Arfon Owen, a tenor horn virtuoso and Yamaha Performing Artist gave a lecture to our Advanced Brass Ensemble class. Not only is Owen an exceptional soloist, he is a highly sought-after tenor horn player for brass bands within Europe. The most notable band that he has performed with is the Black Dyke Band. He now lives in Norway, and plays with the Stavanger Band. In addition to playing this instrument, he is an educator, conductor, and organist.
The lecture Owen gave provided us with much insight into the world of brass bands and their origins. Surprisingly, virtually everyone who attended did not have any background knowledge of this type of ensemble, and it was quite refreshing to learn new information about it. The critical catalysts of the origins of a brass band was to distract workers from the harsh work conditions and to keep them from forming unions during the Industrial Revolution. Although this was a dark origin, workers embraced the new hobby and began competing against other companies’ bands in competitions. It became so competitive that companies scouted and procured the best players from different companies to play in their bands, and as a result, music these groups played became more challenging. Additionally, advances in brass instrument manufacturing skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, as the two world wars occurred, there was a halt in the production of brass instruments as metal needed to be used for guns and ammunition during both wars. Even so, the brass bands persevered and now become a staple in the UK and surrounding areas. For each competition, there is a test piece and a choice piece. The test piece literally tests the capabilities of each section of the band technically, stylistically, and as an ensemble. According to Owen, competitions are held in different countries, and each host country has a resident composer write the test piece. The choice piece can be a selection by the band that exemplifies their musical capabilities, or could be test piece that was used from a previous competition. We were shown Johan de Meij’s (Danish composer) piece, Extreme Make-Over. Interestingly, this was one of the pieces I was going to present in my listening presentation for our class, and even more, I had the opportunity to play this difficult piece with Arfon and other high-caliber players at the 2017 NABBA competition (this will be the next blogpost)!
After the lecture and after performing with a brass band for the first time, I have a much greater appreciation of what it takes to be a brass band musician, and have gained a better perspective in how much I need to practice if I am to perform with a brass band again in the future.