Ella, the musical tourist, returns to the community brass band of her youth.
After a couple of weeks back in my home town of T_____, I had just about reached my capacity for drinking tea with my parents. It was a Monday night, so I thought I would pop down to the old band hall to look in on the weekly rehearsal.
After many exclamations of surprise and a big show of welcoming the prodigal daughter back into the fold, we all took our seats to begin the evening’s work.
“No. 74” was called out from among the cornets. The stained and battered red hymn books opened directly onto the correct page, more or less by themselves. After my ears had adjusted to the familiar, but certainly unique, system of intonation, I cast my eye around the room to see what remained of the old crew that I had known in my first experience of “banding” as a wide-eyed high-schooler.
Not a single grey hair was out of place. Even well over ten years ago, I was sure that some of them would soon be strangled by their own livers, but here they all still were, tootling away.
The most immediately eye-catching personage was the beanpole sitting directly in front of me on 1st baritone. His stooped shoulders and his peculiar head-nodding movement created such a prominent, quavering vibrato that the rest of the band seemed to have no choice but to succumb to that particular frequency. In fact, the singular sound of the band might have been attributable to him in another way too; I recalled that he may have been instrumental in convincing the baritones and tenor horns to “pre-tune” and solder all their tuning slides into place, creating a memorable tuning system in the process. For a brief moment on a long note, the vibrato-induced oscillations of the entire horn and baritone sections came into alignment, and I had to close my eyes to reduce the feeling of vertigo.
The conductor gave a lazy look around the room before going on to recite a familiar (and fairly crude) story about playing Christmas hymns with members of a well-known Australian orchestra. Finally, though, the withered old percussionist gave a nod to indicate that he was ready to proceed, and the band got down to rehearsing the program for the park gig on Sunday. Funnily enough, despite the labyrinthine array of percussion he had set up, I never actually saw him step out from behind the kit.
We dove into the playlist, distinguishable from every other Sunday afternoon set that I had played with them only by the slight rearrangement of the order, presumably to add a touch of freshness for the band’s most dedicated followers. Holst’s Second Suite in F; the Floral Dance; Aces High and The Road To Gundagai for a military flavor; Alexander’s Ragtime Band and an ABBA medley for the kids; an unmemorable German overture; and finally that eternal crowd-pleaser, I Still Call Australia Home.
“Evergreens… they’re evergreens” sighed the bandmaster. “I remember when we used to play this at the Proms, back in the Symphony.”
“See you on Sunday – the march kicks off at 9, and there’s a 12pm sit-down concert,” said somebody. Why not? I still had a uniform somewhere.
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