‘An observation of our past and our future.’
An overview of the presentation made by Sheila Allen at the Brass Bands England (BBE) Conference October 2022.
Sheila grew up in the heart of brass banding country in Yorkshire, learning to play the cornet (and the clarinet!) through the free provision offered at her middle school. After a family move to the midlands, she returned to her roots to study Music at the University of Huddersfield as a student of Phillip McCann. On her return to the midlands, she went on to build a successful private music teaching practice and later completed her Secondary Music Teaching Qualification, spending 14 years leading music, and later performing arts, in a local secondary school.
Sheila now divides her time between the classroom in a junior school and her private music teaching practice. Her enthusiasm for being involved in brass bands at a variety of different levels continues; she plays in the cornet section with Flowers Band and is a member of the conducting team at the Ratby Band organisation, leading the beginners’ band. Sheila is also a Youth Brass Development Specialist with the Brass Bands England (BBE) Brass Foundations Team, covering the Midlands area.
Sheila opened her presentation in relation to the conference theme ‘banding for life’ and referenced Ian Bousfield’s thought-provoking keynote conference-opening speech which touched on a range of difficult subjects including repertoire, community, and maintaining relevance within society.
“An exploration of what we need to know in order to adapt our outlook and vision to guarantee that brass bands have a viable presence in our future musical landscape?”
She posed that bands and organisations should ask, ‘what questions we need to answer to drive us into the future with a degree of certainty.’
Sheila went on to define ‘heritage’, a definition which she took from the Heritage Council of Ireland as she particularly liked the way it linked with her approach:
“Our heritage is what we have inherited from the past, to value and enjoy in the present, and to preserve and pass on to future generations.
Our heritage comprises:
- The tangible – our historical sites, buildings, monuments, objects in museums, artefacts, and archives.
- The natural – our waterways, landscapes, woodlands, bogs uplands, native wildlife, insects, plants, trees, birds, and animals.
- The intangible – our customs, sports, music, dance, folklore, crafts, skills, and traditions.
In helping shape our identity, our heritage becomes part of what we are. Our expression of this identity shows others what we value; it highlights our values and priorities.
Heritage is fragile, it delivers so much in terms of important human experience and enjoyment. It enriches our lives, allows us to define ourselves but needs constant protection and development.”
Sheila accepted that the BBE Brass Foundations 5-person Team have a tall order to address the reinvigoration of brass instrument playing in brass bands for the whole country; ‘an under eighteen population of 11 million.’
Sheila’s first question was directed to anyone involved in brass bands in any way, ‘this question is for you’:
“Question 1. If we maintain the status quo, what will our brass bands look like and sound like in 50 years?”
Sheila asked everyone present to reflect on their earliest memories of their involvement with a brass band – her recollection was of the Yorkshire Areas and being with her band there for the whole day; ‘St George’s Hall was full.’ Sheila recalled that in 1983 there were 31 bands in the Fourth Section, and a total of 79 bands competing that year. This year  there were 7 bands competing in the Fourth Section and a total of 49 bands across all sections (a 62% reduction from 1983). Sheila deduced that in 40 years’ time, if this trend continues, there will be only 30 bands competing in the Yorkshire Areas, ‘if we do nothing.’
“Question 2. To secure our heritage, where are the players coming from to ensure the future of our bands?”
a. Where do your players come from now?
b. Where will your new players come from in 20 years’ time?
Sheila cited many excellent organisations across the country where brass music is thriving with progression routes from learner bands upwards and acknowledged that keeping these progression routes in place is hard work that must be maintained.
However, there are many standalone bands that have no such progressions routes. Where will new members for these bands come from? Sheila acknowledged that many lower section bands feed off the hard work of the other bands without necessarily always contributing to them and asked, ‘does your band rely on the hard work of other multi-level organisations to fill your seats?’
What has this got to do with Musical Heritage? ‘What we do now, and what we do next, is our Heritage that we’ll look back on in 50 years’ time.’
“Question 3. What do we know about our future members?”
Sheila gave an overview of her location in the middle of the country, which could be a good indicator of many other areas, and confirmed that 44% of the children in her school potentially have a cultural heritage other than from England. Sheila accepted that her idea of banding heritage was not the same as her school colleagues and pupils and that they probably did not even know that a banding heritage exists.
Sheila posed, ‘is a child’s cultural background a barrier to learning a brass instrument in school?’ ‘Certainly not,’ she definitively answered. In a recent survey conducted at her local schools, Sheila’s focus was to ‘establish if a family’s cultural background influenced the music that they are interested in, whether it formed part of their identity and how important their musical heritage is to them.’
Sheila displayed her extensive research, which included results from questions such as, ‘What country’s heritage do you identify with as an individual?’ ‘What country’s heritage do your children identify with?’ ‘Is the music heritage from your country included in your home life?’ ‘How important do you think that the music from your heritage country is to your own identity?’ ‘How important do you think that the music from your heritage country is to your children’s identity?’ ‘Do you ever hear music from your heritage country in the UK (other than in your home)?’ ‘Would you like your children to hear music from your or their heritage country in school?’
The results of her survey prompted her to consider what hearing music from their cultural background would do for a child. She suggested the following:
- It validates who they are and where they come from.
- It celebrates their identity
- It links home life with school life
- They recognise themselves directly in an aspect of learning
- It gives that child an opportunity to teach others about something they know about
- They feel represented.
Sheila posed that, “if we were to include music in our programmes and our rehearsals that reflects the demographic of our communities, what would that do for our potential members, our new learners, and our audiences? As proud as we are of our banding heritage, our new recruits need to feel wanted too and our audiences need to feel that level of respect. Can we, as a banding community start to think about what is beyond the walls of our band room. Can we consider how we fit into the wider locality. Can we adapt some of our practices to accommodate our changing demographics. Can we plan for the future heritages of our band members and audiences. Can we adapt and thrive?“
Sheila proposed that the new National Plan for Music Education provides the following opportunities for brass bands:
Sheila continued to cite the new National Plan for Music Education in relation to Community Music Making:
Sheila pointed out that ‘if a brass band goes into a school that they must carefully consider what music they might play, and asked will it validate their audience, who they are, and where they come from? Will it celebrate their identity?’
Sheila acknowledged that bands’ audiences have changed and went on to cite the following poem in the hope that it would resonate with her conference listeners:
You can read the full poem here https://www.nateholdermusic.com/post/if-i-were-a-racist
Sheila confirmed that much of the poem makes her feel ‘extremely uncomfortable and quite ashamed,’ and agreed that the music she askes the players in her school band to play does not represent the music heritage of her players. Sheila remembers playing in her band as a child and that it felt ‘safe and familiar,’ but realises that the players in her school band do not recognise themselves in what they see and what they hear.
Sheila is looking for answers and thinks that we need to link brass bands’ heritage with the future and that the conversation will return to diversification and having the courage to change to ensure brass bands’ survival.
“In helping shape our identity, our heritage becomes part of what we are. Our expression of this identity shows others what we value; it highlights our values and priorities.
Heritage is fragile, it delivers so much in terms of important human experience and enjoyment, it enriches our lives, allows us to define ourselves but needs constant protection and development.”
Sheila finished with a final question:
“I wonder how proud and nostalgic our brass banding successes will be when they look back from 2072 to 2022, will we have paved the way to preserve our existence, to develop in a changing demographic?”
We at SRBN feel that Sheila’s presentation was one of the most powerful and relevant of the BBE 2022 conference and certainly elements of her topic also resonated with other presentations and across other workshop areas at the conference. These issues affect all present-day brass bands, not least the ones in our own Sheffield City Region, and how we now react to upcoming societal changes will guide the impact that the brass band movement has on the future of our own and the wider community.
The SRBN is indebted to BBE and Sheila Allen for letting us quote heavily from the presentation, which we feel is one of the most important topics to be discussed throughout the current banding movement.
BBE members can view Sheila’s full presentation here https://www.bbe.org.uk/member/resource/the-brass-band-conference-2022-music-and-heritage
#equality #diversity #inclusion