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Denis Wick at 90
The musician with the golden touch

One of the greatest influences on the sound of the modern brass player and the modern brass band has just celebrated his 90th birthday.


The man behind the music making brand

Denis Wick has become a name synonymous with brass. 

Or should that be gold?

What started out as a personal search for a mouthpiece that suited his particular needs as an orchestral player at the Royal Festival Hall where he performed as the principal trombone of the London Symphony Orchestra, has seen him become the figurehead of a multi-million pound, award winning global business.  

Success story

In the process, his musical insight linked to an acute business acumen has placed his name on the lips of brass players in every country around the globe. 

It is a remarkable musical success story of a boy born in Essex in 1931 - one that has also given him the rare distinction of his name becoming an identity synonym for product excellence. 

What he felt was an over ambitious initial order of 100 trombone mouthpieces has become a Queen’s Award for Enterprise winning exporter selling product lines that now encapsulate mouthpieces, mutes, accessories and more.

It is a remarkable musical success story of a boy born in Essex in 1931 - one that has also given him the rare distinction of his name becoming an identity synonym for product excellence. 


Playing his own product...

Telling influences

There is little doubt that even at the age of 90, Denis Wick continues to be one of the most telling influences in providing the foundation of the sound of the modern brass player – and in turn, that of the modern brass band.

It also says a great deal that in celebration of that birthday this week, the ‘The Trombonist’ magazine was packed with performers queuing up to pay tribute; Dudley Bright (who later followed Denis Wick as principal trombone at the LSO); Patrick Harrild, Helen Vollam, Eric Crees, Chris Houlding and many more.  

They spoke of a man with a clear, analytical mind, of kindness but no flannel (and also a great mimic), a superb exponent of his craft, generous with his time and advice and a teacher of rare technical as well as musical insight and thoughtfulness. 

They spoke of a man with a clear, analytical mind, of kindness but no flannel (and also a great mimic), a superb exponent of his craft, generous with his time and advice and a teacher of rare technical as well as musical insight and thoughtfulness. 

All were the players who became even better musicians for playing next to or being taught by him.

Thanks to his influence (his work, ‘Trombone Technique’ has become a standard text) as well as mouthpiece design, there are literally thousands upon thousands of others too.

Hungry diner

Denis Wick’s professional playing career spanned well over 40 years from his first appointment at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in 1950, to encapsulate a 31-year tenure at the LSO (1957-1988).

His sound was heard on iconic recordings such as the premiere of the Gordon Jacob ‘Trombone Concerto’ to the soundtrack to the Star Wars films.  

This was added too by a teaching career that continues to this day; started on a freelance basis and then supplemented by posts at the Guildhall School of Music where the potential to make his mark he said made him feel like “a hungry diner offered a good meal”.   


Denis Wick helped bring brass playing into a new era

His analytical approach ensured he made a success of both. He kept his diaries from those formative years where he recalls modestly, “…using the techniques that I had found so successful for so many years I began slowly to get results.” 

Legacy

That alone would have been more than enough to secure Denis Wick’s musical reputation as a performer and teacher, but his ultimate legacy will surely come through the products that will bear his name for generations to come.

The first mouthpiece came in 1968 (stamped Denis Wick ‘A’) and as he recalled in a later interview, “took me a year and a half” to design, “and wasn’t at all scientific – it was entirely trial and error.”  

The other 99 must now be literally worth their weight in gold. He has long since lost count of just how many others have been sold around the world.

Made in silver (the gold-plated versions came later), all were soon sold to fellow orchestral players and students. He still has the very first mouthpiece made by Brian Cox, a former merchant seaman engineer in what he said was "a ramshackle shed”. 

The other 99 must now be literally worth their weight in gold. He has long since lost count of just how many others have been sold around the world.


Father and son success: Denis and Stephen Wick with the Queen's Award

Queen's Award

However, in 2014, he spoke to 4BR not about his personal achievements, following his company’s presentation of a ‘Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade’, but his pride in others who have produced close to 400 different mouthpiece designs, as well as a comprehensive range of mutes and innovative accessories over the years that bear his name.

"This is all about what you have achieved," he said gesturing to the staff, suppliers, friends and colleagues who helped celebrate the event with the crystal glass vase in his hands.

“From the making of the mouthpieces and mutes, to putting the labels on the boxes and selling our products in worldwide markets, everyone has contributed so much to the success of the company.”

I was once told that our mouthpieces had revolutionised the sound of the modern brass band. It’s such a wonderful musical ensemble, so it should always embrace innovation. Hopefully, we can do more to help that in the years to come."

Brass band revolutionary

And when asked about the impact he had on the brass band world, he was equally generous in his assessment. 

“I was once told that our mouthpieces had revolutionised the sound of the modern brass band. It’s such a wonderful musical ensemble, so it should always embrace innovation. Hopefully, we can do more to help that in the years to come."

There is no doubt about that. 


The next generation...

On a recent visit to the 2021 Easter Course of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain you couldn’t help but notice just how many young players performed on either a Denis Wick or Alliance mouthpiece (the in-house sibling brand).  It was the vast majority in fact.

Moving with the times

That tells you a great deal – and not just because Denis Wick has been very clever in moving with the multi-media times.

It is also that he remains keenly aware of an appreciation of the modern player’s needs – an ethos that harks back to the earliest days when its founder was searching for a mouthpiece that met his.

That has been both seen and heard throughout the banding world since the first advert for Denis Wick mouthpieces appeared in ‘British Bandsman’ magazine in May 1970.

It is also that he remains keenly aware of an appreciation of the modern player’s needs – an ethos that harks back to the earliest days when its founder was searching for a mouthpiece that met his.

White heat

With the recent advent of the comprehensive move by manufacturers such as Boosey & Hawkes to cease production of high pitch instruments, the brass band world was finally embracing Harold Wilson’s 1960’s ‘white heat of technology’ revolution.

It was perfect timing.

As he later recalled, by the end of 1970 Boosey & Hawkes were selling complete sets of low pitch instruments on Hire Purchase schemes for £3,800, whilst trombone and euphonium players were jamming the telephone switchboard at Edgware Road (you had to deal direct at the time) to get their hands on Denis Wick mouthpieces to go with them.


All that is gold...

Both had literally struck gold (22 carat in fact with the mouthpieces). No wonder they worked together in the years that followed.  

The rest is history

Once again though Denis Wick has bene keen to ensure others are not forgotten. 

They became anything but, and the first generation of aspiring cornet players soon got their first Denis Wick 4 as a birthday or Christmas present.  

Although the product range started with just trombone mouthpieces (the cornet models came a little later and were designed in association with Tommy Wilson of the Band of the Scots Guards), the range soon developed rapidly. The idea of them being gold plated came from a chance encounter with an American colleague who rather flippantly suggested the finish given that he felt it was an idea that would make them uncompetitively priced.

They became anything but, and the first generation of aspiring cornet players soon got their first Denis Wick 4 as a birthday or Christmas present.  

After that, the rest is history.

“The idea of them being gold plated and the design which produced such a perfect sound, all came by meeting and working with wonderful colleagues and friends. I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

 


Golden touch...

No luck

Luck doesn’t really come into it, as his son, Stephen Wick alluded to at the time.

"His inspiration has been the driving force for the company — one which I have been honoured to carry one.

The commitment to quality and innovation of everyone associated with Denis Wick Products has been the foundation of our success — led of course by a very special man."

On his 90th birthday weekend, that is someone we should all celebrate.

Happy birthday Denis Wick - the musician with the golden touch.

Iwan Fox  

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