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A critical mass of confidence
2023 Brass Bands England Conference

Boldness, invention and cooperation could well be the keys to Brass Bands England's future ambitions after a display of collective confidence at its annual conference in Huddersfield.

At its annual conference in Huddersfield, Brass Bands England displayed the confidence of an organisation that has reached a critical mass in support of its future ambitions. 

Over 150 delegates from over 80 organisations were in attendance. It was proof positive that they have come a very long way since the 'jam tomorrow' promises of a decade or so ago. 

That sense of energised fission and delivery will not have been lost on Darren Henley CBE, the CEO of Arts Council England (ACE), who also came to take part in an engaging, if occasionally opaque Q&A session.   

Admiration

In 2020 he gave a cliché-ridden keynote Zoom speech from the confines of his office.

Here he responded to questions with polished professionalism, although at times still employing the political ‘word salad’ technique to ensure every Arts Council buzz word was heard at least once in the room.

That sense of energised fission and delivery will not have been lost on Darren Henley CBE, the CEO of Arts Council England (ACE), who also came to take part in an engaging, if occasionally opaque Q&A session.   

Too seasoned an operator to be caught out on questions about how to get music back as a central part of the education curriculum, or whether the ACE really recognised brass bands as a bone-afide arts form, he did nevertheless speak with genuine admiration in support of BBE’s work, which he said was being “clearly and strongly heard”. He was not alone.


A duet of CEOs: Darren Henley CBE and Kenny Crookston

Respect and encouragement

He also neatly turned the focus back on those in attendance, saying that ACE welcomed  increased direct advocacy – an invitation for both individual organisations as well as BBE to get others, from friends to MPs to support the drive for more brass band funding. 

His attendance was both a generous mark of respect and an encouraging sign of relevance to the banding movement.

His attendance was both a generous mark of respect and an encouraging sign of relevance to the banding movement.

You suspect behind the guarded PR speak that he is a supportive ally for community led amateur music making who may also be looking forward to seeing what a potential Labour Minister for the Arts (the cello playing Thangam Debbonaire) might add to his well stretched pot of funding after the locust devouring cuts imposed by 13 Conservative culture ministers since 2010.   

Underpinning ambitions

BBE will surely be sending him a copy of their annual report in a few weeks’ time (their next major funding round starts in 2026/27). 

The appointment of two new Youth Trustees and the exciting funding of a ‘brass and drag’ musical project led by Freckleton Band and artist Jamie Fletcher are just some of the new initiatives that are underpinning ambitions.

It will be packed with their positive outcomes: from financial resilience and membership increases to well defined commitments to inclusivity and diversity. The appointment of two new Youth Trustees and the exciting funding of a ‘brass and drag’ musical project led by Freckleton Band and artist Jamie Fletcher are just some of the new initiatives that are underpinning ambitions.


A rousing advocate for brass bands: Composer Gavin Higgins

Keynote appendix

However, they will do well to ensure that it is also sent with an appendix that contains the full transcript of the conference keynote speech given by composer Gavin Higgins. Bands should send it to their MPs too.

This was the type of rousing advocacy no-one with a passion for the future of brass banding can afford to ignore. It was composed like his music – broad and embracing, threaded by detailed opinion, provenance and empirical statistics. 

It was also deliberately provocative and political in outlook – and all the better for it. 

Articulate passion

His aim of fire on the value of the arts was focussed and accurate; clearly defining what he saw were the pernicious effects of Brexit, Covid and funding cuts in education and arts strategy, repertoire and composer commissioning, insularity and archaic attitudes. 

He has repaid his “debit of gratitude” to the banding movement gloriously. The recent Royal Philharmonic Society and Sky Arts South Bank Awards that have come his way of late, long overdue recognition of his remarkable compositional talent.  

His articulate passion was borne from a love of a medium that he sees as being under threat, but which he also believes can also flourish by embracing innovation, invention, cooperation, bravery and boldness. 

His articulate passion was borne from a love of a medium that he sees as being under threat, but which he also believes can also flourish by embracing innovation, invention, cooperation, bravery and boldness. 

They were ambitions that found resonance with other contributors throughout the day. 

It deserved a standing ovation. 


The Redhills are alive with music. Sarah Bauman of BBE meets  members of the Redhills team

Heritage and Innovation

Elsewhere, there was much to applaud in the various breakout sessions that focussed on the conference themes of ‘Heritage and Innovation’.

These included the pioneering work of the Redhills charity organisation, which has taken over the former Durham Miners’ Association headquarters in the city. It has the aim of turning it into community asset that will include a base for a future Redhills Youth Band that will link to bands throughout the region.

The motto, ‘The past we inherit, the future we build’, taken from the building itself, perfectly summed up their vision

Theirs was passionate advocacy of a different, but equally inspirational kind, led by CEO Nick Malyan and his colleagues. 

The motto, ‘The past we inherit, the future we build’, taken from the building itself, perfectly summed up their vision; the link to Amersham, a community-based band that has already achieved great success in just that was entirely appropriate in their afternoon session led by Paul Fisher and Emma Hill. 


Contemporary music discussions were led by David Thornton

Programming contemporary music

Earlier, Dr David Thornton led a panel comprising composer and publisher Andrew Baker, Beth Wells, Interim Director of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and composer Liz Lane, in exploring the challenges posed by programming contemporary music – a topic that in reality deserved to be given more than just 45 minutes of informed discussion.

An essential area of future ambition in a multitude of ways, it would have been wonderful to have been able to expand on the articulate opinions expressed by both the panel and delegates. 

An essential area of future ambition in a multitude of ways, it would have been wonderful to have been able to expand on the articulate opinions expressed by both the panel and delegates. 

The right trousers

Although the music to the Aardman ‘Wallace & Gromit’ films may not have been touched on there, the brilliant opportunity that can arise in putting on a brass band led production of their classic ‘The Wrong Trousers’ (as well as the equally iconic Christmas favourite, ‘The Snowman’) was presented by James Parkinson. 

This was fascinating – and a thoroughly essential guide to how ambition meets reality.


Getting it right for the Wrong Trousers (Image copyright: Aardman Productions)

Practice, practice, practice

James, who plays with the WFEL Fairey Band and is a technical producer for the BBC, touched on every aspect of putting on productions which are now available for hire.

From licences to pram parks, click tracks and band scores to video projectors and bottom line profits – he covered it all. 

From licences to pram parks, click tracks and band scores to video projectors and bottom line profits – he covered it all. 

The potential was clear, but so too was his insistence that only a professional approach to “practice, practice, practice” before putting your trousers on so to speak, would pay off.


(Image copyright: Gavin Joynt)

Archives

The University of Huddersfield provided an ideal host venue - more so as it allowed delegates to visit the Brass Bands Archive now housed at Heritage Quay on the campus site.  

A great deal of work has already been undertaken in cataloguing music and memorabilia, with much more in the pipeline. 

And whilst its significance is only just being realised the potential for it to become a vital research outlet is marked.  The expertise of Arnold Meyers, who gave a presentation on brass instruments and their development should hopefully be part of that too.


Becky Lund's prize winning work was performed by the Hepworth Band (Image copyright: Gavin Joynt)

Past, present and future

Music past, present and future was also featured through the performance of the Hepworth Band conducted by Ryan Watkins. The past came in the form of what was surely a 21st century premiere in ‘Gems of Sullivan No.3’  – the score and parts of which are held at the Brass Band Archive.

‘Tessellations’ was an accomplished work by a composer well worth listening out for again.

It was reminder of an era long past (it was used at the 1901 National Championships) – highlights of the Savoy operettas that in the same way as ‘Wallace and Gromit’ offered entertaining escapism.  

Meanwhile, the present came with a neat touch of Peter Graham, whilst the future was highlighted by a short concert work by 23-year old Becky Lund, the 2023 Newmoon Insurance Young Composer Competition winner. ‘Tessellations’ was an accomplished work by a composer well worth listening out for again.


The BBE Award winners take their bow (Image copyright: Gavin Joynt)

Award winners

There was also time for the BBE Annual Awards, which were presented to Louise Renshaw (Brass Band Conductor of the Year); 'Bandamonium' and Hatherleigh Silver Band (Band Project of the Year); Ann Headworth (Outstanding Contribution); Colin Dye (Outstanding Contribution runner-up); Elise Hale (Young Bandsperson); Graham Helm (Services to Youth) and Phillip McCann (Lifetime Achievement).

The day ended with an engaging panel discussion on ‘what does the future of banding hold’ – neatly summed up by the panel members as one that should embrace radicalism, bravery, cooperation and innovation

Worthwhile coda

The day ended with an engaging panel discussion on ‘what does the future of banding hold’ – neatly summed up by the panel members as one that should embrace radicalism, bravery, cooperation and innovation, before BBE Chairperson Mike Kilroy rounded things off with a coda reiteration of the heritage and innovation theme.

It was one well worth repeating at the end of a day of collective Brass Bands England confidence in their future ambitions.

Iwan Fox

(Image copyrights: All images protected - only to be published with permission)
https://gavinjoynt.co.uk/

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