Alan Duguid, Music Director of Regent Brass, reflects on his group's collaboration with Robin Fielder and Camden Brass as part of Adopt a Music Creator 2023.
As I reflect upon the project, there is so much to celebrate from the experience. Regent Brass performs new repertoire regularly and it's always exciting to work with a composer to bring new music into the world, but the addition of a second music group, Camden Youth Band, presented something very different.
When we applied to take part in a joint bid with the Camden Music Hub, our main focus was to strengthen links between the two groups through a co-created project. Many young musicians who play at school often stop when moving to adulthood due to the loss of a familiar musical community. This manifests itself in no small part within leisure-time bands and orchestras where many adults return to playing after many years, often citing a wish that they had joined an ensemble when leaving school and kept playing. Reasons such as representation (e.g. demographic shift between youth and adult ensembles) and feelings of intimidation are often mentioned as barriers to access which prevent a smooth transition.
Regent Brass has its roots in the 1980s as a youth band within the Brent Music Service, so encouraging younger people to keep playing has always been a key aim. Following relocation to Camden in 2021, we have worked to build links with the Camden Youth Brass Band and their inspirational leader Dierdre Waller-Box through joint concerts and workshops. However, I was very aware that the technical levels of the two groups meant that side-by-side performances would involve the adults from Regent Brass performing the repertoire of the youth band - while in and of itself not an issue, it does frame it as a power imbalance, where the adults are assisting rather than owning the musical experience. Through co-creation we hoped that the adults would feel more invested in the partnership and the young people could develop a sense of belonging and security with Regent Brass.
'Through co-creation we hoped that the adults would feel more invested in the partnership and the young people could develop a sense of belonging and security with Regent Brass.'
When we were partnered with creator Robin Fiedler, I was immediately struck by their warmth, humility and honesty. Writing for brass band can already be very intimidating for composers who are not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the medium, but the remit to write a piece of music for two bands of differing standards which could be performed either together or separately was an extremely challenging one. In spite of this, Robin jumped into the process with a supremely impressive creative drive, immersing themselves within the musical context through exploring existing major works and even learning the trombone with the Camden band! When coming along to their first Regent Brass rehearsal, Robin made such a positive impression that the players embraced them as part of the group immediately, in itself no mean feat.
The initial exploratory workshops were a real highlight which I personally took so much from. Though I did have some initial reservations about how some of the adults may react to the workshops activities, Robin put them completely at ease and brought out some wonderful ideas which were weaved into the piece. What also struck me was the impact of the workshop on the band itself; in having to work in smaller groups and show personal vulnerability outside of individual comfort zones, it brought the players together through seeing previously unknown aspects of each others' musicality.
Drafts of the music arrived very punctually with Robin quickly making small adjustments as requested, which meant that by the summer the band were feeling very confident about the December performance. We managed to secure the Salvation Army's Regent Hall on Oxford Street in central London which built a real sense of occasion and elevated the excitement of the players, many of whom had never performed in the iconic venue.
'...in having to work in smaller groups and show personal vulnerability outside of individual comfort zones, it brought the players together through seeing previously unknown aspects of each others' musicality.'
The biggest challenges emerged however when we brought the two groups together for two joint rehearsals. Logistically, finding a time which was neither too late for the youngsters after school or too early for the adults to arrive after work was very tricky and resulted in a number of players in Regent Brass struggling to attend. The first rehearsal took a bit of time to settle into a stride as both groups were adapting to each other, but Dierdre had prepared the Camden band as well that it began to come together rapidly. The young people's approach to the rehearsal really struck me; they were so responsive and hung on my every word, making tremendous progress through the session.
When we reached concert day, the mood was a very positive one, with perhaps a few anxieties about how the final parts not heard in rehearsal would integrate. We performed the piece twice to bookend the concert with a fantastic pre-performance talk by Robin, providing an invaluable context for the audience but also allowing for the best recording to be taken. The rest of the concert was divided between the two bands, giving a great opportunity for musical dialogue. As Robin's work was entitled Castle in the Sky, this gave me the idea to select varied repertoire which had some links to this title, including three other pieces of new music: Corfe Castle by Freddie Meyers, Beyond the Light by Liz Lane and the premiere of Eris and Harmonia by Franklin Onyeso, an undergraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music and young composer in residence with the band. With the audience numbers being healthy in spite of rail strikes on the day, both bands performed extremely well and certainly gave of their best, providing a truly memorable occasion which certainly brought us together.
Robin giving a pre-performance talk at the premiere concert
For me, the moment which will stay with me the most was seeing the reaction of the young people at the end of the concert following an excellent second performance of Castle in the Sky - the beaming smiles, positive comments and pride in their achievement clearly a transformative moment for many.
I cannot speak highly enough of this experience and the way it has helped to develop a critical musical partnership. Whilst this is a longer-term journey, co-creating and owning such a fantastic piece of music from Robin has had a profound impact on us all. The support from mentor Jenni Pinnock helped this all happen so successfully, providing a valuable musical perspective and timely advice during the process for both myself and Robin. We hope to be able to work with Robin again in the future, with a new work in discussion for the band's 40th anniversary in 2025. Castle in the Sky will most certainly receive repeat performances in 2024, which hopefully will encourage other brass bands to perform this excellent piece.
For any groups considering this project, I cannot recommend it highly enough. While there were challenging moments, none were significant and instead were overwhelmingly outweighed by the benefits. It was a true privilege to be a part of this project and has strengthened a musical foundation to really build upon in the future.
The Adopt a Music Creator project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising music creators to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a premiere performance and a professional recording. If you’re a music group or music creator and you’d like to take part, find out more.