Could autie-friendly brass band concerts catch on?

If you pop in to your local supermarket or discount store, some chain stores have what is known as an ‘Autism Hour’. Each Saturday from 9am to 10am, your local Morrisons store turns off the background music. The lighting is toned down to avoid sensory overload triggers.

Some cinema chains have Autism Friendly Screenings. In your local multiplex cinema, the adverts are cut; the sound is turned down a bit; and the lighting is set at an amenable level. Many of the films are family-friendly, which is good for younger people with autism spectrum conditions.

In some parts of the world, Autism Friendly Concerts (or Neurodiversity Friendly Concerts) are a thing. Orchestras such as the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra have participated in such concerts in the past. Closer to home, the Sheffield Symphony Orchestra held a concert at All Saints Ecclesall Parish Church with music from Star Wars.

How could this be translated to the brass band world? Do we need to change the programme from the band’s usual running order? Should there be a raffle half way through the second half? Should the lighting be at a moderate level throughout a two-hour long concert? Should we flap or shout “woo hoo” instead of applaud each piece?

A suitable venue

In my forty years existence on this planet, I have seen many a brass band concert in my time. From The Mighty Cory Band at The Stoller Hall to Fourth Section and Youth bands at Glossop Old Band Room. I have compered several concerts at the Boarshurst Band Club since September 2017. My past experience in writing scripts for public speaking engagements has helped me to write compelling notes for each concert.

I have spoken in church halls, a room at Bolton Arena, and told a joke in front of 1,200 people at Tameside Theatre (at the age of seven). I love the intimate venues as much as more palatial venues. The former is good for interaction with the audience. For some people, the interaction or the concert can be too much for them.

Bigger venues offer the luxury of a breakout room, separate from the auditorium. On the Boston Symphony Orchestra website, this is known as a Designated Quiet Room. This could be like the First Class Lounge at London Euston station or a Business Class lounge at any airport with drinks and snacks. There could be space for using your tablet, drawing paper, pencils and crayons.

At the local band club, this is only suitable for multi-roomed venues. Using Diggle Band Club as one example, the front lounge could be used as the breakout room. Our otherwise frazzled autie friends could take time out from the concert (in the back room) at any point in the programme and do some drawing. Or help themselves to tea, coffee, water or orange squash.

Using my usual venue for example, the Boarshurst Band Club, the bar shutters could be closed during the performance, reopening for the interval. The Members’ Only room – colloquially known as The Departure Lounge – could be the breakout room.

Supposing the band performed at an outdoor venue, the breakout room could be a marquee or a self-contained bar or restaurant. The Princess Pavilion and Gyllyngdune Gardens in Falmouth is a perfect example, where one can retire to the bar. Inside the conservatory, it is still possible to hear the band’s performance from the outdoor bandstand.


The lighting levels can depend upon the venue itself. I have ‘bathed’ in the natural light of Huddersfield Town Hall to the strains of Peter Graham’s Metropolis 1927. Also the joys of Glossop Old Band Room’s fluorescent lights in full view of Hammonds Band, and the subdued light of Yet Another Great Sunday Brass Night at Boarshurst Band Club.

In my view, our friends at Boarshurst get the light settings spot on during a concert. For an autie-friendly brass band concert, a perfect lighting balance between the stage and auditorium.

To circumvent any lighting issues, greater use of natural light should be used in afternoon concerts where available. There is still a place for artificial lighting, though this should be subdued to reduce sensory issues.

Programme planning

From Port Stanley to Nuuk, you could say brass band concerts open with a march, followed by an overture, and the first soloist (often whoever’s on principal cornet). In most cases, about seven or eight pieces per half and an encore. Sometimes there may be a pause for the raffle, auction or collection, typically in the second half.

For any autie-friendly brass band concert, the band should be free to choose its usual programme. The Musical Director should be clear in their links between pieces, possibly with fewer Dad Jokes that may go over the head of some listeners. The links should be pithy and descriptive of each piece.

With our friends at Boston Symphony Hall, the 01 June 2019 Once Upon a Time… Stories with a Symphony concert ran for 75 minutes without an interval. Unlike their usual concerts, audience members were free to leave the auditorium at any point in the programme. Their Frequently Asked Questions factsheet is a useful guide on how their Sensory Friendly Concerts work.

At a brass band concert, the interval is a most important fixture in two ways. It gives the band a rest prior to the second half. The audience get a chance to stretch their legs and order another pint or four. In an autie-friendly concert setting, (as is the case at most concerts anyway), the interval should be mentioned prior to the last piece of the first half.

Communication and customer service

The concert experience

As well as the musical programme, small but significant touches can add to the customer experience of any concert. The friendliness of its staff members, volunteers, and customer service ensures repeat custom irrespective of price. They like coming to the venue and fancy going to future concerts on a Sunday night or Sunday afternoon. They might like the charismatic Master of Ceremonies or The Legendary Bucket Collection.

For an autie-friendly concert, some visitors might be happy to know the near-exact running order of each concert. Some bands issue programmes or sheets, for a modest fee or free of charge. A typical programme could be detailed in a similar way to a TV listings magazine as seen below.

1830: Doors open.

1930: First Half of the Enetown Silver Prize Brass Band concert:

  1. March: Knight Templar (George Allan);
  2. Overture: Jubilee Overture (Philip Sparke);
  3. Cornet Solo (performed by Frank W. Woolworth): Tico Tico (Paco de Lucia);
  4. Original Piece: Lake of Tenderness (Ben Hollings);
  5. Light Concert Music: The Water of Tyne (Traditional);
  6. Flugelhorn Solo (performed by Gloria Mullins): Concerto de Aranjuez (Joaquin Rodrigo);
  7. Film Music (from Finding Nemo): Beyond The Sea (Jack Lawrence);
  8. Jazz Standard: Caravan (Duke Ellington/Juan Tizol).

2015: Interval (20 minutes).

2035: Second Half of the Enetown Silver Prize Brass Band concert:

  1. Concert Opener: Prismatic Light (Alan Fernie);
  2. Light Concert Music: Light-Walk (Barrie Gott);
  3. Euphonium Solo (performed by Jim Hacker): Benedictus (Sir Karl Jenkins);
  4. Light Concert Music: The Children of Sanchez (Chuck Mangione);

2100 – 2105: Raffle (5 minutes).

2105: Second Half resumes.

  1. Trombone Solo (performed by Andrew H. Duncan): Czardas (Vittorio Monti);
  2. Hymn: Love Unknown (John Ireland);
  3. Light Concert Music: Gaelforce (Peter Graham);

2120 – 2125: Summing up by Master of Ceremonies.

2125: Encore.

  • Light Concert Music: The Floral Dance (Traditional, arr. Derek Broadbent).

2130: End of concert. Bar open till 2300.

As with theatrical productions, a poster could display the concert’s duration and its expected finishing time. Instead of having the raffle half way through the second half, the draw could be made a few minutes before the second half. Raffle tickets could be sold on entry prior to the concert.

Instead of applauding each piece (applause could trigger anxiety among some people with sensory impairments), the ‘jazz hands’ flapping or a joyous “woo-hoo” should be considered. For the benefit of people without an autism spectrum condition, this should be announced in writing in the programme, or by the Master of Ceremonies.

Helping people with hidden disabilities

Recognising subtle facial cues and eye contact can be daunting for some people with autism spectrum conditions. Even more so if the surroundings or people are unfamiliar. The Sunflower Lanyard Scheme could be adopted by some venues, where concertgoers with the lanyards could be served with ease. They could be helped to their seat at larger venues. In smaller venues, they could take any of the seats nearer to the stage.

The sunflower lanyards created by Dabbers Ltd now have global recognition, and are designed for anyone with hidden disabilities. Not only for people with autism spectrum conditions, but also people with dementia, chronic pain and anxiety.

Publicity design and social media usage

Further to my role as Master of Ceremonies for Boarshurst Band Club, I have also designed the posters for forthcoming concerts. These are saved to 300 dpi, should anybody ask for a hard copy. They are shared on my Facebook and Twitter feeds within a week of the next concert.

As for the design, there are some cues that reflect the use of PECS [Picture Exchange Communication System] symbols. The Clock reflects the concert start time, whereas the Bus is self explanatory (symbolising the 350 route from Oldham to Ashton-under-Lyne via Saddleworth). The Ticket is used to denote admission fees with the perpendicular figure being used to denote the Musical Director.

Here’s one that was hosted earlier (and they were magnificent).

Also of note is the clear use of the diamonds to denote each pictorial graphic. These have been inspired by British Rail’s Trainload freight graphics with the band strip symbolising each brass band’s uniform colour.

Supposing we could modify this approach for an autie-friendly concert, the changes could be as follows:

  1. We replace the Wingdings/Zapf Dingbats typeface with standard PECS images;
  2. We retain the band strip, though ditch the blurred euphonium background;
  3. We either retain the Century Gothic typeface or consider using a dyslexia-friendly typeface like OpenDyslexic or ABeeZee.

PECS images needn’t not cost the earth. MyPECS is a free source, whereas plain-old emojis could fit the bill. Not only on poster designs but also on social media channels. Facebook and Twitter status updates could use emojis to back up visual images. I have done this to advertise concerts at Boarshurst and Glossop band clubs.

What other social media channels could be useful? Instagram could be another source, again for similar reasons to The Book of Face and the Er of Twitt. Snapchat could be used to give quick reminders of forthcoming concerts as well as Android/iOS calendar based apps.

Raising autism awareness at concerts

As well as providing a diversity friendly approach to brass band concerts, there should be some literature on autism spectrum conditions. Especially for audience members with little or no modern-day knowledge on the subject. Using the Saddleworth area for example, an autie-friendly concert at Boarshurst Band Club could raise awareness of the Bright Futures school in Friezland.

Some of the leaflets could be placed on tables. There could be details of suitable books, websites, television programmes (please excuse the blatant plug!) and local support groups. If, like Pride Brass’ concert last September, a collection and/or admission going towards a local or national autism charity may be considered.

It is worth noting that fellow brass band players may have autism spectrum conditions too. In relation to Pablo, the perfection of Draff could be good for budding Darrol Barry or Goff Richards types. Wren’s musical memory and cheerful disposition could be useful in the Regional Finals. Instead of – or as well as the Book Animals – our titular character would be supported by 35 others in The Band World.

Any reference to living with an autism spectrum condition and rehearsing an Eric Ball test piece could be useful. This could be used to highlight the positive aspects of how ASCs benefit the brass banding community. For authenticity, with consent from the brass band player, this should be taken from a first person perspective.

S.V., 10 February 2020.

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