During my early years at school, I did what most kids do at some stage and I began to learn to play an instrument. For reasons I cannot fully recall, I chose one of the loudest and, for my parents, probably the most irritating instruments I could – the trumpet. It’s a bit hazy, but I think I’d seen Dizzy Gillespie on a video in a music lesson, with his bent trumpet and his massive cheeks and thought, ‘that’s the instrument for me’.
It was always quite satisfying being called out of dull maths lessons at Ilkley Grammar School to go for my weekly tutorial with Mr Anderson, my affable Scottish peripatetic teacher. Each week, as I left the classroom I always felt I was being judged by my fellow pupils – I could sense the mirth amongst them as I dashed off to puff out my chubby cheeks, whilst creating a similar sort of noise to that I now hear regularly emanating from within the dark recesses of the toilet cubicles at work. Initially undaunted, I soldiered on and I even managed to persuade one of my best friends at the time to take up the instrument too – the appropriately named Jonathan Blower.
After I’d mastered the basics and spent some time playing in a Wind Band at the local Saturday morning music centre, my Dad, Jonathan and I answered an advert and joined Otley Brass Band. My Dad was handed an Eb bass to learn and Jonny and I were handed what looked like trumpets shrunk in the wash, but which we quickly knew to recognise as a cornet. There are no trumpets in brass bands you see. After a year or so of regular rehearsals, gigs at park bandstands and village summer fetes, the cracks started to appear. Jonny became interested in the dark art of percussion and slowly masterminded his move from 3rd cornet to band percussionist. He then spectacularly failed to show up for a gig one Sunday and we never saw him at the band again. He later auditioned for the job as drummer in Britpop band ‘The Seahorses’. He didn’t get the gig but he’s played the drums in various bands since, so he probably made the right move to be fair.
Meanwhile I’d started to find what I thought at the time were more interesting things than brass music and brass bands to keep me occupied with – mainly football, girls and pop music. You see, brass bands, the cornet, parp parp parp – it just wasn’t cool. So when Mr Anderson asked me if I’d like to audition to join the Hammonds Sauceworks Junior Band (one of the leading bands in the country at the time – apparently I was good enough) I politely declined and soon after I stopped playing altogether.
Turning down that opportunity has proved to be one of the most regretful decisions I’ve ever made.
Several years went by. I got a normal job, I got married and I bought a house. I also started to go to beer festivals where I heard several brass bands playing. I soon realised, partially through a haze of ale, that the sound from a full strength brass band is simply breath-taking and quintessentially the sound of Yorkshire. There really is nothing more beautiful when it all clicks. Some of the best bands in the country (Black Dyke Band for example) now travel the World on tour. I’d missed an amazing opportunity to do something brilliant. I’ll never know if I would have been good enough to play with the very best now though.
Then I heard that my local brass band, Skipton Brass, were looking for new members. They were close to folding after almost 140 years due to dwindling numbers. Armed with that sense of nagging regret, a determination to pick up where I left off and my ‘A Tune a Day for Trumpet or Cornet – Book 1’, I contacted them and soon found myself in the crypt of Christ Church for a rehearsal, once again with a loaned cornet in my nervously shaking hands. It came back to me as if it was merely days since I’d last played, not the best part of 13 years.
Since then I’ve found myself surrounded by a bunch of fantastic people and I’m now a member of the band committee as we try to re-establish ourselves as one of the best in Yorkshire. We’re also trying to place ourselves once again at the heart of the local community as most brass bands once were, especially in the colliery towns. We’ve attracted a few established players, though the main problem we are finding is we just can’t find enough younger people who want to join us. It seems that in some areas, despite the efforts of people in the public eye such as Sue Perkins in her 2010 BBC programme ‘A Band for Britain’, asking a young person to join a brass band is about as popular as asking Grimethorpe to host the next AGM of the Margaret Thatcher Appreciation Society.
I really want to help change the perception some people have of brass bands as stuffy, outdated organisations that young people shouldn’t associate themselves with. What worries me the most is that some of the younger members of our band are now at the age that I was when I lost interest. All I can say to them and anyone else in their shoes is – brass banding is cool. It’s sociable, it’s a really good laugh, you’re learning a skill not many people have and most importantly you’re helping keep a tradition alive – which I defy anyone not to gain a sense of satisfaction from.
Thankfully we are close to securing the future of the band with the launch of a development band which we hope will raise the profile of brass banding amongst the young people of the area, nurture future generations of brass banders, and also give adults the chance to learn a new skill, or like myself – come back to something they gave up a long time ago.
Making music of any genre is something which everyone should at least try and do at some stage in life. So don’t listen to what other people at school, college or work say – if you enjoy it please keep doing it, because if you give it up one day you may regret it. I know I do, but I’m trying my best to rectify that and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.