Carols, conductor games and community wind bands

Lee Westwood on his life as an adopted composer so far

This is Lee Westwood, logging in, after my first couple of months as the adopted composer of the East London Community Band. We've been off to a great start, and whilst there's still plenty to do before our project comes to a head, there's also a little to tell you about, too...

First off, let's fill you in on the details... The ELCB are an amateur concert band (wind, brass & percussion) that rehearse weekly in the Shadwell Centre, a community hall in the heart of a busy residential area of East London. Players cover a broad range of both ages and abilities, from children to grandparents, beginners to more seasoned performers.

Perhaps stemming from this open-armed approach to membership, perhaps a projection of a surrounding community spirit, there is a welcoming, familial atmosphere during ELCB rehearsals, and this sense of comradery spills into the after-hours drinking sessions that often follow.

It doesn't take a genius to understand why this group has been going for 40 years now, with some of the original players still making up part of the core membership – one man I spoke to had in fact joined the group some decades back, and after 10 years or so, had left. More recently, on seeking a similar community band to join in the area, he came across an advert for the ELCB, and on attending a rehearsal, and recognising some of the faces in the hall, realised it was the very same group he'd played with 20 years before!

Over the course of the evening, rehearsals of the ELCB in all its shapes and forms take place. After private lessons for the different instruments, the Premiere Band work through the rudiments, developing their reading and performance skills to enter the Main Band. Elsewhere at the same hour, the Jazz Band blow through popular standards. Eventually, a 40-strong group of players gather in the central hall for the Main Band rehearsal, after which, closing the evening, the Chamber Band stay late to tackle more complex repertoire.

First workshop with ECLB, Lee Westwood playing conductor games with Fraser Trainer & Matthew Hardy
First workshop with ECLB, Lee Westwood playing conductor games with Fraser Trainer & Matthew Hardy.

My journey with the ELCB began by attending a rehearsal in November with my composer mentor Fraser Trainer. This was a valuable opportunity, not only to immerse myself in the sounds and dynamics of the group, but also to talk to the players and try and introduce myself. The Adopt A Composer scheme aims to pair amateur groups, who have no experience with contemporary music, with actual, living composers. Over the course of the project we'll be working collaboratively on a new piece, allowing them an insight into the compositional process, whilst providing me with a chance to hone the skills needed to work with non-professional players.

From the word go, Matthew Hardy (conductor) and Ruth Carr (communications) suggested that, in order to break the ice between myself and the group, it might be fun for me to arrange something simple for their Christmas Concert. The challenge accepted (and after a long phone conversation between Matthew and I concerning realistic ranges and abilities of the different instruments), I got to work.

The Wexford Carol (also known as the Enniscorthy Carol) originates from County Wexford, Ireland, and melodically appealed to me for its distinctive Mixolydian flavour. I made a fairly dark-hued, modal arrangement of this carol for the group which, admittedly, might not have had the same festive cheer as, say, Jingle Bells, but perhaps reflected more faithfully my own sense of Christmas spirit (which is, on the whole, fairly un-Christmassy). You can view the score to my arrangement here:


Whilst I was able to attend two rehearsals of the carol, most regretfully I was too ill to attend the ELCB Christmas concert (that cursed Winter flu), and unfortunately the event was not recorded. I am, however, informed that the performance was a great success, and the piece was received very well. With this under our belts, and the New Year just around the corner, it's time to start putting pen to paper, reeds to lips, and begin establishing what shape and form our composition proper is going to take... Until then, this is Lee Westwood, signing off...