Speaking with 'One Voice? - BFBB seminar

20-Jun-2008

Can the BFBB speak with 'One Voice' for us all, or are we still talking with different accents on different agendas? 4BR found out more at the latest BFBB seminar in Birmingham.


The British Federation of Brass Bands does find itself between a rock and a hard place at times. 

And with ever growing concerns over the long term sustainability of the brass band movement in the UK, its ‘One Voice’ seminar for its member associations and invited delegates in Birmingham last weekend was a case in point. 

Problems

What was undoubtedly a laudable attempt to bring closer together the disparate elements of music education providers and the general community based brass band movement, only went some way to further prove that the BFBB, is currently financially and structurally not the body to do it.

That is a pity – but in realistic terms the BFBB’s limited resources and stagnant membership mitigate against it taking on such a role at present. The BFBB has more immediate problems to address.

Institutionalised insularity

However, it was encouraging that the BFBB is starting think outside ‘the brass band bubble of institutionalised insularity’, as Paul Hindmarsh, the Chairman for the day, so sharply and accurately observed in his opening remarks. He himself is a progressive voice in trying to encourage a greater degree of integration between the disparate elements of what is currently a very patchwork landscape of musical misunderstanding.

With youth development a key element of future banding prosperity, the ‘One Voice’ seminar saw speakers from local authority music services, banding associations, community youth bands and the BFBB, shed light on their own particular activities in the hope of gaining a greater degree of understanding, and with the aim of developing closer working relationships with each other.

Speakers

Speakers on the day included Alun F Williams and Steve Legg from Greater Gwent and Gloucestershire Music Services, Louise Renshaw from Macclesfield Youth Band, Ian Carter and Peter Fraser from the Southern Counties and Scottish Brass Band Associations respectively, as well as BFBB’s Philip Watson, Nigel Morgan and Derek Atkinson.

Around 30 delegates made the trip from just about all corners of the UK and were welcomed by BFBB Chairman Robert Morgan, who emphasised the need for the brass band movement as a whole to speak with ‘One Voice’, either in representing itself to the many tiers of governmental hierarchy, or with the BFBB in creating closer working relationships with individual organisations.

Music Education Council

The ‘One Voice’ epithet had echoes of the current aims of the Music Education Council, which is the umbrella body for all organisations connected with music education in the UK.

They have long spoken with a singularly articulate voice to the highest levels of government in trying to meet their objectives of supporting and promoting ‘all areas of music education’.

In their current working strategy, this includes ‘..wider opportunities, working alongside schools, Music Services and community musicians’ – something which the BFBB ‘One Voice’ day should have perhaps been all about.

However, according to the MEC’s own website, the BFBB is not currently a member of its organisation, and as a result, and despite a number of interesting presentations, the ‘One Voice’ day ultimately lacked any specific, or related outcome.

Better informed

Delegates undoubtedly left better informed, especially in relation to the work of two of the countries leading Music Service providers, but whether the event provided the foundation stones on which the BFBB could build progressive links to them was another matter.

Both presentations highlighted the excellent work and commitment each service is geared to providing its young charges, but with the BFBB’s lack of Welsh membership, and with it own limited resources in only having a Development Officer in harness for three days a week, what hope is there of forging closer ties with these beacons of good educational musical practice? 

You were left thinking that perhaps gaining active BFBB representation on the Music Education Council would be a better priority.

Excellent achievements

The same questions arose when applied to the presentation given by Louise Renshaw, one of the leading lights in community youth development with her sterling work with Macclesfield Youth Band.

Her excellent achievements have considerable merit and interest, but without a timetable for action, promotion and support to others like her from the BFBB, it will surely remain one of many shining, but isolated examples, of individual inspiration.

The work of both the Scottish and Southern Counties Associations gave cause for encouragement though – in their markedly different ways however.

Ian Carter of SCABA outlined the painstakingly small steps an organisation formed as far back as 1893 has taken in trying to remain vibrant and active against a backdrop of diminishing membership and rising costs.

Small steps

Small steps maybe, but important ones nonetheless, and ones that are starting to make a difference to way in which their member bands interact with their local association.

It was interesting to note that European based bands are now finding their way across the Channel to take part more frequently at SCABA contests – a sign of things to come perhaps?

Meanwhile Peter Fraser gave the Scottish perspective – one that seems quite radically at odds with the BFBB.

English accent

The Scots speak very much with ‘One Voice’ it seems, whilst it can be argued that at present, the BFBB, with little or no member bands in either of the Celtic nations, is perceived to speak with a predominately English accent.

What hope then of some sort of unified approach in these bastions of musical devolution?

The question also remains to why the BFBB is therefore involved in the running of an English National contest? The National Youth Championships seem to be an ideal platform for the BFBB – it is a national contest, but the English Nationals?

It does tend to reinforce the point about an ‘English Voice’, and does beg the question to why the BFBB are in contest promotion in the first place? How does that help promote the interests of the wider brass band community then?

Credit

To their credit the BFBB is trying to widen the scope of it activities throughout the country as a whole through the work of the BFBB Development Officer, Philip Watson and Treasurer Nigel Morgan, both of whom are trying to increase membership in the Celtic nations, as well as areas such as Cumbria and the South West, whilst also working to gain a stronger foothold on bodies such as the Arts Council. 

However, despite the good intentions of the day, the ‘One Voice’ seminar seemed to lack a coherent degree of ‘joined up thinking’ – to coin the buzz word of many government inspired initiatives at present.

Finance

With pressure on the BFBB to try and strengthen its financial backbone (over 42% of its funding comes from the Arts Council and only 35% from its members), such wide ranging initiatives seem likely to be beyond an organisation that needs to focus it more obvious strengths in other directions – notably in trying to increase its membership base which they readily admit has stagnated in recent years.

If the BFBB can harness more members (the cost is just £100 per year – and can be paid by Direct Debit or standing order) then perhaps it will allow them the opportunity to invest time, money and resources into developing the ‘One Voice’ strategy further.

That though seems a little way off at present, but the BFBB could well play a central role in doing just that if it can give itself a more secure financial base from which to pay for it.  

Lasting effect

Laudable as the ‘One Voice’ seminar was, it will surely take many more members to sign up for it with the BFBB if they are to be a voice that is actually heard to some lasting effect.

The BFBB is trying, and trying hard to forge for itself a purposeful central role within the movement, but it remains an organisation that at present is unable to break free of the confines its current structure and finances place upon it.   If it can just loosen those chains in the coming few years, then perhaps the BFBB may well be well placed to be able to speak with ‘One Voice’ for the movement as a whole.

Iwan Fox

A version of this article appeared in British Bandsman dated  21st June: number 5514

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