A Testament to Somerset Music’s Past

Last week I had the pleasure of being hired by Glastonbury and Street Musical Comedy Society to play in the band for their performances of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana. I always enjoy playing for a musical and this one featured a proper lead trumpet book for me to sink my teeth into.

Although it’s not frequent for me to write about my gigs this one is of particular note for reasons beyond the music itself. On my way to the band call I was thinking about who was playing in the band for the coming week. It sprang to my mind that this band (full list below) featured three generations of musicians from the Somerset area. Luke Holman, the Musical Director, is an ex-pupil of mine from my teacher training days. He has recently graduated from RNCM and will be heading off to London to finish his studies next year. He was also taught by one of the wind players in the band, Kat Stevens. Both Kat and I were taught/conducted by Kieth Thomas, the trombone player, when we were young. He was my first brass teacher and also got me involved with both the Strode Saturday Morning Music Club and Somerset County Youth Concert Band. Another wind player in the band was Jamie Phippen, who conducted the Centre of Somerset Youth Jazz Orchestra, which I played in as a teenager. Jamie and I still regularly gig together with Kat in the function band DT8. Paul Denegri has been head of brass at Wells Cathedral School since 1986 and as well as being my teacher for three years he introduced me to the paid music scene around that time.

When pressed for a quote on the subject Luke said: “It’s a privilege to conduct your musical ideas in front of the teachers who encouraged you to explore those musical ideas in the first place.”

The reason I think this is of particular significance is that not only is it a real testament to the Somerset Music education infrastructure of times gone by, but it is also quite unlikely to be possible in the future. Unfortunately music education isn’t what it used to be, particularly in schools but also in community music projects. There are vastly fewer brass bands in Somerset than there were twenty years ago, the Saturday-morning music club in Shepton Mallet, which was responsible for the development of many of my peers, doesn’t exist any more because of funding cuts. On top of that, and more importantly, is that there is no-longer subsidy for instrumental lessons in schools. To the best of my knowledge and a quick check on the current Somerset Music website, they don’t even employ peripatetic one-on-one instrumental teachers any more. The closest thing is Whole Class Ensemble Tuition.

When I was at secondary school my teacher had a full timetable in both of the schools of mine that he attended, as well as other schools that I didn’t know about. Being a peripatetic music teacher was actually a viable career path. Nowadays it is down to enterprising self-employed musicians who want to teach to approach schools themselves and try to inspire children to take up instrumental lessons. Even in schools where I’ve had a number of pupils the school doesn’t or cannot provide orchestras or bands for them to play in and will not pay me to do it. Because of the lack of community music projects the children don’t get any ensemble experience and in a very short time parents realise that their lessons are both expensive and pointless. When I was fifteen years old I was playing my cornet for eight hours a week before personal practise. A single twenty-minute lesson per week is not going to produce the same results, and nor is WCET in my humble opinion. After discussing WCET with a colleague I can only conclude that it would be a great addition to a pre-existing infrastructure but that statistics show that by itself it is not an effective way to produce musicians in the longer term.

What at first seemed like an overwhelmingly positive article soon descends into a depressing snap back to reality. There are a lot of hard-working professionals around that want nothing more than to inspire the next generation to take up music for the immense proven benefits of its learning but with vital parts of the infrastructure gone, and the talk of GCSE music disappearing from some schools altogether, things are looking pretty bleak. Whatever the solution is to getting these people together and paying them a wage that reflects both their expertise and hard work, it has yet to be found or seriously discussed in a public forum. I’ve found myself in a position where I’m now earning more money from playing the trumpet than teaching it. I don’t even know whether I’m comfortable with that being the case but after the decade of poverty brought on by giving priority to teaching I’ve had enough.


All views stated above are my own and not reflective of those belonging to any mentioned parties.
Full list of band members:
Luke Holman, Musical Director
Nigel Dodge, Bass
Jonty Hedges, Drums
Matt Holmes, Keys
Mark Shelvey, Keys
Gill Lawson, Keys
Jamie Phippen, Winds
Kathryn Stevens, Winds
Jennifer Campbell, Winds
Keith Thomas, Trombone
Paul Denegri, Trumpet/Flugel
Myself, Trumpet/Flugel

One thought on “A Testament to Somerset Music’s Past

  1. I quite agree Richard with the sentiments of this piece. I was a lucky enough schoolboy to receive free cornet lessons from a visiting teacher which sparked both the passion of myself and my musical pals to join the school band and play in brass band competitions. It was good grounding in being respectful to others and their abilities as well as being very satisfying to make music with others.
    My passion for music has not wavered in my life and i have learnt and played a diverse collection of instruments including bagpipes, guitar , banjo and mandolin . I would not have had this passion had I not benefited from somebody teaching me at school a life skill . That life skill is music. It’s about time people recognised the value of music in the same breath as academic topics. Culture should not be an option that would be nice if it can be afforded. We are but automaton drones without fine writing, art and most of all music. It is what defines life itself. It is not free. It has a cost. The cost of not doing it though and making opportunities available for young people is far greater to the quality of society.
    As I have now returned to the cornet and all its glory I am transported back to my beginner days and feel very grateful that somebody bothered to take the time and be patient with me to learn a new skill. Teaching is not expensive, it’s is priceless. Sorry to rant but I share your passion .

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