Dave McGlynn Interview: Playing Bb Bass with Black Dyke, Approaching Playing Tuba and Dealing with Issues in Banding
I was lucky enough to sit down with Black Dyke Brass Band's Bb Bass player Dave McGlynn to discuss his experiences in banding with some of the best bands in the world, as well as how he approaches playing tuba and how brass bands should be dealing with issues in banding.
Jared: How did you first get involved in brass banding?
Dave: I started playing at primary school, when I was about 8 years old. I was a very naughty boy and couldn’t behave, so I was made to learn an instrument as a punishment. I hated it for a year or more. I was told you’re going to have to start behaving. Over night, it all started to click and I started to enjoy playing. From then on, all I wanted to do was play, and it sorted out my early behavioural problems. I’ve been playing ever since.
I started off on a tenor horn because that was the only instrument available at the time. I played that for a couple of months, and I was then put onto euphonium. I really enjoyed that, and I played that through primary and secondary school. When I was about 16, I helped a band out once playing Eb tuba, and I thought “Wow, this is the instrument I should have been playing all along!” I really enjoyed it, and I moved permanently onto Eb bass for about 6 months, before the band I was playing with needed a Bb tuba player. I didn’t want to do it because I couldn’t play it, but I had the choice of playing Bb or not being in the band, so I went on Bb bass for a 6-week period to cover for one contest. 13 years later, I’m still playing it. It took a couple of months of playing Bb bass for me to realise that it was the right instrument for me.
I had a very strict teacher, called Bob Dean. You couldn’t teach kids now like he did. It did me a world of good though. I consider myself very fortunate to be where I am now. I am studying music at Salford University after having a successful career outside of music. I wouldn’t have been doing anything in my earlier career if it hadn’t been for my teacher. From an 8-year-old boy who needed a lot of sorting out, I am very lucky that Bob Dean came along and took an interest in me. I don’t know what I would be doing now without him. The difference he made in my life and in banding in general is a great example of how banding can be a force for good.
What makes you gel so well with the Bb Bass?
No matter what the band is doing, the Bb bass is always the foundation for the band to sit on top of. Whenever we’re playing, we are playing the most important role in the band. That is something I really enjoy about playing Bb Bass. Whenever I am teaching or conducting, I explain to Bb Bass players that they have to have as much love for playing long, sustained notes as the cornets or euphonium have for the fast passages that they’re playing. I just find the long notes so much more enjoyable than fast, tricky passages.
I think a big part of that was to take the technical ability I learned on the Euphonium and transfer that to a bass. If the bass parts required a high level of technique, that was not a problem to me. It was the sound that was the challenge. Once I’d learned that, the technique and sound combined to make me a reasonable Bb tuba player.
Do you have any advice for aspiring Bb Bass players as to how to improve their sound?
It might sound like an obvious answer but practice! Playing in bands can be daunting for Bb players because you’re taking a huge breath, blowing into an instrument and within seconds, it is gone. It is important to be filling the instrument all the time. There’s two types of breaths aspiring Bb players need to work on. The first is the big broad breath that you take from the pit of your stomach to the bottom of your neck. But when you can’t get those, you need to work on the fast deep sip breaths, which are hard to do, but you have to push yourself to do them.
I think the best way to do that is to visualise the sound you want to make. I ask my younger students to imagine that the sound coming out of the bell was like treacle, and when they’re playing, it should be splattered over the ceiling and dripping off the walls. If the sound doesn’t sound like that, then they need to make it sound like that. The best way to achieve that is to listen to recordings. Find a sound you like and try to make that sound. For me, it was John Fletcher, who was a legend of a tuba player. It takes a lot of hard work to be a good Bb bass player because it is a hard instrument. You can take 12 or 18 months blowing and you might think you’re not seeing any improvement but there always is. The steps are just very slow when you’re starting because of the size of the instrument, but visualising the sound you want to make is key to developing that sound in the first place.
What defines the way you approach practice and improving to be at your high performance standard?
When you practice, you need a good practice routine. Many of us are lucky to have the talent and ability to play an instrument, and I think all players should respect that. Therefore, when you pick an instrument up, you should always pick it up to play it the best you can. I think the best way to do that is to have a good practice routine.
However, the most important thing for me isn’t breathing or technical ability; it is your attitude towards the playing. If you are going to set yourself 30 minutes to practice, your session needs to last 30 minutes. If you’re not enjoying it and it is not going well, that’s tough. You’ve set yourself 30 minutes aside, and you need to use that 30 minutes to push yourself physically with the playing and mentally, through your desire to improve. When things aren’t going right, you need the determination to push through it and to keep going. To be a good player, you need a good attitude as well.
You spent 6 years playing with Foden’s, and you are currently playing with the Black Dyke Band. What is it like playing with those top tier bands?
It is brilliant playing with top tier bands. It is a lot of fun for a heap of reasons. Firstly, you are surrounded by fabulous players in every seat across the band. You have a full band of people who truly know what they’re doing and how to play their instruments. Secondly, the conductors you play are under are also brilliant. Playing with top tier bands has allowed me to play with Bramwell Tovey, who is, to me, the finest conductor I have ever played under. I have played under Howard Snell or Jim Gourlay, who are both giants in the banding scene. There are just so many great conductors leading these bands.
The turn over of music is very fast. The band might have a concert on a Saturday night and a Sunday afternoon with two completely different programs. You have to be on top of everything. Rehearsals are there only to shape the music and put things together. It is not about teaching people their parts; that’s to be done at home. It suits me having the onus on me to learn my parts at home and then bring that to band.
The opportunities that the top bands have are huge, and I’m very lucky to have travelled all over the world playing with bands. With Foden’s, I’ve been to numerous places around Europe, and in 2015 I went with Grimethorpe to Australia. Black Dyke have been to Japan twice in 12 months for sell-out concert tours. It makes all the practice worthwhile when you can walk out onto a stage with 2,500 people cheering before you’ve even played a note. That does not get tiring; it is always a thrill.
Black Dyke Band won the Yorkshire Regionals for the 3rd year in a row. How does the band approach these competitions in the long term and on concert day?
The parts are handed out a month or two before the contest. Then, for two weeks before the contest, we really get into the piece. What we do at Black Dyke is perhaps why the band is so successful: there is an expectation that everyone is on top of their parts before we rehearse it together. Rehearsals aren’t meant to be purgatory; at Black Dyke, they are enjoyable. Each rehearsal is built on the previous, and the piece is getting better and better. We rehearse things in the exact same way things will be performed on stage. On contest day, there are no surprises, and therefore we can go on stage reasonably calm, because you know exactly how the transitions will work and what will happen.
Everything is very relaxed on contest day. We leave plenty of time for a rehearsal. We’ll have a blow. When we get the draw, if we don’t need to race off, we chill out. Everyone sits around chatting or reading the paper. Contest days at Black Dyke are very relaxed. I think the preparation before you take to the stage pays dividends on the stage.
Of course, whenever Black Dyke go to a contest, we go to win. We don’t come to take part; we go because we want to win. We take that very seriously. You can see that when Black Dyke get on stage through the commitment of the players that they want to give the best performance they can give. If that finds favour in the box, well then that is brilliant. If not, we can go home knowing we’ve given a fine performance on stage.
How do you view the English banding scene?
There is no question that banding is on the decline in this country. A large part of that is kids aren’t being provided free lessons at school like I did through my whole education. Had it not been for those large subsidies, my parents would not have been able to afford for me to take lessons.
There is a cultural thing in this country that brass bands are sidelined. The only national radio station dedicated to brass bands is being cancelled in the next couple of weeks. It was only for half an hour as it is. Brass bands have a real image problem. Getting people out of the house to see these concerts is really difficult. This is not just brass banding, but also theatres. Getting people to pay to see something live is getting more and more difficult.
If there are these problems, how do you think bands can resolve these?
It’s not an issue of repertoire. Brass bands are famous for playing anything from Mozart to Madonna. Taking someone to a brass band concert, there’s something there for everyone. There wouldn’t be a piece we play that no one would like. You might get someone to come to a brass band concert who has never been before, and they’ll find it fabulous and really enjoy it. It’s trying to get more people into that.
Some people might say this is a very insular opinion to have, but I don’t think it is so much to do with what bands can change; it’s more a change of attitude we need from the public. There’s something very special about banding, in the culture and history that we have. It’s something that needs to be preserved, rather than setting it aside to go on a new path. I do think there are some traditions in our banding that we must keep. Some people are fans of open shirts and waistcoats rather than the traditional tunics that we wear. I would hate to see them die out because I love them and I think it is engrained in our heritage and culture. In this country, you can recognise a band from 20 paces away. If you see light blue and gold, you know it is Fairey Band. If you see red, you know it is Foden’s. If you see black, red and gold, then that is Black Dyke Band. These bands have been defined for over a century by the clothes they wear and I think it are the traditions like these that need to be kept in banding.
Some people might like to see them thrown out for a modern approach, but I do think there’s a lot that we need to cling onto. Banding stands for so much traditionalism, because the way we used to do things has always worked. I understand we must move forward, but for as long as I’m in banding, I want to uphold those traditional values for the kids that are coming through. It’s not always a popular view, but I think it’s very important.
Well, thank you Dave for your time today! You've provided a fantastic insight into what tuba playing with a top level brass band is really like.
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Jared loves to share his passion for music and artists through music reviews and commentaries. These include a selection of reviews written for community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.