• The secret life of orchestras…and other ensembles

    Orchestras, brass bands and wind bands can be an intriguing world if you haven’t experienced them before. The orchestra is a concept that has developed over centuries, combining several very diverse instruments to create a blend of beautiful sounds. Brass bands and wind bands developed more recently and many of them are steeped in tradition. It can feel wonderful to be part of something bigger, particularly if you play an instrument that isn’t traditionally played unaccompanied. Here’s a closer look at these fascinating types of musical ensemble.

    The competitive world of brass banding

    While the orchestra as we know it can trace its origins back to Renaissance times, the modern form of the brass band in the UK dates to the 19th century coal mining communities, virtually all of which had a brass band which provided a social outlet for the workers and a sense of local pride.  Many of the bands formed back then are still in existence today and compete annually for placings in five national brass band sections.  These are structured like a football league, with the ‘Championship’ section containing the very best bands in the UK. Ranked below the Championship are the First, Second, Third and Fourth Sections. Competitions are held throughout the year at local, regional, and national levels, and at the end of each year there are promotions and relegations.

    One band hoping to work their way up the rankings is the Towcester Studio Band, formed in 1910. Currently in the 3rd section, they have a fascinating history which has seen them in the Championship and 2nd Sections as well as winning many major awards and recording for BBC radio.  “We are a brass band and are committed to the brass band tradition, which includes contesting,” the band’s secretary Gail Devlin-Jones explains.  “We believe that competition improves players and ensures that we play music with sufficient levels of difficulty.  The benefits are similar to those of playing in any musical group – teamwork, physical and mental challenge, the enjoyment of playing wonderful music in a diverse and inter-generational group.  We would like to get into the 2nd section within the next 3 years.” The band certainly works hard – they rehearse twice weekly two rehearsals a week for two hours each time, and they play at all Towcester’s community events as well as putting on their own concerts three times a year.

    Joining a band/orchestra isn’t as daunting as you might think

    The thought of joining what is often a long-established outfit can feel daunting. But many amateur orchestras and bands are full of likeminded people who love music first and foremost and always welcome new members. Some will ask for a minimum playing standard (usually around Grade 4-5, although some may be higher) but many don’t.

    Whickham Wind is a relatively young wind band, with members ranging in age from twenty somethings to a 90-year-old. They adopted a relaxed approach when newly established nine years ago but have adapted this as time passed.  Founder and musical director Stephen Whitehead explains: “When we started, we said the only requirement was a rudimentary knowledge of reading music…(and a willingness to laugh together at our mistakes)! but as the band has progressed we suggest that new members should have attained a level of around Grade 4, otherwise they’re likely to feel overwhelmed.  So, we now a have a very wide range of levels from Grade 4 novices to some people who are very experienced and have played semi-professionally.”

    Stephen started the band in 2010 after his wife, who had begun learning the flute, went to a well-known and established North East group purporting to cater for beginners.

    A group of white, mixed gender people, ranging in age, playing woodwind and brass instruments.

    Whickham Wind Band

    A orchestra of white people with different gender expressions playing a variety of instruments.

    Royal Sutton Coldfield Orchestra

    “She felt so ‘put on the spot’ during her first visit that she nearly gave up playing altogether,” he says. “In the church we attended at that time we were aware of three other mature members who played instruments… one had started only recently and the other two had played as teenagers. We suggested getting together to encourage each other and the church allowed us free use of the building.  We put a small ad in the local paper and some leaflets in local libraries etc.  At the first meeting we had 10 or 12 similarly minded adults who came along.  They nearly all wanted to meet again and so the group was born.We had no ambition to do anything other than provide a place for adult learners and ‘come-back players’ to try their skills in a ‘safe’ and supportive environment. Before long we were invited to play (very badly!) at a church tea party…. and then we just kept growing… by word of mouth.  After a couple of years we established a committee, wrote a constitution, and were awarded a grant by the local council to buy some equipment.  We had formed a new Concert Band without trying to!   We now have 46 members and a list of ‘deps’ we can call on for performances when we need to.”

    Royal Sutton Coldfield’s youth orchestra players are generally Grade 1-5. “We like to encourage every child and tailor the parts to their own needs”, says Richard Jeffries, youth orchestra leader. “We often find that when a young person joins our youth orchestra their ability increases very quickly because they are having to watch, listen, sight read and remember all at the same time. It’s also a great way to make new friends!” The orchestra also has an adult section, which has been in existence since 1975 and still has a few original players.

    The benefits can be huge – and everyone needs a percussionist

    So why join a musical group or orchestra? “The benefits are huge,” Richard Jefferies says. “When it comes to musical discipline and musicianship, both concentration and memory will be tested and teamwork, self-confidence and self-esteem, developed.” They’re normally on the lookout for new recruits too. “Our adult orchestra uses all the orchestral sections, although it would be good to have some ‘resident’ trombonists and percussionists! In our youth orchestra, we are currently looking for brass and percussion but would welcome more strings and woodwind too.”

    Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra is one of the oldest youth orchestras in the UK and will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2019/20. It comprises two orchestras: the main orchestra (grade 7+) and the training orchestra (grade 4-6) with more than 160 players drawn from more than 80 schools across South-West London and Surrey.

    A youth orchestra with people of different identities and playing a variety of instruments.

    Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra at the 2018 Music for Youth Proms, Royal Albert Hall

    Vice Chair Julian Hardwick could not emphasise the benefits of joining an ensemble enough: “Being a member helps develop young musicians’ skills, particularly sight-reading and learning to play as part of an ensemble; it gives them exposure to a wide range of music which they will usually not have the opportunity to perform elsewhere; it brings them together with other players who share their love of classical music, creating friendships that often continue for life; and it provides the life enhancing experience of touring abroad and performing for different audiences with different musical cultures.”

    Like Royal Sutton Coldfield they normally have a few vacancies, particularly violas, double basses, horns, trombones and percussion. Clearly percussionists are in demand, as both Towcester Studio Band and Whickham Wind also said that they needed more.  “Finding a drummer/percussionist who can read music and follow a conductor is a challenge for several local bands”, said Whickham Wind’s Stephen Whitehead.

    Getting started – finding the ensemble for you

    There’s really nothing like being part of a musical ensemble to give you motivation to play your instrument, keep learning new things, and get better. There’s so many to choose from too. Here are some useful links:

    About Brass Bands

    About Wind Bands

    Making Music represents thousands of UK leisure time music groups. Search their members’ list

    UK Amateur Orchestras – a comprehensive list of non-professional orchestras and ensembles

    London Wind Bands

    Find a Brass Band near you

    Brass Band vacancies