Banding Together 14th to 16th June 2019

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Barrie Johnson B.Ed(Hons), FTCL, LTCL

Barrie is a highly experienced music educator and musical director. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, his early music education was provided through the brass bands and choirs of The Salvation Army, together with running his own rock bands! Although his principal instrument became euphonium, he was also adept on tuba, tenor horn and trombone, with a smattering of guitar, bass, piano and drums. Barrie has headed up a range of prestigious school music departments, winning many top national awards with his wind bands, big bands, orchestras and many types of vocal groups. In addition he has directed area wind and brass bands, together with community brass bands and choirs. All of this has enabled him to lead performances in this country’s major performance venues such as London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, as well as on regular jazz based tours to New York, Los Angeles and Florida. He has also been Musical Director for many Music Theatre performances, including the first school performances of ‘Evita’ and ‘We Will Rock You’. Barrie likes nothing better than to get a group of musicians together to make high quality music, including conducting massed handbell groups through carol and song arrangements in Birmingham Cathedral. Very Christmassy!

Now in semi-retirement, living in Coventry, Barrie spends his time teaching A-level Music, conducting, adjudicating, leading education courses, composing & arranging music, consultancy work with school music departments, walking, reading, grandchildren minding and enjoying holidays. It’s not all fun though - he is an avid fan of Newcastle United FC!

Some reviews from the weekend :-

My first Banding Together weekend fully lived up to expectations. All those hours spent at home with my music and the mp3 paid off and I was able to enjoy playing for real when the time came without too many accident black spots for me to skid on. Our conductor, Barrie Johnson, guided us along with a lovely mix of humour, encouragement, and determination. He made us clap our parts all the way through the hardest piece so we could hear the pulse of its punchy rhythm as the parts slotted together – that was a highlight for me.

The five pieces we played were wonderful and varied, as were the parts I was allocated. I can recommend the WCCP club bass (aka Colin’s bass) which was briefly mine on two occasions. I was glad to be playing my own little concertina, though, for the piece with all those chromatic scales (aka the hardest piece).

Finally, what about the Sidholme Hotel? My room was comfortable, the garden was particularly lovely, but the magnificent space where we played took me completely by surprise. It has to be seen to be believed, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing it again next year and being part of Banding Together.

 - Sally Harris

I have been lucky enough to get to all but the initial “Banding Together” Summer weekends, having first heard about them when organizer Claire Wren and her team announced the project at one of the January Hawkwood weekends. I didn’t go to the first one as I thought the distance was too far to be practical but, as my brother had recently moved to Devon and we have other relatives and friends in the South-west, I decided to make it into an annual visitation round trip. I have, however, found that the weekend itself, with a new non-concertina-playing conductor each year, is a sufficient magnet and I would recommend it to anyone who is reasonably secure playing band parts from sheet music and is comfortably able to follow a conductor. Even this is softened by knowing that you will never (almost!) be on a part on your own, so you can share out the difficult bits with others – or even get away without playing the very trickiest bits.

The original venue was Seale Hayne, an ex-Agricultural College near Newton Abbott. This was a comfortable enough venue, but it rather seemed as if the whole site was in need of an injection of funds to re-modernise. Last year and this we have been at the Sidholme Hotel in Sidmouth, which is a lovely, comfortable and friendly old hotel in an attractive seaside town, with a wonderful purpose-built music room which we have for our exclusive use. I understand that this will now remain the base for future weekends. As this hotel and the surrounding area have all you could want to hand, the move has, for me, been very successful.

Claire’s use of a new conductor each year has been a definite strength, as each has brought something new, with a different personality, teaching style and musical background, though all have had in common a very similar and exacting expectation for the sound we produce. The conductor’s lack of knowledge of the Concertina means they simply apply their expectations of what can/should be done with any musical instrument. This opportunity for us to concentrate on the detail of both our own individual playing, drawing on technique and musical understanding, plus the challenge of close collaborative ensemble work have, for me been very helpful in pushing me to develop my confidence. The shared endeavour does make for strong bonds of friendship between players and a common sense of a goal achieved, even if not everything is perfect - it never is - but I think we still make a great sound and the pieces are generally quite convincing renditions of complex music. This is attested by the CD we get – or latterly the electronic files - of our “best efforts”, recorded on a simple device, set up discreetly in the room. Being recorded is always a bit scary, but we get used to it by having it always there and not just set up, as it was the first few weekends, only to record our final play-through, which was a clear recipe for us (me at least) to suffer from performance nerves!

Highlights for me to date included the following. In my first year, 2013, conductor Martin Willis did “Jamie’s Patrol” with us, a great tune medley. “Barnard Castle” that year was also a great march tune, though my Ripiano part was fast, high and hence rather exposing of my lack of knowledge of what on earth “Ripiano” meant. The “Mikado” suite was…well, best regarded, for me, on Bass, as “work in progress”. I understand, though, that this is a piece we may revisit one day soon; doing so will help demonstrate something we are apt not to realize as the years go by - our overall significant progress as an ensemble, as I’m sure by now we will be much more confident with the piece’s changes of key, tempo etc that proved so challenging the first time. Then, in 2014 with Bob Spiller, we did a really great composition in its original orchestral form - Vaughan Williams’s “English Folk Song Suite”. I was particularly impressed by several (most) of our players (virtuosi – they know who they are!) who responded to the challenge of playing their scored part from memory, Bob having asked us all to turn our music over – I got just 3 bars in and…stopped. Next, in 2015, we did Ravel’s “Bolero” with John Hammonds – this came about following a “casual” conversation (no such thing - it all goes in somewhere) with Claire at one Hawkwood weekend and I ended up playing the Snare drum part. I think even that Zen-like meditative, but enjoyable, exercise was actually not as tough as one or two of the
concertina parts I could hear around me as I furiously counted the beats. In 2017, under Jim Stretton, Claire presented us with her composition, “The Bristol March”. Roger, Julia and I were given the task of tackling the running piccolo line (getting the music extra early) and reproducing it in perfect concertina unison. Three beautiful piccolo instruments were duly sourced for us and, on the day, Roger and Julia and I nailed it! Lastly, I should note another piccolo role, this time shared with Liz Ellison at this year’s event (2019), with conductor Barrie Johnson, who had made a special arrangement for us of the theme music from the Tom Hanks film, “The Terminal”. Barrie drilled the whole band until things really were sounding good, Liz and I having repeatedly been asked to hold our long note at the end of our most difficult phrase about 3,275 times – we got really good at that long note.

That brings us up to date, until the next date comes along, and the next set of great challenges, to be shared and wrestled with in the very greatest of concertina company, with another, I’m sure, inspiring conductor and Claire (and her team) ensuring, as always, that everything goes smoothly. We merely have to turn up and play the notes in the right order…

 - Graham Heffernan

This was our first time at the annual residential “Banding Together” weekend, run by the J25 group for experienced concertina band players and currently held at the Sidholme Hotel in Sidmouth on the south Devon coast. Due to the distance, we combined it with a (very soggy) week of narrow-boating, but arrived in glorious sunshine and spent Friday afternoon down memory lane in the town, recalling past festivals.

The hotel was originally a 19th century house. The ground floor has grand rooms, high and ornate, and an imposing staircase; above this is a warren of corridors and bedrooms carved out from the original structure. Outside there is a terrace, lawns and shrubbery with many mature trees, a swimming pool (indoor) and annexe. The hotel’s piece de resistance is the music room, with ornate gilded and painted mouldings, crystal chandeliers and a massive pipe organ. This is still used extensively for musical events, but was ours for the weekend. We felt we needed to raise our game to live up to its expectations.

A huge amount of preparation had gone in to the event, which ran like a well-oiled machine. Parts were allocated in advance, a mixture of treble, baritone and bass for us, according to preference. The music came a couple of weeks ahead, with practice notes on each piece and sound files at various tempi. Detailed plans meant everyone knew what was happening next, where to sit and what instrument to borrow, if needed. This year’s guest conductor was Barrie Johnson, a very experienced leader and teacher of many genres of music. He led us with great good humour, that overlaid a resolve to help us improve, with various exercises to tease out each thorny area. The first piece we tackled was “Viktor’s Tale”, the theme from the film “The Terminal”, which has a lot of interesting rhythms and interplay between the parts. Barrie’s approach was to have us clap it – all the way through. A first for us, but very useful to get a grasp without worrying where all the difficult fingering and tricky accidentals were. By Sunday all the awkward corners were at least a little less sharp.

Claire Wren is the inspiration behind J25, and its musical director. She has also written various pieces for concertina band. “The Langley March” describes her walk into the village and it was fascinating to hear where the inspiration came from, including why it morphs into a tango at one point. She had selected other pieces in a wide range of styles. The swooping “Waltz” from Khachaturian’s
Masquerade Suite and another film theme “Gabriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission” both proved enjoyable. We also tackled “Gota”, a Swedish piece which in places alternates between bars of 5/4 and 4/4. Claire described this as the “Marmite” piece, we must say it wasn’t our favourite.

Sunday afternoon brought an unrehearsed piece “Singing in the Rain”, just for fun, then it was time for farewells. Our thanks go to Barrie for his inspiring leadership, and to Claire and all J25 members for organising this wonderful weekend. We hope to be back some day.

 - Dave and Pat Turner