Making a great fanfare about the return of brass bands

Covid restrictions are tougher on brass bands than other musicians. But writer (and former bander) Hugh Morris says that the bands will play on

From the moment Boris Johnson urged us all to stay indoors in March, musical groups – from community choirs to samba bands – have faced a blanket ban on rehearsing and performing.

The particular mechanics of brass playing have made a brass band return challenging. Research from Brass Bands England confirmed that playing a brass instrument increases the level of potentially contaminated airborne droplets (although at a lower level than singing or breathing).

While socially distanced outdoor rehearsals are possible, this isn’t always practical. The realities of traditional rehearsals, often up to 30 people in close proximity in cramped bandrooms or church halls, make social distancing nigh-on impossible.

Banders are circumspect about their change in circumstances, as Blackburn & Darwen Brass Band chairman Dave Stevens quips: “Who’s going to sacrifice public health just to play [popular march] Slaidburn?!” For committee members like Dave, perspective rules: “There’s been lots of sadness, but it’s been overshadowed by events elsewhere. Music has been put at the right priority level – most of us are doing this as a pastime.”

Although money rarely changes hands, the commitment of players means band members effectively have a second career. Euphonium player and Blackburn’s musical director Daniel Thomas wearily describes his pre-lockdown routine, which involved “six nights a week out at band. Friday is my night off, in the pub, usually with the band as well.”

Banding is a family affair, often stretching back generations

He’s a teacher too, as are others in the band, and Dave is quick to dismiss the usual image of amateur music as driven by retired hobbyists. “There are only two retired people in the band – otherwise, it’s full of professionals.” Blackburn’s ranks include prison officers, electricians, students, insurance brokers and NHS workers, a snapshot of the area’s diverse workforce.

The band is a fixture at civic engagements within the local community, an area hit hard by Covid-19. Blackburn and Darwen has among the highest infection rates in the country and at time of writing is one of the areas currently in local lockdown. The town’s outdoor band concerts have fallen silent.

This enforced period of reflection has seen a rise in positive action. In line with organisations questioning their internal structures following the BLM protests, many within the banding fraternity feel there’s more work needed to open bands up to the whole community.

Banding is a family affair, often stretching back generations. A full set of Thomases are involved with Blackburn: Dan conducts, whilst Mum, Dad and younger brother occupy cornet seats. Dan’s grandfather was the band’s first treasurer. Family histories like these are stitched into the rich tapestry of bands across the country.

Nobody within the community would say brass bands aren’t a welcoming bunch, but more groups are realising they need to cast their net wider, and proactively supporting diverse access routes for youngsters. Kick Down the Barriers, a project led by Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, is looking to help the Blackburn communities labelled as “segregated” in the national press to reach across boundaries. And to this end, B&D were recently awarded an ‘Our Community, Our Future’ grant, which they have used to offer free instrument loans, cheap lessons and a bespoke junior band for new primary school starters from across the town to play in.

New guidelines for amateur ensembles issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport mean there’s hope for the senior band to meet again too. In the case of Blackburn, their charity status now gives the prospect of full outdoor, distanced rehearsal – risk assessment permitting. While the local lockdown overrides any change for the time being, the chance of a return in the near future is now a real possibility.

There are more reasons for the Blackburn band to be cheerful too. Competitively, they secured promotion to the top tier of North West banding, moments before the nationwide shutdown. In footballing terms, Dave describes Blackburn as a “banding West Ham” and like all of football’s yo-yo teams, consolidating their status is as tantalising a prospect as any.

In the rejuvenated junior band, shoots of recovery poke through too. The hope that drives the banding movement remains undimmed, as the faint echoes of brass music grow closer every day.

For more info on the Kick Down the Barriers exhibition see blackburnmuseum.org.uk 

Hugh Morris’ top five brass band performances

• Rodrigo’s Concierto d’Aranjuez from the film Brassed Off 

• Grimethorpe Band playing MacArthur Park 

• Cory Band playing William Tell Overture 

• Black Dyke Mills Band playing David of the White Rock 

• Mnozil Brass – The Lonely Boy 

@hwfmorris