Interview with Alan Fernie, composer of the 2006 Regional 4th Section test Piece

Discussion in 'Articles and Interviews' started by TheMusicMan, Mar 9, 2006.

  1. TheMusicMan

    TheMusicMan tMP Founder Staff Member

    Please can you tell us a little more about yourself, what motivates and drives you?
    I took up playing the trombone at the age of 12 to cheer up my Dad, who'd been involved in a mining accident. He'd always wanted me to join the band, it was something I just didn't fancy! But at that age, I realised that I wasn't going to play football for Hearts and Scotland! and I was lucky, as the local band was a decent one, Newtongrange. Very soon after I started to play, I realised that this was what I wanted to do.

    What were your early musical influences?
    "Nitten" band at that time were a decent 2nd section outfit, full of fun and great characters, and I loved it. My life really revolved around the band throughout my teens.

    Is there one piece of music in particular which you'd love to be able to arrange for Brass Band, but have so far been unable to do so, for whatever reason?
    There hasn't really been any music that I've been unable to arrange; only the odd one which has been prevented from being published, like Bernstein's "America", and the Brass Band Aid arrangement.

    Can we have your views on expanding the standard instrumentation, specifically in three areas?
    Adding more players for particular instruments e.g. adding a third tenor trombone to allow true trombone quartet writing.
    Yes, another trombone might be nice - occasionally myself and others have written this, usually asking the 2nd Euphonium to "double".

    Adding "exotic" variations on current instruments e.g. alto trombone or Eb flugel.
    Definitely no!! Most bands I know are short of players - where are all these extra ones going to come from!? If anything, I'd cut the band down.

    Percussion and its seemingly expanding role in the band.
    Percussion is a lovely thing to have in a band when it's there, but unfortunately more often than not, it isn't! I have now more or less settled on writing 3 parts in each piece I do.
    • A kit or basic drum part
    • a Timpani part,
    • a third part usually containing tuned/Latin/effects etc.
    All 3 parts are desirable but if the 3rd part is missing, it won't affect the music!

    Are you adjudicating your own piece in any of this years Regions?
    Yes, I am adjudicating Anglian Dances at two areas, and to be totally honest I'm extremely chuffed to bits about it. Nothing delights me more than a performer who can find something else in the music that I haven't seen!

    What is the most memorable piece of advice that you have been offered in relation to your career? Who was this from and why was it so influencial?
    I once asked a BBC producer called Glynn Bragg for some advice on a specific matter, and he told me to… "Never ask for advice". I thought he was daft at first, but as I've aged, I realise that trusting your own instincts really works!

    If there was just one piece of advice you would give to 4th section bands competing in the Regional Championships 2006 what would it be?
    Just enjoy it, don't start and finish it too slow and "look for Jerusalem"!!!

    Are you planning to follow up your great work with Brass Band Aid in the near future?
    I've already followed up the "Feed the World" song with an easy original little number called "African Funk", from which all the proceeds will be going to the Brass Band Aid charity. I think Bob Thomson is also trying to get another piece out of me!

    What advice would you give to budding young composers wanting to make a name for themselves?
    Simple really, get a top name band to play their compositions in public or on the radio, and try to get it recorded onto a CD etc. If the piece is any good, people will want it. I'm forever indebted to Richard Evans and Leyland Band for giving me the break I was looking for.

    What would you say has been your most popular arrangement or composition?
    The first proper thing I ever wrote for brass band was "When I'm 64". I wrote it when I was 19, and like many things you do when you are a young 19 year old, it's now a bit of an embarrassment! I'm always stunned to see it still selling! "Singing' in the Rain" is also very popular.

    Your music has been popular with selection panels for a number of contests recently. Which piece of music would you like to see chosen in the future? Why do you think this piece would be a good test and for which section would you place it?
    There are three in particular. I wrote a four movement suite for East Woodhay band in Berkshire, called Highclere Castle Suite that I think is a bigger and better piece than Anglian Dances, and there is also a work I wrote for a band in Bucks that, if I were to add an opening movement (it's only 7 minutes long) would be a belter for the 4th section. I wanted to call it "Serenade", but the band who commissioned it named it "Horwood Impressions". I've also just put together a piece called "Gothic Dances" for Obrasso. Cory have recorded it, and I'm told it might make it into the contest scene. It's quite different for me; big, dissonant and technical, but I'm very pleased with it. ED: we look forward to that one eh!

    Where does your inspiration for compositions come from and how do you decide which pieces to arrange.
    Ha, I don't decide! Obrasso provide direction as to what to write! Sometimes they ask me to write things that are not exactly going to suit brass, and I get tremendous inspiration from trying to make the best of it.

    What inspires you to keep writing music and how do you cope during times when it just isn't happening?
    All good writers have ideas in their heads that can be moulded into whatever is required. I've always done this, but never admitted it - thinking perhaps I was a fraud - until the great American composer John Adams said it's what he did. Well…. if it's good enough for him.....

    Has there been a specific moment when you have heard your arrangements played and though "yes, thats why I do it"?
    Seriously, every time a band plays one of my tunes; it's quite humbling.

    When writing do you put all your egg's in one basket and concentrate all your efforts on one work or do you keep scribbling down ideas until you think you have on that works?
    I have a theory; the computer and the marvellous music writing programmes available for them have, in my opinion, made it easier for less able arrangers to bring their work out, however inferior it sounds. I'm always utterly bemused and angered slightly when I hear aspiring writers say things like - "it means I can hear it played back to me" - if you can't ****** well hear it in your head in the first place, then you shouldn't be writing it at all!!

    Also, a lot of contemporary pop music isn't really suited to our melodic medium, and yet publishers insist on bringing it out. "Rock DJ" by Robbie Williams, "Everybody's Changing" by Keane and "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt are cracking pop songs, but who'd want to hear a brass band play them?? Another situation is the fact that some of the continental publishers must have their own versions of big hits, for some reason. I've done a few versions of songs that have already been done very well by someone else; Music by John Miles, for instance. But, as I don't use a computer to write music (I feel I don't need to), I blame computers!

    I think they are designed for people who can't write music! Sorry!

    Of all the recent new works performed in the top section, is there one that sticks out in your mind as a truly inspirational piece of music? How does it compare to you favourite composition of all time and what was it?
    I was lucky enough to be a small part of the 2004 European Championships held in the wonderful town of Glasgow, and I can vividly remember sitting there listening and thinking… "where can these bands go from here? it seems they can play anything!!". Saying that, not too many of the new test pieces have thrilled me musically - I actually like to listen music which is understated, rather than the technical fireworks that have to be written to test these bands. I know I'll never be good enough to write that kind of stuff, but that doesn't bother me at all. I'll never forget hearing my first top band, Grimethorpe I think, playing A Moorside Suite at Blackpool when I was just 13, and that astonishing music, so restrained and perfectly balanced, no unnecessary notes, remains a huge favourite of mine. I was also deeply thrilled and moved by hearing Leyland play the ethereal opening to Cloudcatcher Fells at the Albert Hall in 1985. I was there!

    In Scotland you have a vested interest in conducting lower section bands and have done for many years. It would be of great interest for many tMPers to get some input why you get great satisfaction in doing this.

    I am a huge fan of the Brass Band movement, and I'm always pleased to see bands of all shapes and sizes enjoying what they do. There is so much negativity about our medium; I want to bring as much positivity as I'm able into it. We're told that bands are dying off, sometimes, and I think it's due to the constant drive and obsession with the extremely high standard of performance that is required from us all. I'm personally fed up with magazine articles telling us of stunning perfection and how good this band is and that band are blah blah.... I'm sure it puts a lot of "average" players off. My wife for instance, plays BB flat bass - it's her hobby. She likes to go to band once a week, enjoy a good blow, maybe a beer afterwards, and that's it. She's got no interest in constantly rehearsing music that she doesn't want to play, and pushing herself as far as she can. She just enjoys playing.

    There are thousands of players like her in unheralded little bands, and it's these bands that are perhaps in need of good direction and coaching the very most. I find it to be as much a challenge to make good music from a "lesser" band like this than to conduct at a high level. Actually, I can't kid myself; although I think musically I'd be good enough to work at the top, I've not got the right character. I seemed to have developed as someone who can get the most from an unpromising situation, and when it all works, as it has turned out to do quite frequently, there is an enormous sense of satisfaction.

    It's not easy, takes a lot of patience and understanding, but I tell you what, it's sure worth it.

    Going back to my mid teens and being an enthusiastic bandsman, an enormous revelation to me was the Granada TV Band of the Year contest. I was really taken with the work of the conductor/arrangers such as Elgar Howarth, Howard Snell, Ray Farr etc. and that sowed the seed for me. I wanted to be them! When, about 10 years later, I got myself a good band (Cowdenbeath) then I did write a lot of my best arrangements for them, and we had success! It still remains a burning ambition of mine to put together a "Brass in Concert " programme with a top band, and conduct it. I am available!!
  2. Dave Payn

    Dave Payn Active Member

    Firstly, Alan. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten us tMpers with your thoughts.

    I can relate to what you say about the joys of lower section banding, having played in and conducted lower section bands for 27 years! There's something about getting a band of musicians just doing it for a hobby to play to the best of their collective abilities and not be governed by perceived 'highest standards' (and I mean absolutely no disrepsect to our top bands when I say that). To be honest, I couldn't conduct a top section band anyway. I'd be laughed out of the rehearsal room! But I do get a buzz out of training lower section bands and learning something from those players no matter how inexperienced some of them might be.

    On your point of music software packages, I can sort of see where you're coming from up to a point (certainly regarding 'hearing it in your head'. I started arranging - or trying to - long before the likes of Sibelius existed so I can understand that) but nevertheless, I have found it useful using the likes of Sibelius to correct things I've heard in my head which haven't necessarily come out like I'd envisaged! And if one can learn from those mistakes to 'hear' things better next time around, then I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing! I do still write things out with pen and paper first most of the time (to see how much of my harmony lessons I remember, chiefly!) but I have to say that Sibelius and the like have been useful to me too!

    Thanks once again.
  3. Leggy

    Leggy New Member


    I've nothing really to add, I'm just a fan of yours! I just wanted to tell you that I think you compose some truly lovely music and I'll never forget winning the 2nd section Mineworkers Championship a good few years back with A Royal Mile Suite - that is a truly atmospheric and beautiful piece. Being a Sassenach who is having a love affair with Scotland I really enjoy playing your more obviously Caledonian inspired pieces. Thank you so much for your contribution to the movement generally and to my personal playing enjoyment particularly!

    Leggy (a horn player)
  4. Bob Thompson

    Bob Thompson Member

    YOU are correct ALan, I am...........smiles and where is it!

    Cheers Alan

  5. bruceg

    bruceg Active Member

    Nice to see you deciding to have a wee outing in the 1st section this year. The whole band seemed to enjoy your rehearsals (lots of inspirational comments along with your insights into the banding movement :) ). Not our best performance on the day but a good safe placing for which you can take much of the credit.

    BBb Bass, Lochgelly

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