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The Tradition of Brass Bands

By: The Lady Music Geek

Much as been written about the Industrial Revolution and Victorian era origins of brass bands. One recent example from Philip Harper (conductor of the world renowned Cory Band) gives some background about their history and continuing popularity.

Brass Bands &  Drag

I got involved with brass bands for a short time at school but back in those dark days it was a very male dominated environment and certainly not particularly welcoming to women. Thankfully since then most of the traditional brass bands have moved on from their origins. Change was a little slower for some though, especially those playing at the top level.

It wasn’t until the end of 2010 that the famous Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band admitted their first female player, Laura Hirst.

That film where Ewan McGregor showed off his tenor horn playing prowess captured some of those once prevalent attitudes, although I think Victoria Wood’s “Brassed Off” sketch summed it up better.

I returned to the brass banding community just a few years ago and it has transformed. There are now quite a few newer community type brass bands with none of those old-fashioned associations and the bands that I usually play with have a much better representation of women and girls. Sadly though in some of the top bands there is still a noticeable lack of women players. But this may be down to different challenges that women face rather than specific barriers placed in their way.

Brass Bands England & Women

Brass Bands England currently has over 500 member organisations encompassing more than 600 bands across England, Scotland and Wales. They are well aware of challenges facing women in banding and they carried out some work in 2022 to learn about the ‘experiences of being a woman or identifying as female in brass banding’. Of course it couldn’t just be about the women.

It had been encouraging, though, to see that two of the Brass Bands England 2022 awards were given in recognition of achievements by women.

But now it looks as though they have moved on to the next EDI project on their checklist.

Brass Bands & Drag

Brass Bands &  Drag

In the summer of 2023 Brass Bands England (BBE) set up their Elevate programme and invited submissions which would ‘challenge normal performance practice by exploring new ideas, genres and ways of performing’. Subsequently at the BBE conference in October 2023 they announced that the first project would produce a creative collaborative extravaganza of two of England’s best loved traditions: brass bands & drag’.

I will not dwell on the problematic aspects of drag with regards to women. Others have already done the work for me. In particular this previous posting.

Suffice to say I was gobsmacked by this and not in a good way.

With regards to the Elevate selection process BBE were ‘delighted with the number of bands and artists wanting to take part in this fantastic programme’. I really would like to have seen that list. I wonder what other great traditions were on it.

Women have struggled to be taken seriously and to access the opportunities to arts and music that were open to men. Brass bands are one of the great English traditions that, until relatively recently still made sure women knew they were unwelcome. Just when we thought we had made progress we now find space being made available for men dressed as women.

Why insult and once again deter women with this tone deaf nonsense?

I am disappointed but not surprised by some of the younger women amongst the brass band community who are applauding this collaboration. Perhaps they think they are being edgy, innovative and ‘inclusive’. Perhaps they think they are being kind.

Perhaps they think they are part of it and in on the joke, unlike us old bigots.

Perhaps they should read Victoria Smith’s “Hags” before it’s too late.



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