4BR Interview - Phil Lawrence


Anthony Banwell meets up with Phil Lawrence as he does battle in his very individual way to try and get a youth band set up in Essex every bit as good as any in the country.

Phil LawrenceComposer Phil Lawrence, who is now a Green Belt by the way in Wado Ryu karate, has been looking to start a Youth Brass Band in Essex. So 4BR caught up with him to ask him some obvious questions: Why, how & when?

Anthony Banwell:  Why Essex?

Phil Lawrence: Some people will say that there is no real tradition of brass banding in the south & south east. It would be fair to say to a point that is true to the extent that in the south & south east (certainly due to the history of industry) we have not had as many bands over the same period, thus not having the tradition being passed down through industry. Therefore it's not been in our blood as long, or as thick.

A bad analogy might be, now I'm into martial arts, if you say that the Japanese can kick us Europeans into touch when it comes to karate, it stands to reason, as they invented it a thousand years ago. With their disciplined society code of honour dating back to the Samurai along with their strict practise regime and religious beliefs, it gives them the edge (in a massive way). Yes, it's not a great analogy but it holds some water.

Of course we do have very fine old bands with tradition down here. I am a staunch supporter and vice-president of the Aveley & Newham Band and my next point is quite relevant regarding the north v south mentality.

At the Grand Shield this year many people left the auditorium as Aveley walked on, so hardly anyone heard the winning band. One Aveley member told me: "It was like playing at a funeral for tumbleweed on a bank holiday on the Isle of Skye!"

Aveley is a band some 112 years old, so there is real tradition there. We also have Redbridge round the corner, no slouches contest-wise either, brought up through the educational mould via John Ridgeon in the 1960s to 1970s, and of course we also have the very new, Alliance Band formed in 2000.

Now please don't tell me I've left bands out of this equation. I've used these names as the top three general contenders in the South East Regional as of late. But even between these three, there are huge historical differences via the traditional brass band family tree concept. This is of course not the case ‘up-north' when you come to the top three in any given Regional contest.

Anthony Banwell: This new youth band, can you pin-point it's necessity and how it might come about?

Phil Lawrence: Well over a period of around 12 years or so I've been in touch with many bands in the south east, conducting, playing and adjudicating and I have noted that the influx of new young blood into some of the top bands seems to follow this path:
Firstly, there are many proficient players but they don't come with the traditional brass band background attributes; not packing the traditional sound and poor on band repertoire experience and band technique. 

Secondly, many, but not all young players in their late teens just can't make the standard to join a top band. I think I've seen about four players under the age of 18 join the ranks of the Aveley & Newham Band in the last 10 years. I remember when I first joined CWS in 1979 on front row, there was a 14 year old lad on rep who constantly played Pandora in the back of my head, which really annoyed me as I couldn't play it as well as he did! 

Third - their traditions and their loyalties, agendas and values are not installed the same way.

Finally, choices of bands in this area of a good middling standard as in top of 2nd Sec/bottom of 1st for a starting base for a grade 7+ student are much fewer and not quite as hot as middling is up North.

Now, I'm not saying that we don't have any Youth bands here in the South East as I've been in charge of one or two of the better ones, but as far as I can see, getting in new blood starting on brass band instruments here, especially lower brass between the ages of 9 and 12 is nearly an impossibility in this area, and I include three Boroughs in that sum.  You have to ask why?

But now is the time to have a ‘pop' at our education/music systems and the youth and adult bands. So here I am once again trying to cheese off the majority of the banding universe.

Many great bandsmen up north went into music education in the late 1950s and 60s as a real life/job style change. Not the case down here. Up North the real banding went straight via a new found teaching position, a new career from pit/mill into young Northern blood via the school instrumental lesson, and the council usually paid for it. Most  music teachers there were very happy with this and many schoolchildren joined local bands as well as forming school bands.

This alone boosted and fed the tradition right up to the mid 1980s. Here in the south east, many teachers from the late 1950s to present day came either from within the music business or were semi-professional orchestral musicians. Teachers here, for the most part were part time, staying in the profession and supplementing income via teaching.

There were very few traditional bands within the education systems in those days. There is of course one I must mention though. Fairlop was started as a junior band in the 1960s by Dennis Carney and is still going strong today. I'd go as far to say that in some areas of Essex (especially between the 1950s to mid 70s) that teachers of brass were very hard to find.

Having said that I was in charge of a fine borough brass band from 1987 to 1992 - Havering Youth Brass Band,  but this band was brought into the Borough as an outside youth band (from Romford) whose committee were at loggerheads with parent supporters.

The parents wanted Havering Music Department to take charge and run it. I was given the stick job. I used traditional methods and music (much to their surprise) and had them at a contest within one year. This worked well for around 6 years until - I would now like to stick a very long and rusty knife into the former Conservative Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, for introducing Local Management of Schools (LMS) and creating the Independent Music Service at is now known.

My hours (2 hours part time at adult education rates) then had to go to a full time member of staff as directed time - regardless of my experience in the profession and also regardless of my five year relationship with those young musicians.

Most music services now have brass groups or brass orchestras/ensembles. Sure, there might be euphoniums and soprano cornets in that mix, but also French horns, trumpets and the bass clef readers only. This invariably means the quality of printed/arranged music available for the mix is sometimes labelled Part A in Bb, Part B in Eb.

These arrangements as I've found, neither contain good music or a technical challenge (within the music) appropriate to the instrument or skill level. In addition, those schools that opted out with money in the coffers have also steered towards the orchestral/ensemble way.

Over the last 5 years with the Aveley Youth band I have noticed that many new players were looking for a challenge and to gain a personal discipline in their playing.

Previously, everything they played and did was always good, nice and ‘well done' you darlings! Joining a structured youth brass band challenged them by allowing musical versus technical considerations, self worth, and a realistic goal worth aiming towards.

Believe it or not, in Essex there are many small independent bands of varying quality spread far and wide. Some of these are family oriented, some are youth ‘spin offs' from other bands, and some are privately taught groups under both qualified and unqualified persons from within that very set up.

Now, I said earlier, that many present Music Services here had gone the way of the brass orchestra (to include all instruments of course); some services have done this because even though the service has a full set of BB instruments they cannot get a band together. Why? I hear you all ask! Well, some of this is down to losing young players to local brass bands.

Some of these local bands (youth or otherwise) attract players, young and old, and teach them for nothing which is great in theory and many can also teach very well using sound principals and in some cases not.

A private set up will often have its own agenda and schedule (naturally). If a pupil also contributes in a music service, you then get conflict. Not just dates in a diary, but conflict on what's good and bad for the child and conflict between the service, the pupil, the band and the parents of that child. This an old story indeed!

My regime at Aveley Youth was to research all dates thoroughly and get an ‘ok' from all concerned and make sure that date was not too late in the term. And always be willing to compromise and get each child's teacher to help with their music and support what we do as a band.

I have also witnessed many personal feuds to the detriment of good band life almost to the brink of destruction where one member (committee or other wise) cannot abide another one, or their ideas or principals or point of view on the organisation of. This very often can go unabated for years and puts off new young blood!

On top of all this, it seems to be difficult to reach a high standard at any one level of banding, be it under 12s or over 14s. They all need seem to need adult input to do well on the contest circuit.

Some students (14 yrs +) we can completely lose through the banding/brass group system because they are either bored in the Music Service sector re: music played in group, or group orientation, or just as bored and cheesed in a local self run adult band, there they soon become alienated via age (but I'm not being ageist here), politics, naff music, and probably will have to sit way down in the section below their playing ability because that's how ye start lad and we don't want to upset No 2 who's bin there for  12 years. But, these happenings are indicative of many areas in the North, South, East & West of England, not just the South East!

Anthony Banwell: Ok. How do you see it working/up & running?

Phil Lawrence: The MO would be a little like this. The band would meet as a course, end of a term, late Friday to a Sunday, & pm concert. Music would be sent out to all 4 weeks before. The general standard would be aimed at a Grade 5/6 for lower/intermediate level positions Grade 5/6 for 3rd & 2nd cornets, 2nd horn & 2nd baritone, Grade 6 for 1st horn, 2nd trombone, bass trombone and 2nd Eb bass and 2nd BBb bass, Grade 7-8 for rep, flugel, 2nd euphonium and 1st basses, and Grade 8 for all others or equivalent via audition process.

The course could be run with the help/assistance of our nearest central top band and/or local authority tutors, and perhaps our top band might even perform as a whole on that very weekend course, there's nothing like inspiration when given to a young group, and, perhaps our top band will even perform in term time in schools across Essex to spread the excitement/word?
We must also accent that this band is a traditional brass band, taught with traditional methods, traditional music, traditional styles sounds and techniques, and of course traditional brass band instruments, and even if a trumpet player buys a cornet to join the band we will be implementing the use of (how much and when) vibrato from square one. During the weekend leaders from a local top band (or/& local tutors) will take sectionals.

Anthony Banwell: Do you have the cooperation of all of Essex?

Phil Lawrence: Well, I've already met with people at Thurrock and after some initial scepticism I think I've gone some way to allay some fears they may have perceived. Consequently they have signed up in principle to the idea, and have asked me to run a brass course next February at the Thurrock Music Centre.

My next meeting will be in September with managers of Essex Music service. As this service covers much of Essex's musical education, it is a very important milestone.

The Youth band would also work on repertoire that has passed the stand of our local top band achieve continuity of performance/coaching. If I can get visiting stars like my good friends Rod Franks or Richard Marshall to coach play and even guest solo, I will!
Each course can move from area to area in Essex through the year with each music service that contributes players hosting the course at a cost to them, but this needs fleshing out some. There will be a cost for the course, also grants will be applied for via Youth Music and other types of music grants to help subsidise. Music will be borrowed from the Aveley & Newham band library that is extensive, going back to 1898.

Anthony Banwell: Lastly Phil, when do you hope to see the baby walk?

Phil Lawrence: I'd really hope to sort it all out through the rest of 2006/7, grant applying and such like, and see the first course meet in December 2007, or, being lucky, July 2007.

Anthony Banwell: Good luck with your journey in bringing a traditional youth banding centre to the South East Phil!

Since giving this interview Phil has had his meeting with Essex Music Service, and it's a yes - they too have subscribed to the project, the 2nd biggest county in the UK!


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