If you travel the length and breadth of the country, you will not be far from a community band. This might be a brass band or a wind / concert band. But whatever their make-up, these bands have one thing in common: the bringing together of a disparate group of musicians to make music for the benefit of themselves and others. The challenges faced by such groups are enormous, if the group is truly a community group then there should be few barriers to joining.
Yes, you need to own and be able to play an instrument (some groups particularly youth groups might have instruments to loan and teaching programmes as well) but the entry standard should not exclude a large percentage of players. So if community groups state they have an entry level of Grade 8 standard (to keep the quality of performance high) they are not truly representing their community. But having a membership ranging from the enthusiastic but inexperienced amateur to the semi-professional or retired professional makes programming very difficult. How do you find music that will not bore the experienced players whilst at the same time will not be so challenging to the novice that they are demotivated and leave?
So how does a community band like Harmonie manage to flourish when many other bands up and down the country struggle? The key to this has to be ‘opportunity’. Finding new and engaging experiences that will both inspire and motivate all band members. This does not mean finding new performance venues and new but ‘safe’ repertoire, both important in their own way but not essential in the development of a band.
All band members have a fundamental desire to learn and improve, which is often why they join a band in the first place. So engaging with professional musicians who can bring their expertise and wealth of experiences to the band is an important (and arguably an essential) aspect of what a community band has to offer its members. Finding someone who works at the highest levels of music-making around the world who is prepared to work with a community band and be both challenging and supportive is in itself a challenge but Harmonie has been fortunate to find several such people to work with over the years including the late Guy Woolfenden, Malcolm Binney and Philip Sparke.
The association with Colin Touchin began many years ago when the band participated in the National Concert Band Festival and Colin adjudicated the band. A couple of the band members knew Colin from their days at Warwick University where Colin lectured in music and suggested that he would be an excellent workshop leader. At the subsequent rehearsal day Colin’s ability to transform the sound of the band by focussing on balancing the sections, bringing the warmth of sound of the lower end of the band to the fore whilst calming the ‘enthusiasm’ of the shrill top end and high-lighting the challenges of tuning and intonation faced by sections was truly remarkable.
So for the band’s 40th Anniversary celebration it was not a hard decision to further the relationship with Colin and commission a new piece for band. Scenes of Essex is a three movement piece based on the geographical / historical areas of relevance to the band, Hadleigh Castle (built during the reign of Henry 111) being a prominent landmark near to where the band rehearses, Basildon – the town where the band was formed and Rayleigh Mount the site of a Medieval Castle (and the only Essex Castle to be mentioned in the Doomesday book of 1086) near to where the band is now based.
As part of the commission Colin again spent a day with the band working on the new piece and again bringing his insights into developing the quality of sound. Explaining the importance of using the diaphragm to support note production in the clarinet section produced instant improvements. Thinking of dynamics numerically, tuning up from the bass end of the band were just some of the techniques employed to move the band forward.
Unfortunately, the concept of spending a whole day together as a band is a luxury that only happens once a year on average. However, days of this nature are again essential for community bands to develop. The level of detail that can be worked on and the depth of understanding that can be gained is far more than if the band spent the same time spread out over several rehearsals.
Our challenge now is to ensure that the time and investment is not wasted and we give an inspiring performance of Scenes of Essex at our 40th Anniversary concert in the 15th October in Basildon.
Written by Roy Dignum.
Photos by Kevin Hale, used with permission.