Russell Gray Interview: Adjudicating the New Zealand National Band Championships 2018, His Progression as a Cornetist and Conductor, and The Role of Youth Bands in the Brass Banding Movement
I was fortunate enough to sit down with world renowned cornetist, conductor and adjudicator Russell Gray, just before he headed to the 2018 New Zealand National Band Championships. We discussed his progression as a musician within the banding movement, his thoughts on conducting, his approach to adjudicating and his upcoming performance with the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra with the world premiere of Bill Broughton's Symphony. Read it below.
Jared – How did you get started playing music? What drew you into brass banding?
Russell – My father was a trumpet player but he gave up before I was born. When I was very young, I found out that he had a trumpet buried in the darkest corner of the attic of our house. So I started quizzing him when I was about 5 or 6, asking him if he could find it. When one of the older kids in my primary school moved on to high school, there was a gap for trumpet in the school orchestra. That was my perfect excuse to get my dad to find his trumpet.
I don’t know why the trumpet. I was very lucky that I was coming through primary school in the 1970s (which is a long time ago!), where there was a policy in the schools that everyone was to learn how to read music. So I learnt to read music at the same time as I learnt to read. I can’t remember not being able to read music. So when that older student left to go to high school, I was already reading music; it was more a case of which instrument I was going to play. I was on the recorder, but I had a desire to play the trumpet. So my dad found his and I was able to play it. It came naturally to me. In a week or two, I was playing a scale. Within the first term, I was playing a solo with the school orchestra. I was largely self-taught but then I had some fantastic teachers that progressed me on.
When I was 9 or 10, they asked me if I wanted to play in a wind band and count 400 bars rest, or do I want to play with a brass band where I could be playing all the time. That seemed like a no-brainer for me as a 9-year-old; I wanted to play! That’s how my connection to brass bands began.
How did you progress from there to be playing with the top bands in the world?
I started in a band called Clydebank Burgh Band in Scotland, and they were a Championship Section band. But I started off in their Youth band when I was 9, but by the time I was 10, I was in the top band. In the first contest I did with them (an entertainment contest), the conductor put me on my feet as the band’s soloist. I was playing 3rd cornet with them at this stage. The conductor, Nigel Boddice, who was principal trumpet with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, pushed me forward, and he put me onto my first teacher Geoffrey Bolt who was third trumpet in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. However, third trumpet carries the role of principal cornet in the symphony orchestra, so he taught me. When I went to high school, I was taught by Gordon Campbell, who is currently the principal trombone of the BBC Big Band. I was also taught by Alan Pash, who is principal trombone with the Scottish Opera.
These teachers looked after me from when I was 11 years old onwards. When I was 12, I won the British Under 17 Air and Variations Championship. That put me on the map and put me on other people’s radar very quickly. I was always going to go to England to study, because that was the place where all the best brass bands were. I always wanted to play with Fairey, but I had always admired Black Dyke, and they were always my ultimate goal. I was parachuted into a rehearsal with Whitburn Band when I was 16, and Phillip McCann, who was principal cornet of Black Dyke at the time, was conducting. At the end of the rehearsal, he asked me if I’d ever thought of studying in Huddersfield and playing with Black Dyke. I ended up going to study in Huddersfield, and passed my audition for Black Dyke on my 18th Birthday.
My banding career started in the top level in Scotland and really the next band I seriously played with was Black Dyke. As a 19-year-old, I was touring to Australia with Black Dyke, and that was my first time on an airplane. All of a sudden I’m playing in the Sydney Opera House.
For someone who progressed very quickly to a high standard, were you mostly self-motivated or did you find your support in others?
My parents were always very supportive, and you always need that. I joined the National Youth Brass Band of Scotland when I was 11 and I stayed with them all the way until I was 22. That made for a great education for me as well. Now, I’m the Musical Director of the band, so I’ve had a 38-year experience with the ensemble. Being Principal Cornet of the band from age 13 motivated me quite a lot, because it exposed me to a lot of music I wouldn’t have been exposed to in regular brass bands.
I was always personally motivated too. I wanted to win the next contest. I wanted to play with Black Dyke. The only problem was, when I was 21, I wanted to leave Black Dyke because I wanted to be Principal Cornet. I had always thought Black Dyke was my ultimate ambition, but I did get a principal cornet seat at Leyland and that started paying my mortgage and was my job.
When you had such a successful playing career, what made you decide to pick up the baton and begin conducting bands?
I was playing principal cornet with my band Leyland for 7 years, and it got to a point where communications had broken down between the conductor and myself. He was never going to be removed from the situation, so I was. I was 29, out of a band and there were no vacancies in other bands on the same level. The only other way to go was down, and when I was relying on my playing to pay for my mortgage, I couldn’t afford to do that.
So I was encouraged to move to Norway. Stavanger Brass had a policy of bringing players in to bring up the standards and to think in a non-Norwegian way. I was over there playing Principal Cornet with them, and having a look at the situation. When it came to the discussion as to whether I was going to grow with the band, I said the best thing I could do for the band was conduct as a Resident Conductor and play when they got the professional conductor in. I had studied conducted at college as my secondary study. Instead of working at a bar, I conducted a 4th Section band. For the 4 hours I was conducting 4th Section bands, I was making more money than my peers, plus I was making a bit of money playing with Black Dyke. Everything I was doing was on subject, so I was always improving. It was a natural progression to end up in the middle, because you are already the leader of the band.
Stavanger went very well. You have to be lucky in brass bands and get some runs on the board. When I left Leyland, I did try and apply for conducting posts in England, but because I had no practical experience that could be seen, I couldn’t give myself away for nothing. One of the bands I applied to was called Ransome, and they weren’t interested. So I went to Norway and I spent 2 years there. Then, Ransome’s conductor left and they started looking through the old applicants. They asked me to fly back, and I did a concert with them. They asked me to stay to do the British Open and the National Finals. The British Open was a disaster, the band finished in the bottom 3. But a month later, we came 2nd at the Royal Albert Hall and qualified for the European Championships. This was a band that came out of the blue that nobody expected to do so well. That was my first contest in the Albert Hall, and suddenly the perception of me was that I was an international conductor being flown in and getting a result at the Royal Albert Hall. That was lucky for me!
Ransome helped me move back to England from Norway, and I stayed with them for a couple of years. I then moved on to Foden’s to work with Bramwell Tovey, who was a great inspiration to me. In my next 5 contests with Foden’s, I had three 1sts and two 2nds. By the time I had been on the scene in England for two years, I was always in the top 3, plus assisting Bramwell Tovey to other victories. I could live off that. Then I got past the point where results really mattered, because in brass bands, your employability goes up and down depending on your success, especially in the early days.
Those contest successes kept on coming reasonably regularly. I then returned to Leyland as their MD, and won the Nationals with them in 2005. My time at Faireys was also very successful. We managed to win a couple of events, and generally sat in the top 3. And now, here I am; I freelance as a conductor for orchestras, wind ensembles, brass bands. I’m interested in seeing how broad the horizons are.
As an experienced conductor, do you have any advice for aspiring or lower sections bands?
I see a lot of conductors in the community level that have no education in conducting. As soon as you pick up a baton, you are expected to know what you are doing and you assume a position of responsibility and leadership. There’s no training for that. It’s a very difficult role to take on. The only advice I’d say is look on the internet for a conducting course to go on. It’s a hard way of learning because it is in the public but you have to be a bit thick-skinned, be able to stick up and take it. It then gets easier. It’s not so much baton technique as it is learning what to say and people management. You have to motivate the band, combined with music knowledge, combined with the language of gesture. It’s like learning an instrument; you have to do your 10,000 hours.
Bands make pretty much the same errors, regardless of experience. It is ensemble skills that are lacking. Conductors tend to get their heads buried into scores for competitions, when actually if they spend 10 or 15 minutes in a rehearsal talking about dynamics or balancing a chord or a style of articulation, it can go a long way. Each band should know what to do when it sees a tenuto, an accent or how long a staccato crotchet is. It is important that these get spoken about in the band room. By addressing these in the band room, a band can tackle a difficult test work much more efficiently than if they hadn’t. It might seem like a waste of time, but play hymn tunes and get the band to work.
What role do you think youth bands should be playing within a brass banding movement?
Youth bands are the future of the brass banding movement. A purpose of the youth band is networking. The players make friends for life at that age. If the players have something in common and are working hard to achieve a high level of performing. Musically, the band in Scotland have a real time of high end professional players, and we’re giving these players access to people they wouldn’t normally talk to. We’re commissioning composers to write music for that band. They’re getting exposed to music they wouldn’t otherwise see. The band that they go back to may be a lower division band, so they’re not going to be seeing A Grade test pieces and serious works.
You recently adjudicated the European Championships, and now you’re heading to New Zealand to adjudicate their National Championships. Can you explain the process you take to get yourself prepared to adjudicate these events?
The first principle for me is, when I’m in the box, am I hearing what I’m looking at? Is it a true representation of the score? Before I get to that point, I make sure I know the piece. I try to prepare pieces as though I’m going to conduct. I’ve got to get as prepared for every piece I’m adjudicating so I could go into a band room and conduct the first rehearsal. At the very least, I’ve got to know that. I work on the beating patterns, the structure, the dynamics, the layering, the balance. I want to get an impression of what the composer’s intentions are. I’ve been around the block a few times, so I know a lot of the pieces.
I try not to listen to too many recordings, because I want to be fresh and do not want to be steered in a certain direction of a piece. Listening to pieces though can be a short cut which I have used. But if a piece has not been recorded or is a new piece, you are on your own wits.
The preparation time can be some weeks. Someone a lot smarter than me once said “the moment you walk into a box to adjudicate is the time you close the score, because you should know it.” I wish that was true around the world but I know its not. You can’t when you have 11 different test pieces to know. I’m not clever enough to do that!
You can tell when a band is organised, when the band has been rehearsed and when the band is confident. Confidence oozes off the platform. When I adjudicated the European Championships, it was thrilling and terrifying at the same time, because I knew that every band was going to be brilliant, and they were. That being said, there were still errors. It’s a live performance. Some bands hadn’t quite worked out the acoustic of the hall. Bands can lose a lot of detail, and when I’m adjudicating, if I can’t hear the detail, I can’t judge it. That happened at the Europeans on more than one occasion unfortunately.
I don’t really have a problem if soloists clip notes or make mistakes. If a gun is pointing at their head, anything can happen. I can be a bit harsher on things that are going on when there are unforced errors, because they are careless. That being said, when I’m sitting in a box, I want everyone to have a good day. I’m not waiting for somebody to screw up. Most of the audience don’t want that either. It’s a hard one to get your head around when you’re performing and you feel threatened all the time.
I’m looking forward to the New Zealand Nationals next week. Everybody is going to be trying their hardest and I’m sure they’ll have all done some work.
While I was studying in Manchester, I did observe a lot of bands-people’s growing concern that the brass band movement is dying out and needs to change to keep thriving. Do you think the brass band movement needs to make a change or do you think it is on the right track?
The world has changed dramatically, and the way bands receive music now has changed dramatically. If you look at Frank Renton’s “Listen to the Band” being pulled from BBC Radio 2, Radio 2 has realised that people are listening to music in a different way, and brass bands don’t really cut it for the general public. But now the “Listen to the Band” program has moved to another broadcasting company called BrassPass, and it’s now called “Still Listening to the Band”. Now the show is downloadable. I think brass bands need to change the way we are received by the public. That’s something we’re not very good at, because we are too insular as a movement. We are looking at ourselves all the time and playing for ourselves, without thinking of what the public want to hear.
In Europe, the non-British countries are very different to the UK. They don’t do many concerts that aren’t self-promoted. If you are self-promoting a concert, you have to be a bit more creative about how to package that up. Bands work harder at attracting an audience, and reinventing themselves four or five times a year. They only do five concerts, plus a major concert a year. On the flip side, the better bands in England are limiting their concerts to thirty concerts a year, and four contests. So they’re working harder but they’re not working harder at getting an audience because that is someone else’s problem. I think British bands need to start thinking about where the future is coming from and who is listening to them.
I do believe bands can promote their own concerts and build a base. Because music education is cutting from schools in the UK, it is even more important that brass bands are forming youth bands to teach from within. That changes country to country. Bands can’t just be turning up to a band room, playing and then going home; there has to be something else going on. If you are running a youth program, funding comes easier than if you don’t. There are some bands in the UK that are very switched onto that, and they are doing quite well. There’s a lot of bands in the UK that just aren’t, and they’re not doing so well, I would say. You have to be more inclusive in your output.
You have the New Zealand National Band Championships next weekend where you are adjudicating with your wife Mareika. Do you have any more events in the next week or so?
I’m conducting the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra at the Old Museum in Brisbane this coming Sunday 8th July at 3pm. I’m doing a world premiere of Bill Broughton’s Symphony, which was written for me, which amazed me. I was thrilled and greatly honoured. We’ve programmed the world premiere while I am here.
Bill’s Symphony is very tuneful. Bill has a long history with Hollywood, writing music for television shows in the 80s. For an audience, his symphony is very digestible. It is about a journey coming home, and what home means to him. The third movement in particular is one of my favourites.
Then it is off to New Zealand. I’m involved all week, with the solos and then the bands. I’m adjudicating the A and B Grades, while my wife does the C and D Grade. Once that’s over, I’m back to Townsville to visit Mareika’s family before going back home.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today! Good luck in Brisbane this weekend and I hope you enjoy the New Zealand Nationals!
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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.