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How brass bands have changed with the times

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 November 2015

Wardle Junior Blast Brass Band  celebrating their success at the Brass Bands England 2015 National Youth Brass Band Championships

Wardle Junior Blast Brass Band celebrating their success at the Brass Bands England 2015 National Youth Brass Band Championships

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Twenty years after Brassed Off was released brass bands across the country are experiencing a resurgence with help from a group based in Barnsley. Words by Paul Mackenzie

Rachel Veitch-Straw, national liaison officer at Brass Bands England in BarnsleyRachel Veitch-Straw, national liaison officer at Brass Bands England in Barnsley

With the coal industry in steep decline the Grimley Colliery Band is struggling to survive, but against the odds they manage to reach the finals of the national brass band competition where they put in a stirring performance and lift the trophy.

The story struck a chord with cinema-goers twenty years ago and Brassed Off found favour in the brass band world too for its positive portrayal of the camaraderie, skill and passion of bands.

The Grimley band was based on Grimethorpe, one of Yorkshire’s most famous and successful brass bands and the current holders of the British Open and Brass In Concert titles. They too have come through tough times and went on to perform at the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony and tour Australia earlier this year.

Yorkshire has long been the spiritual home of brass bands but in recent years the numbers of bands across the country has grown, and bands across England are developing with a little help from a group in Barnsley.

Pic Joan Russell
Town feature on Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire. Band Manager Philip Woodward,(centre with glasses) with members of the Senior Band - part of Kirkbymoorside Town Brass Band.Pic Joan Russell Town feature on Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire. Band Manager Philip Woodward,(centre with glasses) with members of the Senior Band - part of Kirkbymoorside Town Brass Band.

Rachel Veitch-Straw, a liaison officer at Brass Bands England, said: ‘We help bands to get to where they want to be and we also work on raising awareness of brass bands and celebrating the heritage and reminding people of the value of brass bands.

‘Brass bands have always been strong in the South West and they are growing in the South and South East now as well and I think there are now more brass bands than ever before in Europe. People move down towards London for work and to music colleges and because of the London-centric cultural situation but there is some really good stuff happening in the North too.

‘Hammond Saltaire brass band, for instance, were looking for something new and a musician called Shri Sriram was looking for a brass band to work with so we brought them together and the results were wonderful. They had a soft premiere of their work at the Hull Freedom Festival and it was officially launched at the London Jazz Festival in November. They have recorded an album too and they’ll be going on tour. That’s just one example but there has been an increasing amount of collaboration.’

Brass Bands England, which changed its name from the British Federation of Brass Bands in 2012, had to take on extra staff earlier this year to cope with growing demand for their help. ‘There is currently so much interest in brass band music and we are seeing more and more bands looking for business and artistic support.

Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald show what they can do in the film Brassed Off which was released in1996Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald show what they can do in the film Brassed Off which was released in1996

‘In the past bands would have had sponsorship from the mines or steelworks and support from working men’s clubs, but society has changed and brass bands are having to build their audience in different ways,’ added Rachel, who started playing the cornet as an eight-year-old at school in Sheffield.

The 44-year-old now plays with the Unite the Union Band and the Loxley Training Band which runs a scheme where experienced teenagers are supporting adults who are new, or returning to playing in a band.

‘The training bands aren’t just for youngsters – it’s great to see children helping adults,’ Rachel said. ‘We have 60 competing bands in Yorkshire, as well as many non-competing bands, and we feel passionately about recruiting young people and encouraging adults to learn to play, or come back to playing. We find that a lot of women aged 35-50 are looking for new activities which will give them more ‘me’ time, and brass banding seems to fit the bill.

‘We estimate there are about 2000 bands around the country, each with about 30 people, so there is a huge number of people involved up and down the country. They are buying music, composing music, publishing music and they are buying instruments, uniform and music stands so brass bands are important to that industry around bands.

‘Brass bands are very community orientated and they give people a connection they might lose in other parts of their life. There are correlations with sport, but you don’t have to get muddy in a brass band.

‘It can be almost like meditation through music – if you’re worried about anything when you go in, there’s no time to think about it while you play because you’re focussed on being a part of a team and doing the best you can. When you come out everything has a different aspect to it.’

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