Will Britain’s brass-band tradition be another victim of Covid?

One of the UK’s proudest traditions is in dire straits, with rehearsals and performances out of bounds. Can they get the help they need?

Like many bands, Foden's (from Cheshire) have been badly affected by official restrictions
Like many bands, Foden's (from Cheshire) have been badly affected by official restrictions Credit: Eleanor West

“Just when you think you see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, it’s all taken away again,” says Kenny Crookston, chief executive of Brass Bands England. The nation’s brass-banding community is feeling the pinch after a stop-start nine months without their usual revenue streams.

Of all Britain’s amateur music groups, brass bands are among the hardest-working. In a usual summer, they’re out every weekend, playing everything from gala concerts to open-air events. In winter, they pack in festive concerts and carol services, as the rush towards Christmas accelerates. The rehearsal schedule that most adopt – two hours, twice a week – is something to set your watch by, and there are tales of banders who haven’t missed a rehearsal in 30 years.

In normal times, then, the year’s hard work would just be starting. The annual nationwide ranking event, the Regional Championships, take place in the spring, and through the long months of January and February, banders put in the hard yards for a shot of making it to the National Finals, held at either Cheltenham or London’s Royal Albert Hall.

But such regularities now seem a world away for bands such as Foden’s. In their hundred-year history, the band from Sandbach in Cheshire have won 12 British Open titles, 14 National Championships and a record number of North West Regional Championship titles. After a fire ripped through their bandroom in 2016, band manager Mark Wilkinson thought he’d seen it all, but it took a pandemic to finally bring things to a halt. 

Now he faces a different kind of logistical nightmare. “It’s more or less impossible to do any forward planning, because we don’t have any clue what our income is going to be, and we don’t know what our outgoings are going to be!” He estimates that it will be at least six months before Foden’s can get back to regular performances.

Since the pandemic began, brass-banding has moved online, with impressive results. Wales’s Cory Band organised the first ever Online Brass Band Championships; Foden’s did the same, but for soloists. Across the country, groups have embraced Zoom, weaving together pieces using video-editing software. 

Attempts to move rehearsals onto Zoom have produced mixed results Credit: Foden's

But none have been able to replace the thrilling live experience of a brass band playing at full tilt. The brief spells of eased restrictions saw brave attempts to rekindle that in-person magic, as bands spent vast sums of money to make their rehearsal spaces Covid-compliant. Even so, with their usual income streams suspended again, and social distancing here to stay for several months yet, the less well-off bands face a financial headache.

Some elite bands such as Foden’s successfully applied for Arts Council funding in support of new bespoke projects. But it’s the eye-watering costs associated with equipping bandrooms for regular rehearsals that proves a financial headache for most. 

“To make our rehearsal room Covid-compliant, we spent £3,000,” says Wilkinson. “With restrictions heightened between the planning stage and performance, what amounted from that was one rehearsal, and one recording session for a carol project.” 

To help bands on the breadline, Brass Bands England started an Emergency Fund last May, and to ensure that bands of all standards grow beyond the crisis, they recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, #SaveOurBrassBands. Fronted by TV presenter Melanie Sykes, the aim is to replicate the success seen by campaigns such as #SaveOurVenues and #SaveOurTheatres. Thanks to a joint effort by some 70 bands, the total has already reached over £125,000.

Sykes, a baritone-horn player in her youth, tells a story to which many in the banding fraternity can relate: “I’ve been involved in brass bands since I was about eight years old, and going to band as a child was a very good education in teamwork, sticking to rules, discipline to practice, communication and listening. But mostly it was fun!” 

Months were spent making rehearsal spaces Covid-secure, at great expense Credit: Foden's

Banding is built on community spirit: 25 people of all creeds come together to create a blended, equal and brilliant sound. And yet, while friendships and camaraderie bring “banders” together, even that spirit threatens to ebb away. Aside from the costs of Covid, there are concerns that many people will be loath to return. It’s not as simple as picking up where you left off, especially with time away soon to be measurable in years. Keeping up a brass instrument requires a disciplined routine of regular practice, and that, combined with a prolonged period without the sacrifices made for banding – long drives through the night to rehearsals, an often punishing schedule in your spare time – means that interest in some corners may be fading.

Crookston, however, is an optimist. “The overwhelming majority of people who have been involved in bands throughout their lives will be keen to get back to it. There will of course be a lot of vulnerable people, but we’ve got a vaccine on the way, so we’ve got to hope that that will help. Realistically, though, this year is going to be a struggle.

“The role that the band plays in people’s lives,” he adds, “is significant, and just keeping them connected as human beings has been extremely important. Quite a lot of people would tell you that band has been a lifeline since last March. Where people might not have had anybody in their house, band has provided them with a lifeline to humanity.”

Do you play in a brass band? How have Covid restrictions affected your band? Tell us in the comments section below