Long Eaton Silver Prize Band

Never Too Late To Learn: First Steps In An Adventure With Long Eaton Silver Prize Band

By Professor Pete Thomas (Inaugural Winner of the Vic Henton Memorial Trophy)

Dismissive comments from an early 1960's music teacher, suggesting I was tone deaf and the school choir would be better off without me, might have been the end of musical aspiration. However, for many years, unknown even to my wife Carol - a pianist and organist for whom music is such an important part of life, I dreamed of playing a trumpet. Growing up in the wrong place I had even missed out on listening to brass bands, pop music of the day did nothing for me and with a busy academic life, music was another world. Our youngest son followed somewhat in mum's musical footsteps, quickly graduating from a washing machine pipe to a trombone and moving on to the piano. Carol and Matthew could express far more in their music than they ever put into words. With Matthew playing the Scott Joplin, Rachmaninoff and Chopin, whilst Carol excelled with Bach and Buxtehude on the pipe organ, the house was never quiet.

Following retirement from the university (albeit then starting another business), much to Carol's surprise I bought a cornet on eBay. Despite Carol's musical background, 'brass' was to her an alien world. Middle C wasn't even middle C but rather B flat. However, she encouraged me, bought me my Tune a Day tutor book and I worked out which end of the cornet to blow down. There was clearly something more to these brass instruments than I had bargained for, so started looking for a teacher!

A small ad in the free paper led me to Sharon Stansfield and it came as a surprise to find not only did she teach but there was a brass band too. After the choir experience, there was no chance of getting involved in the band, I would have been quite happy to play my cornet quietly in the corner at home. Going to hear the band play was OK, but involvement that was far too scary. I managed to resist training band for a few months, but eventually succumbed to the inevitable. On the first night, I sat next to Zoe, who made me welcome and shared some music. It all seemed rather quick and I was sure the buttons on my cornet weren't supposed to go up and down that fast.

This band was very different to what I might have expected, maybe at that stage I had only played the first and last note of a piece, but Zoe seemed impressed that I could almost follow the music - definitely not the critical approach I had feared. Needless to say I got encouraged back and although there was no plan to play out with the band, it's funny how you get drawn into things.

A solo, duets and quartets competition (SDQ) day at the band club sounded interesting. Again a bit scary when I found myself drawn to play first - I had hoped the youngsters would have shown me what to do! Anyhow I managed to squeak my way through a 'tune' on my flugel and even attempted a duet with teacher. Lynden the adjudicator was very understanding of the difficulties of learning to play these things (especially for those not quite so young) and offered some real encouragement through his perceptive comments, despite my obvious embarrassment.

Soon, the opportunity arose to play Christmas carols in the marketplace. I may not have played all the notes, but the privilege to be involved in such important community events was wonderful. Any sense of pride I might have developed was quickly dispelled by a friendly youngster from the band who observed 'You used to be absolute rubbish, but you're not too bad now!'. I was so glad he did not tell me earlier. In rehearsal a week or two later as we played a lively piece, James rather than playing his cornet studiously observed my fumbling fingers on the valves - at the end, he quietly observed 'You didn't play much of that did you?'. However, the good natured encouragement continued and at times musical tunes ensued.

Training band was clearly a popular place and over the months it seemed to get a bit crowded amongst the cornets, so foolishly I questioned Sharon as to whether I should perhaps try playing something else. Quickly a trombone was produced, a bit bigger than the cornet and flugel and it didn't have any valves. The real problem with the trombone - it took a lot more blowing and the first few times I tried it made me go dizzy! So making some feeble noises I took it back a few days later and thought that would be that. To my surprise Sharon fetched husband Rob, a real trombone player to hear the noise Pete was making and somehow I was encouraged to persevere.

It was all a bit strange really as I have always been rather shy, preferring to hide in the background and here I was with a trombone! Indeed in my 24 years at the university I had managed to hide and avoid standing up in front of undergraduate students - I had never given an undergraduate lecture.

Another of these SDQ days arose shortly after I started to play the trombone. Attempting to learn from the embarrassing experience of the flugel solo, I arranged to play a trio with a couple of other training band friends. Circumstance conspired that neither could turn up on the day, so once again It became a solo. Despite the performance, more encouraging comments were received with recognition that the flugel had morphed into a trombone.

Some structure in the learning process seemed a good idea and somehow the idea of an exam arose. Thought we might start off at the beginning, but teacher suggested grade 3, so the tunes were chosen and the exercises began. The pieces chosen were a challenge, with high notes which did not seem to be in my trombone and the suggested speeds seemed rather optimistic. However that was part of the challenge of learning. Shortly before the exam was due, I enlisted the help of son Matthew to accompany on the piano. Suddenly found the, nice periods of 'rests' in the music were not simply time to get my breath back, there was the challenge of entry points and timing, and I started to seriously wonder about my choice of pieces.

The exam was on a very cold December morning on the other side of Nottingham. It was icy and snowy - I was glad of my Landrover for getting there, but the examiner encountered bigger problems and arrived seriously late, adding to the tension. However, by that time I was more concerned that I was supposed to be elsewhere making a presentation to some VIP's from the National Railway Museum - always a few too many things in the diary! I think the examiner was a bit puzzled when an aging professor came in for an elementary exam - the first exam I had taken in about 40 years. I survived and alongside some of the younger band members received congratulations from training band friends.

A year later with the encouragement of fellow trombone player Helen, from the training band, I started to prepare for a grade 4 exam. The exercises needed a bit more breath one of the pieces was in 3 sharps with plenty of accidentals, so the music was definitely getting more interesting. The study piece which I had chosen did not really seem to suit me, so a few days before the exam I switched to an alternative and this hastily prepared piece scored more highly than the others which were so well practised. Learning from the previous one, we had the good sense to take that exam in the summer - albeit the exam actually fell on my birthday. Once again survived the exam, the real benefit had been to develop my playing. With Sue and Helen having taken exams at the same time, training band now had some qualified trombone players.

In the meantime, Carol and I had gone out to see the band when opportunity arose and after I had photographed the St. George's Day march, Rob pointed out how they really needed the support of an additional trombone. As Remembrance Day approached, Sharon encouraged me to consider playing and part of me wanted to join in this important ceremony. However, I was only too mindful of the sacrifice given by those remembered and the inadequate musical contribution I might make. Furthermore, I had not allowed for the fact that trombones are at the front leading the parade. Hazel, trombonist from the senior band was most encouraging. I had worked out roughly how to 'try' and keep time with my feet whilst reading the music and playing the trombone. I had not allowed for the complication of going round corners, which made it rather easy to lose sight of the music and not so much of the British Legion March got played as we turned into Main Street. Did a little better with 1914 as we went round Asda roundabout, but clearly this marching represented another section of the steep learning curve - it was nearly fifty years since I had last marched as a boy scout in the 1960's.

As time went by, no doubt I progressed, although as with other things in life I was more aware of my shortcomings than progress. To confuse things, the band progressed and we played increasingly challenging music - I was convinced most arrangers were cornet players as they did not seem to understand the challenge the music provided for the gymnastics of the trombone slide. I cannot pretend it was always easy, learning to play at a later stage in life with the encumbrance of a couple of hearing aids and less than perfect eyesight, just adds to the challenge. Thanks to Sharon I persevered.

Shortly before holiday this summer, Sharon suggested I might like to go along to a Senior band practise whilst it was quiet in the summer. In the event, went along to practise on Wednesday evening and unexpectedly took a red jacket home, so I could play with the band at Breedon on Saturday. The short notice avoided any opportunity for panic and when Sharon suggested the trombones all stand at the front and play Basin Street Blues, I could not have been better prepared! I don't think I had played a glissando on my trombone previously. Surprisingly I really enjoyed that event and found myself involved in other events soon after. It has been a tremendous opportunity to play with the more skilled players of the Senior band and although my standard of playing feels so inadequate, it is giving me the opportunity to improve. I am grateful to Hazel, Sue, Rod, Helen and Rob for their encouragement as I try to make a contribution on the back row of the trombones.

I started writing these notes after sitting in band rehearsal for the first run through of the 2014 test piece Chaucer's Tunes and whilst the challenge is obvious, the music is within sight. Whilst there are no dreams to join the contesting band, I look forward to learning with them.

During this past year, life has seen a further development as Carol, following multiple joint replacements, has too discovered something of the pull of the brass band. The Band competed in the National Finals at Cheltenham in October 2012. We both went down for the weekend in support and a chance encounter in the trade area found Carol having a go on a 'Bubby Tuba'. For the first time, she managed to get a note out of a brass instrument, the cornet, flugel and trombone all having resisted. On return to Long Eaton, Helen lent her a baritone horn and within a few hours she was playing 'Twinkle Twinkle'. The following Monday, Carol accompanied me to Training Band and Rob persuaded her to take a euphonium home! Unsurprisingly, Carol quickly made progress and took her Grade 3 exam just four months later. However, she did confess that playing a brass instrument had been the most difficult instrument to learn - she now understands why we can so easily mis-pitch or play a wrong note.

A further SDQ competition day has just passed and the adventure continued. With the steep learning curve attempting to play some of the senior band music and the Remembrance Parade the weekend before, I concluded that there just wasn't time to prepare and do justice to another solo. Carol had been busily preparing her solo parts and we planned for Helen to accompany her for a duet. Things never work out and sadly Helen was unwell in the week prior to the SDQ day and unable to participate. So, reluctantly I agreed to play a duet with Carol. As band members will know Rob is almost as persuasive as Sharon and when Carol signed up for the duet I found myself signed up for a couple of unprepared solos. I had seen Vic Henton's wife Marj a short time previously and she had expressed the hope I might play, so out of respect for Vic I decided to play a couple of hymns from the 'Red Hymn Book'. Not being adequately prepared, I felt guilty especially as even the simple hymn tunes did not go as I wanted them to. As I played 'Nearer My God to Thee' and on the first attempt, the high notes (which are never a problem) seemed such a struggle, I determined to play a second verse and do a little better. At least I felt I had helped to make the numbers up, but the results came as a complete surprise. Somehow Graham had found something in my playing to award First Prize in Training Band Class 3 solo, Carol and I gained First Prize in the Training Band duet and I was awarded the Vic Henton Memorial Trophy in the Open Solo competition for the best Over 60 player.

Learning to play a brass instrument does represent a challenge. Learning to read music and play any musical instrument is a challenge. However the opportunities to contribute within the community with the rewards it brings are immense. Whether it be playing a concert in the club, playing music for an old folks' home, playing carols in the market place or the band leading the Remembrance Parade; all such things are so worthwhile. In Long Eaton we are so fortunate to have a band organisation which welcomes players of all abilities, including absolute beginners. The 'family' support of the entire group is wonderful, with mutual appreciation of the importance not just of the different groups - the novices, the training band and the senior band - but the people all matter.

Learning skills in childhood is ideal, but hopefully my experience in the supportive environment of the Long Eaton Silver Prize Band, shows a total lack of musical background and experience is no barrier to getting involved and making a contribution. Maybe picking up a trombone before I got my bus pass would have been easier! There is still much to learn and with the inspiration of other players in the band considerably older than me, I hope I may be able to develop and contribute for some time to come. As mature learners we may not develop as quickly as some of the talented youngsters but the wonderful thing in the Long Eaton band is how we can encourage one another.

With grateful thanks to Sharon and the band for all their encouragement.

Professor Pete Thomas