Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing testimonies and devotions from some of our band members.
Today we want to share another thought from Willie Young.
The year 1976 sticks in my mind. This is unusual for me, an individual who confesses a life-long career of forgetting dates. (Just ask Margaret!)
In that year I gave up playing for a short period of time, before being “accidentally” persuaded into the complex, demanding, and very different world of contesting bands. Before I knew it (and, until this moment, I had no intention of committing to playing regularly ever again), one engagement after another had me tied in to a routine which would last for 40 years. (Is there a biblical significance here?)
Just let me tell you (for I have no intention of ascribing to that period of my life anything other than the honest truth) that it was then that the vagaries of performing under pressure took root. I was surrounded by players who were not only of the highest quality but who required from no-one lessons on the meaning and application of commitment; by the ever-changing parade of conductors through the rehearsal room door (and for whom, in the main, I still retain the greatest respect, both musically and morally); and by many inspirational musical experiences which only I can look back on with quiet, but absolute satisfaction.
If all this sounds a bit Utopian … there was a fair amount of frustration too!
Why do I say all this? Well, being away from SA bands for a long number of years means that I cannot share in the past experiences (and amusing stories) of my fellow band musicians. I enjoy listening in, of course, but cannot connect. But what I can do, since I am aware that some of my previous contributions to this page have been on the ‘serious’ side, is add to their stories a few accounts of never-to-be-forgotten moments from the Co-op bandroom, amusing or otherwise.
During the 1980s, I had the privilege of working under that legendary conductor Howard Snell. Howard, as many of you know, is the son of SA Officers who spent Howard’s early years in Scotland – at Paisley West Corps to be precise. A friend of mine showed me a photograph of Howard in the Paisley West Young Peoples Band when Bert McKay was their leader … he hasn’t changed a bit … Howard, not Bert!
Later in his musical career, Howard held the chair as principal trumpet with the London Symphony Orchestra. After retiring, he then began a very successful period in brass bands, conducting, composing and arranging.
Howard came to Glasgow around the time when young up-and-coming composers were being encouraged to write for brass bands; and some of their compositions did make it on to ‘the scene’, with a tiny few premiered at major contests. So, to be perfectly honest, bands had no way of avoiding to play some truly awful compositions which could only be described as innovative (if not experimental) rather than, in any way, musical.
During one rehearsal, Howard was asked if he had heard any of *****’s other compositions. “No”, he said, “but I may have trodden on some.”
Later, during the same rehearsal, he pointed out to a baritone player “You played an F sharp there, it should be F natural.” Disconcerted not one bit, the baritone (2nd!) player replied “Well, it was an F natural when it left here!” These moments always defused the tension and, ironically, helped the rehearsal to proceed in a more relaxed atmosphere. And, of the same piece, Howard’s final comment was “The covers of this score are too far apart”. (Think about it!)
There is a sense in which I almost envy the spontaneous wit of people like Howard et al; indeed, it is not the first time I’ve fallen victim to their incisive and sometimes caustic and disarming cynicism. People who make a living by sitting in the presence of unpredictable conductors must have a wealth of stories to tell – indeed, some have already profited from it. (Careful what you say in rehearsals, Yvonne!)
I’ll bring to an end what I hope doesn’t seem like a needless list of trivial anecdotes, with a story which illustrates the conceit and (forgive me) the arrogance for which the most renowned of all time cynics was celebrated, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Following a concert Sir T conducted of Mozart’s orchestral music, which concluded in an exciting performance of The Magic Flute Overture, a member of the audience approached the great maestro (there’s always one!) and enthused “Thank you for a wonderful evening with Mozart and Beecham.”
“Why drag Mozart in to it?” replied Beecham.
Enough, then, of highlighting the more facetious side of conductors. I think we all know that fine conductors rarely exhibit the egocentric side of their personalities, whether in rehearsal or performance : people who take their jobs seriously and who make music, simple or technically demanding, sound special. It is not the first time – nor will it be the last – when I have sat under a fine person’s leadership and felt a depth of spirituality (not sentimentality) and when that happens, God is working somewhere … in the minds of the conductor and players and in the consciousness of the listeners.
PS – Although this page is written for presentation at a band rehearsal, and, as such, is intended for the interest of band personnel, I wish to stress its connection and relevance to congregations who worship along with us. I hope (as every band does) that those who listen to our music will do so with their minds open to the message we present and to the God we represent.