Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band's first female member
PUBLISHED: 12:12 21 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:55 20 February 2013
One of the last bastions of Yorkshire male domination has fallen. And it is music to most people's ears, as Chris Titley reports Photographs by Joan Russell
Brassed Off was one of those comedies which grabbed your heart as much as it tickled your funny bone. In the 1996 film a Yorkshire colliery town band defied a closure threat to the pit by marching to the finals of a music competition helped by new flugelhorn player Gloria.
When Laura Hirst became the first woman to join the world-famous Brighouse and Rastrick Band at the end of last year, it seemed a case of life imitating art.
Thats not quite true. After all this is a village band rather than one linked to a colliery and much of Yorkshires coalfield was grassed over long ago anyway.
But it is hard not to think of the movie when you realise that cornet-player Laura has overcome 130 years of the male-only history of the band to take her place alongside the men.
They asked me if I would be interested, Laura said. Its quite a big honour to be asked to go to a band where theyve never had a female before. And theyre such a top quality band.
I did have a little bit of a think. Because I thought, will they all hate me? I was nervous because I was changing a tradition that a lot of people wanted to carry on.
She neednt have worried. I thought I might get a few being a bit funny towards me but everyones been really nice, she added.
What helped, says band president Paul Beaumont, was the fact that Lauras a cracking cornet player. But he admitted that there were some murmurs of disquiet about the appointment. The brass band movement has been male dominated for a long time. And its got to be said that Brighouse and Rastrick were one of the last of the big bands to appoint a woman.
I dont mind telling you that we actually lost two players not 100 per cent because wed opened up to females, but I guess it was the thing that pushed them over the edge.
The band stood by the principle that they would take the best player for the position regardless of sex. The two players left and Laura has fitted in brilliantly.
Shes almost more one of the blokes than some of the blokes are, Paul said. Lauras been playing in bands for a long time and so shes been used to it. So shes very much part of the team.
Laura had already stormed one male bastion by becoming the first female principal cornet player at Fairey (Geneva) Band based in Stockport. That was four years ago when she was only 23. So she clearly has a steeliness to go with her musicianship.
It also helps that she was brought up in the physically-demanding environment of her familys farm in Saddleworth. She still works in the Albion Farm Shop and is busy developing its retail website.
But musics been a part of her life since she was given a cornet to play at Dobcross Youth Band aged eight. My mum said I was playing it all the time when she was cleaning, making all sorts of noises.
She gained a place at the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music, later deciding to stay in farming rather than become a professional musician. But she revels in playing with a band and competing for silverware.
And bands dont come much bigger than Brighouse and Rastrick. Famed for teaming up with Terry Wogan and reaching number two in the charts with The Floral Dance in 1977, the band is still at the top of its game.
Ranked fifth in the world, the B&R were crowned both Yorkshire and National Champions in 2010. This year Laura cant wait to help defend these titles.
Paul Beaumont, a one-time Hammonds Sauce Works Band cornet player, became involved with Brighouse and Rastrick 12 years ago. He was then managing director of two divisions of Motorola and arranged for the company to sponsor the bands trip to compete in Germany.
Such sponsorship is unusual. The Brighouse and Rastrick is perhaps the worlds best public subscription band: The band is totally self-supporting, and were very proud of our independence, Paul said.
He is honest enough to admit that it could have been quicker to change its men-only stance. The question is always, whys it taken Brighouse and Rastrick so long to have their first woman player? Weve never had a male-only policy, but coming from the roots we have done being one of the first brass bands in the area it was totally male-dominated like every other band, and basically just seen as an all-boys club. We had very few female applications for the band and a heck of a lot of male applications to the band.
Since Laura joined, the band has taken on another woman player Lucy Murphy who plays flugelhorn. Has she opened the floodgates? I dont think theyll all come rushing in, Laura laughs. They might get a bit wary! (Mind you, Paul says another woman could be joining very soon).
A mixed band is better for everyone, she says. Im sure it changes the mood a little bit and makes it a bit more relaxed.
Heres a crucial question what about the Brighouse and Rastrick WAGs? The wives and girlfriends of the men players; how have they taken to a woman band member?
Ive got to admit, Ive not met many, Laura says. I know a couple already and theyre nice enough.
Both Paul and Laura are used to hearing comparisons to Brassed Off. Its a great film, said Paul. I suppose you can look at it that way. But in brass bands people have got a lot of time for someones skills as a brass player. Most of the members of the band look at Laura and say, blimey shes a good cornet player.
We have a bit of a laugh about the Brassed Off thing, says Laura. Its quite close to the truth not from my experience but what bandings been like in the past.
Whats true of the film and real life is that banding is a serious business. This could be quite a year for the Brighouse and Rastrick theyre looking to take more trophies under the baton of professional conductor Prof David King. Theyre performing in Barcelona. And most spectacular of all they could become the first brass band to tour China.
When it comes down to it, the performance is all that matters. Thats certainly the feeling of history maker Laura Hirst.
I just like to be with the band that wins all the competitions. Brighouse had already started doing that before I joined. I just hope we carry on winning.
For concert details see brighouseandrastrickband.co.uk.
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