Changing tune as brass bands make a comeback

Brass band instrument Brass bands are making a comeback in Scotland with more young people signing up to take part

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Brass bands have a long history in Scotland. They were generally associated with the country's mining and other industrial communities, but as industry declined, the bands were affected.

At one time there was talk of a "fragile" situation, but that has been turned around and the band sector is now flourishing.

After school, at a community centre in the Gorbals and in a couple of rooms a group of children is gathering, brass instruments in hand, getting ready to play.

"They're so much more confident that they were when they first walked in the door," says Lauren McCormick, one of the co-founder's of the Gorbals Youth Brass Band, which was set up earlier this year.

Coalburn Brass Band in 1930s Brass bands were often associated with industry and seen as a good hobby for workers

"They really help each other along, if anyone's struggling it's very much teamwork. The others will tell them how they do it and often that's better than me trying to explain it because they're at the exact same stage."

The Gorbals band may be part of the new brass band scene in Scotland, but there is also a long tradition. The bands were closely associated with the development of industry, with groups appearing in the Borders, the Lothians, the north east and elsewhere.

Cultural diversion

"Bands were started up really to give working people, ordinary people, access to live music," explains Andrew Duncan, who is development manager at the Scottish Brass Band Association.

"And I think it was felt by the owners of the different mills, the different industries, that a brass band was a good thing for the workers to do and would give them culture and take them away from drinking and other diversions."

And for many Scots joining a brass band was part of a family tradition or one of the few opportunities for entertainment on offer.

Jedburgh Forrest Band For many, joining a brass band was part of a family tradition

"My brother was a player in the band, seven years older than me and I said I want to join the band," recalls Peter Fraser, who started out in the 1950s.

"The strange thing is that it was very much a male-orientated hobby, but gradually girls started coming into it because they were starting to teach people in schools.

"I remember the first girl that joined the Kirkintilloch Band - it was headlines in the local paper."

But as industry in Scotland declined, so too did the bands. Loss of sponsorship meant some bands found themselves having to organise themselves in different ways. Some went to the wall, others merged. There were not enough young people coming through to ensure the future.

That has changed though and there has been what Mr Duncan describes as a "massive revival" since 2007.

Future-proofing

The revival in fortunes has garnered interest abroad in countries such as Norway, Denmark and elsewhere in Europe.

So how has it been done?

The Scottish Brass Band Association now offers very practical, structured advice on starting a new band and that has been coupled with a youth development programme and government funding through the Youth Music Initiative.

"There's got to be a clear pathway for the young musicians," adds Neil Robertson, who is the musical director for the Kirkintilloch Youth Brass Band.

Brass band The Scottish Brass Band Association offers practical advice on starting a new band

"It's hard for a young player to move perhaps from a school-based band straight into the top level.

"There are, just like the football league, different leagues that they would move through, but it keeps the players within their own banding community, so we have a clear progression."

Back in the Gorbals, there is lots of excited chatter as the children begin to pack up for the day. Getting young people like them involved in the bands is seen as being key.

"It's the one thing that can future-proof brass bands, to have kids coming into it, for them to realise it's a life-long hobby," says Andrew Duncan. "Our oldest member is something like 93 years old and still actively playing.

"I think children like the instruments because they are easy to learn. If a small group starts up in August, by Christmas time they can be playing Christmas carols together."

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