Banding Together

Banding together

Archive: August 2015 by Tony Greenbank

The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Flookburgh Band players

Flookburgh Band played on when the lights went out. The occasion? Rehearsing during my visit to the bandroom in the Market Square in April. It’s what brass bands do. Strike up and play on: the players did not skip a beat though there was scarcely light to see.

Tucked away near Grange-over-Sands, on a small protrusion of land that juts out into Morecambe Bay, Flookburgh has various claims to fame. It was out on the sands that more than twenty Chinese cocklers drowned in 2004. Charity parachute drops take place at nearby Cark Airfield, where the annual Cumbrian Steam Gathering also attracts thousands to the area.

Then there is the sound of brass… and how! Building up a head of steam is the prerogative of Flookburgh’s prestigious band, which plays annually to packed-out audiences at Grange-over-Sands’s Victoria Hall and Ulverston’s Coronation Hall, as well as Cartmel Priory and The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. Each summer the players also perform a series of concerts in Grange’s prom bandstand. In the days when it had more players to give power to its elbow, it contended at Harrogate and Darlington.

Conductor John Iveson explains the resilience of banding in general during a break while the fuse box is located and appropriate switches flipped. He tells me how through eleven decades, brass bands have had testing times.

According to John there have been numerous challenges during the 110 years of this prestigious band’s existence. Dwindling numbers are now a problem, for a number of reasons: players sometimes move away, and the men who once fished for shrimps, cockles and flat fish, who originally manned the band, are now fewer in number.

Things were then quite different when John, originally from Rossendale in Lancashire, arrived fifteen years ago, out of the azure blue, to take up the baton, “a tiger in the midst of these local banders”. Cosmopolitan, the players weren’t!

John, after all, arrived straight from London where he is recognised both nationally and internationally as a trombone virtuoso. Hadn’t he worked with Cliff Richard and Andrew Lloyd Webber during a recording session of Barbara Streisand singing Midnight, from Cats? And played on the original soundtrack for the Star Wars Trilogy?

Modest in spades, he reluctantly imparts information when asked. “I worked as a pro orchestral player in London, starting in the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Sir Malcolm Sargent, then with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and also in the session orchestral scene,” he says. “Before I retired from playing I also worked for twelve years at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden as principal trombonist. My trombone is never far away; Beethoven himself acknowledged the ‘big sound’ of the instrument by being the first to incorporate it in a symphony – his famous Fifth no less.

“I was also with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble as principal trombonist and at the Royal College of Music where I studied and was a professor for twenty-seven years. My wife Mary and I then decided to move up here, as I was then an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the music examinations authority.

“I was travelling around the country as well as internationally adjudicating in music exams. There was no longer a need to live in the South East, so we came back up north to be closer to our parents.

“Yes, I kept a low profile to begin with, but before long I got a phone call from Mitch and Tony Rowlandson. Would I consider coming and conducting the Flookburgh Band? I did. Really, it was sort of love at first sight.

John Iveson, conductor of Flookburgh Band

“At that time when I arrived the band was stronger in numbers and competed successfully in contests held in Darlington and Harrogate. It was very much a local family band. And now? There are competing interests for the younger generation. It’s not easy in this neck of the woods. We don’t have a pool of players we can call on if people leave or move away. So we do struggle at times.

“Consequently we haven’t competed in contests like in the film Brassed Off for quite a while. We can’t always guarantee that essential regular full attendance week by week.

“But for concerts like in Grange or Ulverston we are very fortunate in that we have friends from bands in Ulverston and Dalton-in-Furness who will come and play with us. Bands are very gregarious in that respect.”

So what was it like arriving from a metropolitan musical world? One moment Andrew Lloyd Webber, the next he’s being every fisherman’s friend. Did he have to be something of a martinet and beat a drum to get results?

He laughs. “Absolutely not. No, not at all. There’s no such thing as democracy in conducting. But I try not to be that prima donna sort. I always find that the best way to get the best from musicians is to help the players get the best of themselves, by pleasant means rather than being dictatorial.”

A case in point? After the band-room lights returned, revealing photos of the band on the walls, all blazered and complete with cups and trophies won from yesteryear, he took the euphonium players to one side. One was playing flat. Who was the culprit? Euphoniums were examined. At last! Ha-hah. So it was you who was to blame. Everyone grins. Sorted.

“The bulk of the band in Flookburgh was originally very much handed down from father to son or daughter,” he says. “Learning was by word of mouth and by demonstrating how to press the valves and so forth.

“There was very little theory. It was wonderful that the players in this band could play like angels. Yet when I talked to them theoretically about music, like intervals and octaves and semi quavers, their eyes would glaze over. Many admitted they hadn’t a clue what I was going on about. So they didn’t even know about crotchets. They do now.”

John laughs again when asked if he ever needed to reprimand anyone for playing a less-than-clean instrument. “No no, it’s a source of pride among bandsmen and women. You have to keep the valves clean to make sure they go up and down.”

He mentions in passing the possibility of a player making a howler that stops the band in its tracks. Do people give them “the look”? “Not at all, we usually dissolve into peals of laughter rather than recrimination. My standard response to mistakes is: ‘That’s live music. if you want perfection, buy a record’.

“There’s a real core of dedicated people who keep the band going. We have gone through difficult times and are still going through difficult times. It’s because of the dedication of this core that despite all the odds we still manage to practise twice a week and deliver good concerts.”

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