*This article was written for The British Bandsman in January 2019, in preparation for UniBrass the following month.*
The new year means a new contest season - one of the first of which is the annual University Brass Band Championships. UniBrass, being held in Bangor this year on February 2nd, has seen an incredible rise from its humble beginnings at Lancaster University back in 2011. Back then, just 12 bands competed, this year we see 21 universities taking part across two sections!
Some people may ask why we have such an event, when there are entertainment contests taking place all over the country. UniBrass provides something totally different, it’s run by students for students. University banding aims to fill the void between youth bands and adult bands, it creates an inherently social environment and a great way to meet people with a shared interest in often huge universities. With bands beginning to pop up across the country the contest was founded to provide a focal point in the year – as well as a great social opportunity! Contest Founder Max Stannard commented “We had enjoyed taking part in Whit Friday but couldn't find any other contests which the band could enter, so we decided to set up our own. Originally we planned Lancaster vs York between the two bands [the universities compete annually in a sports tournament], but when we emailed other bands we found lots were interested and so we opened it up to bands from across the UK.”
Looking back at the first contest you can see the impact of UniBrass on the wider banding world. Back in 2011, Adam Cooke led Brass United to his first contest victory as a conductor, and since then he has gone on to lead the Virtuosi GUS Band and with them earned 5 Midlands area titles, a Butlins title and an All England Masters. Now, he heads to Norway to become resident conductor of the Stavenger Band as one of the most highly respected young conductors in brass banding. The sheer talent also on display is also impressive, with an imposing list of solo prize winners including the likes of Matthew White from Tredegar, Dominic Longhurst of Brighouse and Rastrick and this year Adam Bokaris of the Fairey Band.
Whilst there is clearly talent in abundance at the contest, ultimately that is not really what UniBrass is about. The contest aims to encourage, above all, participation in, and enjoyment of brass bands. There are many students who go off to university join their university band on a whim (some even converting from wind bands) and are sold on banding for life, going off to join their local contesting band upon graduation.
Current committee member of Southampton University Brass Band, Joe Scott-Hartley, had not before university, ever been in a brass band. Joe says, “Although I was in a couple of brass ensembles with my county youth groups I had never really been in a brass band before SUBB. Fast-forward three years and I have now not only been treasurer for two years and competed at UniBrass but because of this I was introduced to a 3rd section band (Ocean Brass) in Southampton and have also competed for them.”
What’s also important is how UniBrass showcases university brass banding to young people. It is an annual platform to showcase the great brass band music being performed at university. This music, like at all contests, ranges from banding classics to new compositions- from the sublime to the ridiculous. For students who are new banding this contest means that they get exposed to a whole new repertoire that they may not have known existed. It’s a chance to hear music from composers who are approximately their age, such as Jonathan Bates, or to listen to the people who inspired them. One of the great things about UniBrass is that more than just the playing is rewarded, there are also prizes for Best Student Composition and Best Student Conductor. This gives students the chance to explore all avenues of the banding world and showcase the number of ways they can be involved outside of university, whether that be through arrangements or by leading a band themselves.
One of the successes of the contest over the last few years has been inviting a local youth band to perform before the pre-results contest. In Harrogate at UniBrass 2017, local band, Tewit Youth Band stole the show putting on an incredible performance for the amassed students. Not only did they entertain though, but they were also themselves inspired to go and progress to university brass banding.
More young people are going off to study at university than ever before and if brass banding is to avoid losing many young people to the bright lights of the SU Bar and the Ultimate Frisbee team university brass bands are therefore even more important. It is no secret that many community brass bands are struggling for numbers and so with the ninth UniBrass contest once again featuring more students than ever (over 700 this year) the brass band community can only hope that an enjoyable day in Bangor encourages as many of these young people as possible to carry on brass banding into their adult lives!
UniBrass 2019 is on the 2nd February at the University of Bangor. Tickets for both the contest and the UniBrass Gala Concert, featuring the Tredegar Town Band, are on-sale now. Visit pontio.co.uk for details.