East of the M60 hopes brass band music isn’t forgotten by HM Government funding pledge

On a normal Monday night, I would be writing a review of the previous night’s concert at Boarshurst Band Club. Since lockdown, The Mecca of Brass Banding has been quiet, leaving a significant cultural void in the hearts of brass band players and concertgoers.

For the first time since William Gladstone’s term as Prime Minister, there was no Whit Walks in Saddleworth and Tameside. No Whit Friday Band Contests for the first time since 1883. National and local contests have been postponed till next year. Without concerts and prize money from local contests, this has meant a significant drop of income.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, brass banding seemed to be at the back of the arts funding queue. Today, a £1.5 billion funding package for the arts was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. £1.15 billion of which are allocated to English cultural organisations, comprising of grants (£880 million) and loans (£220 million). This could cover any concern, from Hyde Little Theatre to The Royal Albert Hall.

The aim of HM Government’s funding pledge is to stop theatres and concert halls going dark for a long time. Likewise with smaller live performance venues such as band clubs. Without our venues, where would they perform? Without our band clubs, where would they rehearse?

Community value

From the staunchest of Labour seats to the Conservatives’ heartlands and Red Wall seats, nothing brings people together better than a brass band. We cannot imagine Christmas time without hearing them play carols in TESCO. For many teenagers in their respective communities, it plays a part in getting them into Higher Education.

If you are looking for work, playing in a brass band looks good on the C.V. Attending rehearsals, learning to work under pressure (for contests and concerts), and being part of a team – are marketable skills for any potential employer. Heck, it could even land you that all-important 9 grade in GCSE Mathematics (A* to some of us old timers), and employers love to see candidates with a few 9 to 4 grades under their belt.

As well as helping with academic progress, a brass band or two is intrinsic to the identity of any town or village. Trying to imagine Dobcross or Elland without its brass bands is like seeing Batman without Robin. There is a close bond between fellow residents who are with the town’s or village’s bands – and other bands in their locality. Some would start off with the local band before going to university, or play for a Championship Section band like Brighouse and Rastrick Band or The Cory Band.

Brass banding gives its participants a sense of value and self worth. Two rehearsals a week is a much better antidote to standing outside McDonalds (other global burger bar chains are available) and causing mischief. For its fellows, there is a social scene away from the band room: maybe the odd non-brass banding jolly.

As seen throughout Saddleworth, it forms part of a vibrant infrastructure. On Whit Fridays (well, this year excepted), it gives the villages a substantial boost to their coffers: daytime and nighttime. Occasional concerts at Uppermill Civic Hall, and more regular band concerts at smaller venues from Denshaw to Greenfield, also draw visitors to the area.

Each village allows for easy commuting with Oldham town centre and Manchester city centre. Which is a must for getting to the University of Manchester, Royal Northern College of Music, and Chethams School of Music. Also the University of Salford which has a long standing international reputation for its brass banding courses.

Where next for live brass band music?

In the last week, we have seen brass bands up and down the country having socially distanced rehearsals. This has seen fewer than the usual 33 players in unison, due to the size of band rooms. In some cases, certain sections coming in to the band club for rehearsal nights (for example: Monday nights for basses and percussion; Tuesday nights for horns and cornets). Some bands have used the previous good weather to rehearse al fresco.

As for concerts, hosting open air concerts may come before the return of indoor concerts. The open air arena would allow for greater social distancing among brass band players and audiences. In the park, that should be no problem, so long as seating is suitably spread out (one metre apart) with a one way system across its vomitories and gangways. If in the pub or social club car park, signing in procedures (for the Government’s Test and Trace system) would apply.

At this time of writing, there is no provision for the return of indoor concerts. Theatres and live music venues are dark, with only recorded music permitted in pubs, clubs and restaurants. With this in mind, brass bands have taken the virtual concert route with players Zooming in from their rooms. Boarshurst Silver Band have gone for showing clips of previous concerts in a Virtual Concert setting on Facebook (Sundays at 8pm if you wish to tune in).

Show us the money

The hard work of applying for grants and loans starts now. What should be taken into account with prospective applications is how brass banding makes a positive impact in its communities.

The movement in its post-Coronavirus era needs a supporting infrastructure that goes beyond the avenue of funding brass bands and their clubs. It is the funding of local theatres and concert halls. Also transport networks that enable easy access to further and higher education institutions as well as local band clubs. Whether picking up the cornet for the first time, or rehearsing a Championship Section test piece in the British Open.

The more recent history of Great Britain is built on its creative industries and cultural organisations. This can be reflected in our musical talents or prowess in design, for example. In the last decade it has been argued in that social mobility has stalled or reversed, which has stifled innovation or locked out low income families.

Though the likes of the National Theatre and The Royal Albert Hall pricks our collective consciousness, it is easy to forget the likes of Thornsett Band and Bolton Little Theatre. Without the grassroots, how would our mightiest cultural organisations get the next Harry Mortimer or Maxine Peake?

Though the Prime Minister has announced the funding pledge, we have yet to read the small print. Here’s hoping we find something that favours the brass banding movement.

S.V., 06 July 2020.

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