frequently asked questions

What is a British-style brass band?

The British-style brass band has been, arguably, the finest example of amateur music-making in the UK over the last 150 years. The greatest bands are 'professional' in their attitude, manner, and quality of performance - and Stanshawe & Sun Life was one of the best examples of these. Most other bands embody everything which is good about a close, hard working, friendly, & caring local community group.

It is a band which has a standard ensemble format comprising of brass & percussion instruments. This format, and many of the instruments themselves, were developed through the 19th century in the rural & industrial areas of the UK. The format is normally: 1 Eb Soprano cornet, 9 Bb cornets, 1 Bb Flugel horn, 3 Eb Tenor horns, 2 Bb Baritones, 2 Bb Euphoniums, 2 Bb Tenor trombones, 1 C Bass trombone [Note: the only instrument which is written in true pitch], 2 Eb bass tubas, 2 Bb bass tubas, plus, a variety of percussion often including timpani, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, and sometimes, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, etc., etc..

Where can we find British-style brass bands?

Not only in England, Scotland, Wales & Ireland, but you will find lots of them in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Austria, & Switzerland. Even further a field you will find them in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA.
How are things organised in the UK?

There is really no, all encompassing, organisational body which controls & manages brass banding in the UK - therefore, there is no apparent strategy for its development or sustaining its place in British culture. Each band is an autonomous group which decides who, where, when, & what it will play. These bands may wish to, through choice, belong to a regional 'association' of bands, which may itself belong to a larger national body of 'associations'. Arguably, the real power in top-class British banding lies with the bands themselves, the 'Registry' - a controlled database of players wishing to take part in competition - and the organisers of the major competitions - the 'Nationals' and the 'Open'.  The Sun Life Band was a member of the South-West Brass Band Association (SWBBA).

How many bands in the UK?

Several hundred which compete and many which don't. For many bands and players, competition is everything; for others, it is not. Competition is brilliant for honing ones skills, but great care is needed to avoid the negative impact of making oneself more aggressive to others & turning it into a sport rather than a musical & creative hobby.

Our band enjoyed and revelled in competition, but always maintained a friendly relationship with others, and thoroughly immersed themselves in quality concert & recording performances.

How are top-class bands organised?

The classical organisation of most brass bands in the UK, from a legal stand-point, is that of an association or club where its members have liabilities for the expenditure & debt of that organisation. Some bands have gone 'limited' where they limit the debt liability to its members, but not that many. From a personnel stand-point, many bands are run by committee - chairman, secretary, treasurer, and a few other members to make up their full quorum. This committee is normally made up of active players in the band itself. However, many top-class bands have a more focused regime of management, where a full-time band manager is employed or a non-playing management team is put together, often strongly influenced by a leading personality within the band (player or conductor).

The Stanshawe & Sun Life Band was run along traditional committee lines, with the addition of a hard working Contest Secretary (non-playing member, removing the stress of organisational duties on, and around, contesting time). The band's committee had control over such issues as: personnel (hire & fire), purchasing (instruments, uniforms, insurances, etc.), appearances (concerts, broadcasts, & concerts after invitation), and all major decision-making. The conductors (resident/principal) had ultimate say with regards to the performance aspects of the band and were asked for their opinion & advice on important issues where it was thought appropriate.

Where did the name Stanshawe come from?

The name is very old dating back to reign of Richard II (1367-1400) whose great ally was Thomas le Despenser the 1st Earl of Gloucester. The Earl's daughter was an Isabella Stanshawe whose name was given to various houses and estates in the area of Yate. This small town is a short distance north of Bristol which was, for most of history, within the bounds of south Gloucestershire. Centuries later the band took on the name as a thank you to those supporters that provided an early financial stake to launch the band and whose business interests were associated with Yate.

How did people join the band?

The Stanshawe & Sun Life Band had a clear policy where any player in the band could be replaced at anytime. If someone came along who could meet the requirements of membership and was a better player, then a player may be asked to 'step aside'. This was always done openly and, for the most part, worked without anyone falling out over the band's whole history, even though emotions ran high during such occasions.

When a vacancy appeared the band's chief scout would suggest possible candidates to the committee. These candidates, often without them knowing about it, would be discussed as to how well they would fit in and what playing strengths they would bring to the band. The chief scout would then be asked to approach the player to see if they were interested and they would then be asked to attend a rehearsal or audition - this process is referred to as 'poaching'.

When there was not an obvious candidate an advertisement would be placed in the banding press.

Were there any foreign players in the band?

Everyone was British except for one Kiwi who arrived in the early 1990's - were there others?.
 

What was the band like financially?

A lot of rubbish is spoken by many an idiot on this subject.  The very top creme de la creme in the UK will boast a financial situation that just manages to cope. Yes, their turn-over may be anything from 80-300K per annum, but that doesn't mean there's money to splash around or that the players are making a packet.

The Stanshawe & Sun Life Band had a turn-over that was nothing remotely like these numbers. For most of its history, and even with sponsorship, a player would be expected to pay for their own uniform (except an on-stage jacket), their travel expenses if they lived within 15 miles of Bristol, and pay towards hotels at the 'Nationals' and 'Open'.

The band spent its money wisely to ensure it had the best conducting team, instruments, equipment, and music to play - anything else was of secondary importance.

Were players paid?

All players, except 0 to 3 at any time, were not. It often cost players enormous amounts to remain as a member, through lost over-time and, more significantly, lost promotion opportunities. For the tiny group that did receive what are referred to as 'retainers' these were very small payments and can only be described as a 'token gesture'.
 

Was the band totally reliant on sponsorship?

The band competed at the highest levels for almost the first decade without sponsorship. The support of Axa-Sun Life was small, at first, but grew/improved over the years as did the excellent relationship between sponsor and sponsored. The band was not reliant on sponsorship but the deal allowed it to do more, musically, with fewer worries, financially. The sponsorship was more than just financial with the company, in particular their marketing team, helping the band with non-financial support whenever it could. A great big thanks to them. It was always nice to see when the company and band where in public together one could not see the join; we were often asked, "Are you employees?".

Were any players employees of Sun Life?

There was no personnel link between the band & company. There were from time to time one or two members of the band who also worked at Sun Life. This was coincidence, rather than by design. New players arriving into the Bristol area would search for jobs under their own steam, marketing their own skills.

The predominance of playing members of the band were 'white collar' workers or 'professional' people. Careers that were always present in the band included, company directors, solicitors, accountants, project managers, aerospace engineers, school teachers, office & ancillary staff, with only ever one or two making 'music' their full-time occupation (teaching or instrument sales).

Was it an all-male affair?

Often thought of as a taboo subject, but let's have a go; however, don't shoot the messenger, please.

Fact: the band was founded by men & women. Fact: from 1994 to 1997 players were both male & female. Fact: the band was all-male from 1972 through to 1993.

During this inner period the all-male personnel make-up of the band was through choice - we are not asking anyone to 'agree' with it, it is simply a historical fact.

Was this 'choice' based on the sexist views of its members - no! Was it a written down, set in concrete, policy of the band - no! Can men play better than women - no! Were suitable woman candidates not considered for vacancies - no!

The band during this time believed, rightly or wrongly, that they had an advantage from being a single-sex group. This was based on an assumption that this brought simpler inter-personal relationships within this microcosm of banding & also simplified the often hidden relationships of band to player's spouse. This 'advantage' needed to be off-set by any advantage offered by the introduction of a first lady playing member. Honestly, the situation never arose during that time where a lady player that met the requirements of membership challenged this view. When it did, with the introduction of a very fine lady player in 1994, then band just switched over - no argument, it was best for the band as a whole.

History should not always be seen through rose tinted glasses.

What was the conducting set-up?

The band, like many others, employed a resident conductor (treated as self-employed contractor). This conductor was responsible for the majority of rehearsals and concert appearances throughout the year. The resident was closer to the day-to-day operations of the band and would be the main driving force in the preparation for major contests. The final touches to the contest performance would be directed by the band's principal conductor.

The principal conductor would take the band at major contests, concerts, and recordings during the year, and whose appearance would be looked on as a special occasion.

During some periods of the band's history these 2 jobs were amalgamated, like for Derek Bourgeois and Rob Wiffin, for instance.

How many appearances did the band make a year?

For a few leading bands from the north of England, with their financial commitments, means that they are out and about for 40+ jobs a year. For Stanshawe & Sun Life this level of work-load was never seen as attractive and meant you were doing three jobs - your job, your band, and keeping your spouse happy because you're never at home. For us, certainly in the 1990's, we appeared in public between 20-25 times per year, which was seen as an ideal number for the performance & financial returns it gave us.

What was the longest piece ever played in a live concert performance?

The band did play successfully the whole of Pictures at an Exhibition at a concert with Derek Bourgeois at the helm.
 

What was the shortest?

Sun Life Fanfare - 45 seconds.
 

What was the strangest?

The band had a bit of a reputation for tackling "squeaky gate" or "modern" music with some aplomb. Yes, we played some of this stuff to selected audiences for much of it was very good and well worth the effort.

The strangest piece which appeared, though only in rehearsal, was furnished by Derek Bourgeois. He had brought in a new work to the bandroom to try out. This piece wasn't strange because of unusual notation on the parts, or particular odd noises or choreography, which the players had to perform; no, this was strange because there were no notes or directions at all! All there was was a black & white drawing of an eagle - or was a vulture?, the latter comes to mind, as it was a pretty nasty, ugly, & gruesome thing. Anyway, some sort of bird of prey! The players were instructed by the conductor to ponder this picture and draw on their inner feelings and to then just play what the felt. We had a go, but it was noted that the tenor horns at the time, Kevin Ford [ring leader], was particularly enamoured with this ad lib approach to music; he was heard playing a little ditty, the theme tune to the children's puppet show "Sooty" through the melee.

Was there a lot of bickering between players?

A lot can be said for the advantages of playing with a true community band where everyone pulls together & most are good friends living close to one another.

Even though Stanshawe players came from many miles apart, and would only see each other at band, normally, there was a real friendliness that sustained throughout. The pursuance of excellence never led to bickering, in fighting, or disputes amongst players. Yes, there were disagreements from time to time, but it was a truly great group to belong to, and new players were always made welcome & to feel that they belonged - by taking the michael, mostly. It was often said, "The best friends I have are in the band", although these friendships were stretched to the limit when night-fall came and rooms were allocated when away from Bristol.

Where did the band's nick-name, "The Gentleman's Band" come from?

No, this is not another reference to "men only". It begins with the founders of the band and travels throughout every member from there on. Our players always acted, at concert & contest, in the most gentlemanly & gentlewomanly way - every respect for themselves, the band, its sponsor, and other bands/players. The name was donned on the band's first Swiss tour in the late 1970's.

Can we still obtain commercial recordings of the band?

Yes. Try here and here and have a little listen, too.

How far did players have to travel to rehearsal?

The founders of the band were mostly from in and around the Bristol area, but as time moved on players from further afield arrived. Players travelling to at least 2 rehearsals a week have been known to arrive from Oxford (170 miles round trip), Bournemouth (160 miles RT), Birmingham (180 miles RT), The Welsh Valleys (160 miles RT), & London (220 miles RT). Sometimes players would spend 4 hours in the car each night travelling to and fro from band, if they had a car that was.

It is interesting to recall a time when there was a large percentage of the band which was Welsh - and very proud of it they were too. These Welshman were always referring to Sun Life as, "....the best Welsh brass band in Britain!" - Cory and others may have argued the point with them.

What was the rehearsal regime of the band?

Regular rehearsals were held every Tuesday & Thursday from 19h30 to 21h45. The band would take a week off at Christmas, when other bands are probably working their hardest in fund raising. Occasionally, an additional week would be taken off in early August for annual holidays.

The frequency of rehearsals would increase when approaching an important event, such as for a commercial recording, the 'Open' or the 'Nationals'. In preparation for a big competition the band never slogged the piece to death - preparation began very slowly 4 weeks before the event. When 4 weeks away the resident conductor would organise sectional or group rehearsals to get the notes "under the fingers". When 3 weeks away the full-band would begin more detailed work, interspersed with work on other pieces to maintain the interest & attention of the players. When 10 days away, every day, except the Wednesday & Monday before a Saturday performance, would have a rehearsal booked. The principal conductor having taken the reins from the resident would work on the finer details and the interpretation of the test piece. In particular, the weekend prior to the main event would have an extra long rehearsal on Saturday and a long Sunday morning, by the end of which the piece would be taking real shape.

On the day of the contest only a few hymns to warn up and slight 'top & tail' of the test piece would be needed. The contest performance was left up to concentration, application, and good old luck.

How did the band travel?

The band travelled almost entirely by coach everywhere - UK & Europe. There was a policy that only players & ex-players were allowed on-board. This policy was there to protect the ideal that this was a "job of work" we were doing and not a "day out for friends & family". There was an additional concern that with the amount of percussion required for a modern brass band - filling the luggage hold and covering the rear 4 rows of the coach - there was just enough room for players let alone anyone else.

There was a nice touch of one-upmanship that was done by the band at the South-West Area Championships at Bristol's Colston Hall every year. Bands to this competition travelled literally hundreds of miles to arrive at the hall from all parts of the south-west of England by coach. Our band was based 3 miles directly north of the Colston Hall and nearly all the band had to drive past the hall to get to the bandroom. Here, everyone left their cars and boarded an executive coach, which took them with all pomp & ceremony back to the hall - the first entry is always the most important!

There is even a story told, whether it is true or not we are not sure, that the band attempted to hire a rather comfortable and un-used changing room at the front of the Colston Hall purely for its own players use at the Area - we believed someone from the contest organisers torpedoed that one.

It is a falsehood that the band took advantage of being close to the Colston Hall to rent it out for rehearsals, or such, prior to the Area - it was too expensive, firstly, and it would go against any form of gentlemanly conduct the band prided itself on - beyond that of a bit of friendly one-upmanship as described above.

After the Area results everyone boarded the coach, including the only time in the year when guests were allowed to travel with us. We left the Colston Hall, full to the gunwales, slowly making our way back to the band's club in Eastville for a celebration or a drown-our-sorrows drink.

Where did the band visit?

The band has appeared all over England, in Scotland, Wales, The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, & Switzerland - where almost anything could happen.

What was the bandroom like?

The band's club was a converted & large annex to a Methodist church. The bandroom consisted of 2 rooms and a hallway of the club. Entering through a large wooden door, a visitor would enter the hallway, with walls covered in band memorabilia, distracted by which, they would then hit their knee or leg against a drum or box of music stands left in the way in this cluttered place. To the right was the library & equipment store where players congregated for a chat before rehearsals - that's why all the stuff was in the hallway. The visitor having gone through this short hallway would enter the main rehearsal room, which was very small indeed. To the rear, where the basses sat, was a small flight of stairs leading out the back of the bandroom to a tiny patio, so to speak, with access to toilets, & the club itself.

The club was quite big. It had 3 bars, a snooker room, a lounge, and a ballroom. It also had committee rooms and a small cellar for lovely beer. The club was like any working men's type club that there ever was. But let's get back to talking about the bandroom.

The bandroom had for many years been lined with sound-proof materials held together by the ugliest zinc-steel mesh ever. It looked terrible! People had tried to improve its appearance but it was just too difficult to decorate nicely. In 1990, the band moved out for 2 weeks while the room was refurbished to make it a brighter place to work in.

Even after this refurbishment the bandroom never lost its one true endearing feature - it had the world's worst acoustic - even someone with a fine beautiful sound would sound in our bandroom like they were playing Roy Castle's rubber hose & funnel. Many players, when playing there for the first time, would blow a few notes then immediately spend the next few minutes looking at their instrument intently, seeing if they'd left a cloth down the bell or that a spittle cork hadn't accidentally fallen out. It was always funny to those watching this reoccurring act. Even though this disturbed the ego of many new players they soon found out that the bandroom's acoustic forced you to work incredibly hard to produce a sweet, deep, sound of any sort. Once outside that room, wow! WB Hargreaves had introduced the bucket mouthpiece much earlier and had, as other band conductors had done, worked on producing a great sounding band. This bandroom was truly a major contributor to why Stanshawe & Sun Life had one of the best brass band sounds around.

What happened to the band's club?

The band started the club but soon the running of the club was handed over to its members - most non-band people. The club then paid a nominal rent to the band's coffers and players were given full access to the facilities of the club. For many years the club improved these amenities and membership grew, however, in the later part of 1980's the club suffered more & more financial losses - for what reason is anyone's guess. The club went broke around 1989 and was in such debt that the band was unable to help them sufficiently. The club had also lost its liquor sales license, death for anything such as a working men's club.

Is anything of the band left?

The bandroom & club, instruments, and music were all sold. The band's financial & recordings assets are managed by its Trustees still today.  They maintain the band's LEGACY.