Fresh Blood for Old Bands

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by Jack E, Jan 21, 2018.

  1. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    A thread which started out on the thorny question of bringing in deps for contests got a bit side-tracked, and Suzi Q suggested that maybe it should go to a new thread - so here it is.

    The point onto which the 'deps' thread shifted was about ensuring that bands had enough players that they didn't need to be scratching round, trying to fill empty seats on a regular basis, whether for contests or concerts.

    The band I started learning with a couple of years ago provides free lessons from people like the MD and solo and first players from the main band. It also lends instruments to learners, and has a training band as a stepping stone to the main band. The training band performs in public about four times a year when the main band is giving a concert, and they play three pieces in the main band's interval. They also have a development group, made up of more advanced learners and junior players from the main band, and the more advanced learners from the training band are routinely invited to play with the main band during their rehearsals, so that they become used to playing more difficult pieces alongside advanced players. Lots of very visible stepping stones, which I believe maintains interest and encourages new players to work at progressing. Not having belonged to any band in the past, I assumed that all of this was normal.

    Soon after I started, I was encouraged to listen at the back during main band rehearsals, as it was suggested by the sop cornet and first baritone that I could learn a great deal from doing so (which I have!), and I've been doing that ever since.

    Last year, at a main band rehearsal, the MD asked for extra volunteers to help with coaching beginners, as there were so many that the existing team of tutors were struggling to cope; again, I didn't think anything of it, assuming that other bands were in the same boat.

    The following Thursday, some extra tutors showed up - the oldest coming up for 17, the youngest being 11. Judging from the way the learners responded, the new tutors appeared to be doing a good job - and, again, I assumed this was par for the course. Imagine my astonishment when, a week or so later, I related this to an old friend who'd been playing brass for years (well, decades!), and he said:

    "You've got so many new entrants that you're struggling to cope? Most of the bands I know would give their eye teeth to find themselves with a 'problem' like that!"

    When he went on to explain that plenty of bands didn't have a training band, nor did they give lessons or loan instruments to complete beginners, I asked what I thought was a logical question:

    "So where do they think new players are going to come from? TrainedBrassPlayers'R'Us?"

    Going back to the 'Deps' thread, I couldn't help but compare my experience with that of 2nd Tenor, whose band appears to take a pretty similar approach - and which seems to work as well for them as it has done for us. It's a well known principle in business; if you don't invest in the future, you won't have a future.

    Various points were made which appeared reasonable, yet don't seem insurmountable if my experience is anything to go by.

    "Children get bored if you ask them to learn scales."

    Then get them started playing simple melodies as soon as they've mastered a few notes, to reinforce the point that, once you've learnt to play even a few notes, you can make music! 'Oats and Beans', anyone? :)

    "They've got so much on their plate these days, they don't have time to practise."

    If they have time to play football, computer games, skateboard, swimming, etc, they've got spare time that they can decide how they want to use - but whatever they choose to do in that time, it always means they have to forego some other activity. And, seriously, how much time does it take, as compared to playing football? If you practise for only 15 minutes, every day, you will make steady progress.

    Does our band have youngsters make a start, and then drop out a short time later? Of course! One boy recently quit so that he could concentrate on football - but the MD took care to make it clear that there were no hard feelings, that he respected the boy's choice, and if he should decide later on to start playing brass again, he would be made very welcome.

    As to how well it works overall; a while back, the band gave a concert and I think there were 34 players on stage. The MD said that all bar five of them had started with our band, including the solo horn, first horn, sop cornet, rep cornet, solo cornet, first trombone, and first baritone.

    As to the juniors; over the last year, the training band have come on leaps and bounds - and some of them are still waiting to reach the ripe old age of seven! :D

    So, as I see it, the keys to making it work are these:

    1. Explain the progression available to new learners - basic lessons, training band, intermediate group, sitting in at main band rehearsals, etc - so that 'playing in the main band' doesn't seem impossibly out of reach.

    2. Provide loan instruments, so that parents don't have to face the risk of paying out a lot of cash for an instrument, only to have their child lose interest in a few months (and that experience doesn't just happen in bands!) - and also to encourage mature learners, who may also be reluctant to risk a lot of money if it turns out that playing brass is not for them.

    3. Get new learners playing tunes as quickly as possible, no matter how simple they might be - being able to make music as distinct from just plodding up and down scales is a huge morale booster.

    4. Encourage even the youngest members of the main band to help with teaching newcomers. As well as encouraging the young tutors' maturity and self-confidence, young children often find being taught by somebody only a few years older less intimidating than being taught by an adult. Obviously, the young tutors need to be properly (and tactfully) supervised, but we've found it works very well.

    5. When your rising stars head off to university or a new career in some town 300 miles away, give them a friendly send-off so that they leave on a good note. Chances are, if they're able to move back to your area later on, they'll return - and they may well bring their children along with them!


    4th Cornet and 2nd tenor like this.
  2. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Well-Known Member

    “So how do we keep those same enthusiastic children interested right through secondary school and uni/college days for many of them into adult membership? As a village band, we had a training band with around 10 members, but once the children started leaving the village to travel to secondary school each day, membership dropped like a stone and we were left with just a couple of rather sporadic members. A real shame, but the training band stopped, and those children, who never practiced anyway, stopped coming.

    How do you get them practicing in between Bands anyway? How do other groups manage this?”

    Suzie Q

    That’s difficult, but many children (both city and rural) do travel long distances and/or times to school and still become skilled musicians. Like the rest of us they juggle a lot of things but they are on a learning process too. Maybe it’s that learning how to cope process that they need help with.

    Getting children to practice is just hard and getting me to practice is hard too. It’s the getting started that’s difficult ‘cause we place unsustainable expectations on ourselves for what we are going to do in a practice session - the all or nothing approach is our default standard. The way around this is to set the bar low and to set the practice content towards things that interest rather than bore. The expectation of time should be no more than fifteen minutes a day and be glad if they pick the instrument up and do a couple of minutes. The target is keeping them engaged doing a little and often rather than tackling difficult material for the next grade - fun first gives a hope for progress later. Johnny arrives home from school, picks up his Cornet from the bedroom floor, plays one tune out of winners galore badly and then goes to play on his PlayStation. Object achieved, Johnny is still playing his Cornet, and somedays he might play two tunes badly rather than just one.

    How do you get them practicing between band practices anyway? Just don’t worry about that, the object is to get them to the band practice, to keep them engaged, and if all they manage is to put air through the instrument well then that’s better than the alternative. Keeping them playing at all means that there is a possibility of improvement, but once they stop there is no possibility. The other important thing about group playing is to keep it Social, I’ve played in various music groups and the half time break for a drink and a chat does a lot of positive things.
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2018
    Jack E likes this.
  3. ari01

    ari01 Active Member

    I totally agree.. after all 15 minutes per day is still an hour and 3/4 of practice per week on top of groups and lessons they may have.... (I suspect that's probably more than most adult players).
    Jack E likes this.
  4. Euphman2

    Euphman2 Active Member

    I have posted on this subject before but I agree with para 3 entirely. At least 50% (roughly) of young players I have mentored or taught still play, some at championship level, and this was from a learner band, "oldies" get much included!
  5. himan

    himan New Member

    We have a learner group, Brass Roots and Senior Band, the problem we have is attracting the players as the local music center likes to keep hold of them and discourages them to join anything outside the music center. It would be interesting to know how the band Jack E plays with actually contacts or lets potential members know how to join.
  6. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Well, the first one is, of course, word of mouth; players talking to friends and acquaintances about being in the band - but that can only reach a certain number of people.

    I'd say the main method is at concerts, talking to the audience. At virtually every concert (and our band does lots!), the MD throws in brief mentions, here and there, of how the band started, and how one of its main intentions was to teach people how to play, which it has been doing ever since. He brings in the point about how many of the players actually started with our band, that the band provides free lessons and loan instruments (and NO membership fees), and that anyone - regardless of age - is welcome to join, and explains that more information and contact details are on the web page. These bits of information are scattered through the performance, whilst players are changing the sheet music, and so on, so the audience doesn't get bored and switch off.

    And the other method is having the training band come on and play a few pieces during the interlude, which we do at least four times a year, and telling the audience how recently most of them started learning, so that the audience can see how quickly you can get going if you put in the practise.

    Put that lot together, and we're getting the word out to thousands of people every year, most of whom will never have thought about joining a brass band before - even if they enjoy listening - and the great majority of them will be living within 15 miles of our HQ.

    HTH, and best regards,

    Suzi Q likes this.
  7. himan

    himan New Member

    Which band are you with Jack, I'd be interested in looking at the information you mention on the website.
  8. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Will PM you.