film The Mission, is another surefire tear-jerker.) For Lewis Cordwell, who is Catherine's dad and Natalie's grandfather, it's a double helping of family pride. "My chest swells when I hear them," he says. "We can't wait to get to the Albert Hall."

The band is based at the 275-pupil Bare Trees junior school in Oldham, where it was started in 1998 by John Collins, then a newly qualified teacher with an interest in brass bands. "I started teaching a small brass group after school, with six old Salvation Army instruments we bought for pound;300," he says.

By Christmas 1999, 18 children were playing in concerts in school and at local churches. They could easily have settled for what was already a great achievement. Bare Trees, though, has that vital ingredient, a head - John Tobin - with a vision of how things can be. "He asked me how much money it would take to make the band really good," says Mr Collins. "I said pound;2,000, and he told me to go ahead. I bought more instruments, and he released me for half a day a week to teach brass."

This was the take-off point. By summer 2000, 30 players were rehearsing regularly after school, and the band was performing in public and competing in local festivals. Then the peripatetic woodwind teacher, who was instructing a small group in the school, suggested clarinets and flutes should join in, so the brass band became a wind band, enlivened by the extra instrumental colour.

Now there are 40 players. Half are still at the school, the youngest eight years old, and half are, like Natalie and Catherine, children who've moved on to secondary school but can't bear to stop. Mr Collins, in fact, has to coax older pupils to move on to adult groups so he can make room for younger children.

It's Bare Trees's first time at the Prom, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary, and 100 parents and friends will be at the Albert Hall.

There's considerable expense involved, but fundraising has been a feature of the band's life from the start. They've played everywhere and run every conceivable sort of money-making event. Mr Collins has appeared, with friends, in lederhosen, as a Bavarian oompah band.

The impact on the school and the community is enormous, as Mr Tobin clearly knew it would be when he made the financial commitment four years ago.

"Parents know their children are having a special opportunity and the kind of experience they wouldn't normally have," he says. "And it's led some diffident children to become confident of their value and worth."

The school has had two excellent Ofsted reports - in 1995 and 1998 - and a third will be published just before the Prom. Good things are again expected, and it looks as if Mr Tobin is heading for a week of much deserved pride and satisfaction.

As the Bare Trees expedition heads south to its Wednesday date, the Norton Hot Eight from Norton Knatchbull school, a Kent grammar, will still be basking in the afterglow of their reception at Monday's Prom. Norton Knatchbull groups are veterans of the event. "This will be our 10th appearance since 1989," says John Hall, head of music and expressive arts.

But it's the first time for the players who make up the Hot Eight, a traditional New Orleans jazz group featuring trumpet, clarinet, and trombone. The rhythm section has a washboard, and the sound is underpinned by a large sousaphone (a jolly looking brass instrument, adapted from the tuba and invented by John Philip Sousa, "the march king") played by a small boy.

The band was started "just for a laugh", says Mr Hall, and the novelty value has taken them a long way. But there's more to it than that. The essence of jazz is improvisation, and that's where these players score heavily. The National Festival of Music for Youth, from which Prom programmes are selected, sees many jazz groups of various genres, but all too often - as the adjudicators regularly comment - there's plenty of surface polish but not enough good improvisation. The Hot Eight, though, improvise all the time.

"We work in the original New Orleans way," says Mr Hall, "learning by ear, building up the parts by improvisation and not writing them out. So every performance is a bit different." New Orleans jazz is obviously a passion for Mr Hall. "I visited Memphis and New Orleans this summer," he says. "I saw Bourbon Street and went in all the dives."

The agenda, though, is all about musical education, and a curriculum into which jazz fits perfectly. "We do a lot of jazz and blues in the classroom, from key stage 3 on," says Mr Hall. "The chord structures are simple and you can get youngsters straight into it, doing little riffs over a 12-bar blues sequence."

John Hall has the advantage of knowing the noise and excitement that's in store for Bare Trees and his own group. "There's a wonderful sense of anticipation while you're waiting to go on," he says. "Then, when you're on, there's no feeling of anyone supporting just their own group. Everybody is rooting for everybody else."

For John's wife, Sian, this 30th-anniversary event is special because she played in the first Prom in 1974, with the Woking girls' grammar school orchestra. "We did Beethoven's 'Coriolanus Overture'," she says. "It was exciting and there was lots of rushing around getting groups on and off for rehearsal."

She's enjoyed the chance to keep in touch with the Prom. "I've been with John every time his group's been there, and it's been lovely to carry on the connection."


The Schools Prom, run by the charity Music for Youth, is held in the Royal Albert Hall on three consecutive nights (this year it's November 8, 9 and 10). The event features 30 school and youth music groups, with players aged from five to 20. The programmes are chosen from the 300 groups that appear at the National Festival of Music for Youth in July. That festival, in turn, is built from groups that appear in Music for Youth's regional festivals, held across the UK in the spring term.

The 2005 regionals will be held in February and March. Entries close on December 6. The national festival will be in Birmingham in July. Full details, including application forms, on the Music For Youth website at www.mfy.org.uk.

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