In Focus: Britain’s traditional brass bands, the musicians with the lungs of Olympians, and how they were ‘the Justin Biebers of their day’

Those who play in a Northern brass band have a lung capacity similar to that of an Olympic athlete and, as Rebecca Oliver discovers, they’re not likely to run out of puff any time soon.

Perched high above the urban sprawl of Bradford, Queensbury is an unassuming village of typical Yorkshire stone terraces. Looming over the houses is the solitary, sooty chimney of the Black Dyke Mills, dormant since John Foster & Sons moved manufacturing of its cloth to more convenient premises in 1989. Foster & Sons has survived against all the odds and so has the brass band associated with its mill — the Black Dyke Band.

John Foster (1798–1879) wasn’t only a canny businessman and entrepreneur, he was also a rather good French-horn player. Foster and other industrialists encouraged their employees to pursue ‘improving’ hobbies in what little leisure time they had and music was seen as a healthy distraction for the working classes from pubs, gambling and politics. An 1881 edition of Brass Band News solemnly declared ‘were it not for the Brass Band (an institution so zealously cultivated), what an incomprehensible void would be created in the national recreation of our manufacturing and rural populations’.

Close-up of a trumpet

Brass music was familiar to people of all classes through military, church and village bands and the instruments were affordable thanks to mass manufacturing, so Foster created the Black Dyke Band in 1855: thus, one of England’s oldest brass ensembles was born.

In the 19th century, the Black Dyke Band was only one of thousands of brass bands springing up all over the UK. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was in full swing and collieries, mills, factories, steelworks, temperance groups, police forces, theatre orchestras, mechanics institutes and trade unions all started their own groups.

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The competition circuit, organised like a sporting event with regional rounds feeding into a national contest, became hugely popular. Rivalries between towns, villages, mills and collieries meant that a brass-band contest would attract thousands of people travelling on the recently expanded rail network. The Brass Band News of October 1885 reported an audience of up to 100,000 people at The Annual Brass Band contest in Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Manchester.

“Brass music was familiar to people of all classes”

With the boom in brass-instrument production came dedicated brass-music publishers, with transcriptions of popular classical music, dances, religious music and folk songs. As time went on and the contesting bands became technically more sophisticated, test pieces became more challenging and critics and composers were forced to acknowledge the great skill and musicianship of the players.

Composers, including Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst, accepted commissions for contest pieces. Nicholas Childs, current musical director of the Black Dyke Band, suggests that some snobbery about brass bands remains, despite the brilliance of the players, who he says are ‘amateur only in the sense that an Olympian is an amateur. The challenge for a brass band such as Black Dyke is to be taken as seriously as the finest symphony orchestras and greatest opera companies’.

Elsewhere in Yorkshire, championship-level brass bands include the Grimethorpe Colliery band, Carlton Main Frickley Colliery band and the Brighouse and Rastrick brass band. The Cory and Tredegar bands from Wales are also among the elite.

The Wingate Colliery Band in 1890

However, the industry that sustained bands such as these through patronage has long gone and the modern groups face financial challenges, as well as the popular misconception of being stuck in the past.

‘Brass bands suffer from being seen as old fashioned,’ agrees Andrew Coe, chair of the Grimethorpe Colliery band. ‘The future of brass bands in the UK will be to persuade existing and new audiences that we are capable of entertaining them in innovative fashion. We’re primarily entertainers and we must entertain people in new and creative ways if we are to continue to be relevant.’

Paul Hindmarsh, artistic director of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) Festival of Brass, was brought up in the brass-band movement as part of the Salvation Army. He founded The Festival of Brass as a Radio 3 studio series in 1990 — the festival is now under the wing of the RNCM.

‘The festival has evolved into a unique platform for the finest bands in the UK and beyond, with an international line-up of soloists and conductors to maintain and grow the repertoire of substantial, original composition,’ reflects Mr Hindmarsh.

‘This is an aspect of brass banding that the general public may be less exposed to now that Radio 3 doesn’t broadcast brass bands very often. There’s so much music being composed for brass bands across the world — some of it highly original and innovative — but, in our fragmented and highly diverse musical and artistic culture, it’s not widely appreciated.’

Another challenge is the fact that the National Curriculum and league tables have slowly squeezed music to the margins of the school curriculum. Brass bands are playing an important role in giving young people the opportunity to learn an instrument and play in a band.

‘Grimethorpe is fortunate in having an active youth-band policy, which, over the years, has produced many fine players, also helping to supply the ranks of other bands in the region. We’re very proud of our activities in this area and our links with the local music services and schools will hopefully ensure that we have a long-term future,’ explains Mr Coe.

Back in Queensbury, Black Dyke founded the Yorkshire Youth Brass Band to engage players at an early age and Prof Childs has no doubt about the importance of encouraging young brass musicians: ‘Recruitment is paramount to the success of Black Dyke. It’s creating an environment where the youngest players dream about playing in the best brass band.’

Name that tune

Close-up of a trumpet

  • The tradition of brass and woodwind instruments being played by townsfolk dates back to the ‘waits’ of medieval England — musicians used for civic and municipal occasions. Village, church and military bands grew from this tradition, playing at fêtes or at visits by dignitaries
  • According to Andrew Coe, leading cornet players of Victorian brass bands were ‘the Justin Biebers of their day’
  • Many championship-level bands were men only until relatively recently
  • There are brass bands all over the world, with thriving competitions in Norway, the US and Japan
  • According to University of Sheffield research of 2019, playing in a brass band builds lung capacity to a level similar to that of an Olympian, improves mental health and reduces stress