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Howard Snell: One of the most influential men ever to have been involved in the brass band world talks to 4BarsRest.

Born in Wollaston, Northamptonshire in the same village as Stanley Boddington, Howard Snell's immense contribution since becoming actively involved in brass bands in the late 1970’s is unquestionable.

He became Principal Trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, served on the Board of Directors of the LSO, five of which were as Chairman, and also served at different times as the Principal Trumpet of the London Sinfonietta and English Chamber Orchestra. Later he founded and conducted the Wren Orchestra, working with them for over ten years in association with Capital Radio. In 1978 he became involved in the world of brass bands and since that time has become one of it’s most influential and commanding figures. His views are both cogent and relevant and are forged by decades of experience of musicianship at the highest levels.

4BarsRest managed to catch up with him and what he had to say should be taken to heart by anyone who has even a passing interest in the continued survival of the banding movement.

“I came to banding with Desford in 1978. I was sure that this was both a band and a medium of music making that I could really enjoy. We first came to the fore in 1979, when we were placed second to Fairey’s at the British Open on “Carnival Romain”. Then in 1980 came a third place at the Nationals on “Energy” but it was the entertainment field that saw us really make a consistent and lasting impression.”

That impression saw numerous victories at the old Granada Entertainment Contest, which he won on five occasions and the Rothmans Contest (now Spennymoor), which he perennially won with a series of vivid, intelligent and groundbreaking arrangements for his bands. Not that everyone liked them though. ‘’On one occasion we were due to perform a concert at a Midlands venue in the early 1980’s when an elderly gentleman rang me to enquire if were going to play any of my arrangements. I said that, yes, as usual we were going to play a few, which immediately prompted the response “In that case I won’t be coming!”’’

Another example of resistance was the furore over his victory at the 1986 European Championships held in Cardiff. The choice of his own arrangement of the Second Suite from “Daphne and Chloe” as Own Choice was a stunning example of his skill as an arranger and of the musical capabilities of the brass band, yet it drew a great deal of complaint with the result that the European Contest then banned the use of arrangements.

“We didn’t win the Own Choice Section but our performance on “Year of the Dragon”, 5 points ahead of the second Band … Dyke I think … was more than enough to take the title. Some in the banding world were upset that I supposedly “bent” the rules, but Daphnis is an extremely testing piece of music for any band to play, and Desford were a very hard working band with wonderful players. We also played a couple of extra players, as the rules allowed, and that of course drew further complaints from the losers. I simply took the view that if something is not banned I can do it. The control freak mentality that now rules the world says that you can’t do something unless it is specifically allowed!’’

Although 1987 saw Desford come third, 1988 saw Howard Snell deliver another seismic shock to the conservative world of banding when he took the Norwegian band Eikanger–Bjorsvik Musikklag to the European title - the first time a European Band had beaten a British Band, and repeated the feat the following year for good measure.

“I went to Norway first in 1986 to see what I could offer and hear what they could do. I was impressed by their attitude and desire to absorb new ideas. We won the Norwegian National title in 1987 that led us to the 1988 European. On the Friday evening before the Contest in Lucerne, I bumped into the then MD of Boosey and Hawkes in our hotel. He asked me how we were going to do the next day. I replied that we had a small but definite chance of winning, although privately I thought that third would have been good. This sleek young man dismissed my assessment with a laugh. I was a most satisfied man that night when we took the title, leaving Dyke and Desford trailing.”

Howard Snell ended his tenure at Desford 1987, but his connection with Fodens (Britannia Building Society) saw him claim yet another European Crown in 1992, incidentally back in Cardiff and again on “Year of the Dragon”. "Foden was a great band to conduct and a band that had learnt to play my arrangements very quickly indeed. It was certainly very enjoyable to win the final Granada with them, in the process defeating Desford with whom I had won the other four, and from whom my parting had been extremely unpleasant.’’

The following years have seen Howard Snell come agonisingly close to adding to his four titles, with his two recent near misses with CWS Glasgow in London in 1997 and Birmingham with Eikanger again in 2000 in particular disappointing. “Glasgow had played their hearts out in 1997, while last year saw Eikanger give two brilliant accounts of themselves, especially in the Bourgeois “Concerto Grosso”.

We asked him about the vagaries of contesting. Howard Snell was open and comprehensive in his reply. “I’ve never seen the point of closed adjudication – it’s antiquated and based upon mistrust of the judges. The responsibility of making decisions in an open and transparent way would be made much easier if the judges could hear properly.’’ We asked him about the European. ‘’This contest used to be my favourite, but the use of two separate juries of adjudicators for the contest had lead to inconsistency in standards and marking. But I don’t fuss about adjudication too much these days.’’

And what of the standards that he has done so much to improve over the years both at home and Europe? “We must judge the development of standards over many years and not just over momentary success in a one off contest win. Eikanger have improved and matured over the past 15 years because they have been willing to accept change, to promote new musical repertoire and above all to ignore those inevitable periods when contest results don’t go their way. Their concerts encompass new and demanding works both for the band and the audience. They remain comfortably one of the best brass bands in Europe. At Fodens we did much the same thing for a period. Very strongly supported by my assistant conductor Nick Childs and the band membership, I ran several seasons of Foden concerts at the Royal Northern of the best of band repertoire, with less than moderate support from the banding audience. They were also backed up by several years of innovative lectures and recitals, something which has not been repeated anywhere else on the same scale. Further to this I ran two large scale brass and brass band conferences at the Northern … the first of their kind … which were a success in spite of having to pay the College four figures (left of the dot) in rent for the privilege of enhancing their reputation!! At Desford similarly, I had also drummed up many festival and prestige concerts per annum in order to raise the Band’s profile and increase performance of the finest repertoire.“

Does the same apply elsewhere? “Some countries have inched forwards on several occasions, but outside Norway, and Eikanger in particular, no country has consistently maintained development towards British levels of performance. I’ve judged in various European countries and remain disappointed in their musical development.”

And Britain? "The technical standard here remains astonishingly high with young players poised to go further and further in developing certain types of facility, but not as often, unfortunately, melodic expression. Interest in individual sound quality is at rather a low point. Yes, young players make fine sounds, but individuality of tone colour is what I often miss. That quality is achieved only by long hours of tonal work.’’ Howard Snell also believes that the growth of techno popular music, in disco and dance, "non-human, electronic, and devoid of feeling" … is the reason why so many players have problems in interpreting the music of composers such as Eric Ball. "People’s musical language is based upon their everyday listening, and of course it is usually pop and rock. What people listen to in their daily life forms their musical perceptions and that’s why we hear much less now of the melodic composers such as Ball. His is widely perceived as being unexciting. Skill in melody playing is now almost reduced to the position of being a second language.”

Repertoire? "Brass bands are or course ideally placed to perform a very wide range of light music. That’s what I tried to do in my arrangements, although with a few new twists. In my active ten or eleven years of arranging I plundered a very rich seam of quality music that took a lot of very hard work to bring to the contest stage in a form that was musically acceptable yet entertaining. By the time I quit entertainment contests I had pretty well mined out the repertoire that was suitable from the modern romantics. Entertainment judges began to look for more and more exhibitionist stage displays, which didn’t interest me at all. Entertainment repertoire now seems to have returned to the pre-1980’s in style and taste.’’

And what of the future for Howard Snell? “At last I’m getting around to organising my arrangements and compositions, quite a few of which have never been played. I will be undertaking only a few more commissions before I finally stop writing, because, following on the ‘Trumpet’ book, I still have three other books to do! But most important to me just now is my renewed interest in conducting, prompted by the Williams Fairey Band. It is a very impressive ensemble! On a personal level, living in the Isle of Man is wonderful … Angela and I both love the place … it is one of the few remaining civilised places on earth and where the sun always shines! And taking the extra holiday now and then is also strangely pleasant!’’

However, any chance of totally winding down seems to be out of the window for Howard Snell: we managed to catch him (uncharacteristically, he said) wielding a decorator’s paint brush at home on the Island. How he manages to do the lot is beyond us, but certainly not him. Catch him, watch and listen to him when you can – he is without doubt the banding worlds greatest talent in whatever he does.


Howard Snell’s music is sold through Kirkless Music:

Contact: 609 Bradford Road, Bailiff Bridge, Brighouse, West Yorkshire. HD6 4DN.
Tel/Fax: 01484 722855
email: sales@kirkleesmusic.co.uk www.kirkleesmusic.co.uk

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