A Brief History by Dr. Roy Newsome

The origins of the Brass Band Summer School were in the Boosey & Hawkes’s ‘Open College’ of 1985. Gordon Higginbottom was employed by Boosey’s at the time and no doubt had a hand in its formation. A series of weekend courses culminated in a ‘Celebrity Summer School’ at Trent Park College of Education in North London.

Sir David Willcocks was President of the ‘College’ and Harry Mortimer was head of the brass band section. Tens of thousands of pounds must have been spent on a publicity campaign, with photographs and course details in all kinds of magazines.

The ‘Celebrity Summer School’ attracted 80 brass instrumentalists, who formed two standard brass bands and an orchestral brass group. John Wilbraham directed the orchestral brass whilst H.M. was the brass band supremo. I took charge of one band and Trevor Walmsley took charge of the other. They were named after Boosey’s two main brands of brass instruments – ‘Sovereign’ and ‘Imperial’.

We had a marvellous week. In addition to H.M., Trevor and myself, we had Jim Shepherd, Gordon Higginbottom, Ian Bousfield, Bob Childs and James Gourlay doing sectional rehearsals, giving private lessons, organising ensembles and, when they were not doing any of those things, playing with the bands. There were informal concerts each evening, but the climax of the week came on Friday afternoon when H.M. conducted an outdoor performance of The Great Gate of Kiev, with all 80 delegates, plus the tutors. It was all too good to be true and, sadly, the project lasted for only this one year.

1986 saw the founding of another Summer School. Those of us who’d been involved in the previous venture felt there was a need for it. Harry Mortimer agreed to become President. I was invited to be Course Director and along with the tutors, we agreed to ‘give it a go’ – even if it cost us money.

The founding tutors were Jim Davies, Alan Morrison, Gordon Higginbottom, Bob Childs, Steve Walkley, Steve Sykes and Jim Gourlay. In addition to looking after the horns, Gordon took on the role of Administrator. He was the ideal person to kick-start the new venture and in no time at all he’d acquired modest sponsorship and found venues both for the course and the final concert. The course took place at Goldsmiths College, London and the following appeared in ‘British Bandsman’:

A marvellous opportunity to work and play, in superb surroundings, with the experts,
culminating with a Grand Concert at THE REGENT HALL, LONDON
Tutorial staff will perform at the concert,
jointly conducted by ROY NEWSOME and the legendary HARRY MORTIMER, CBE

It was a splendid course and set several precedents for future years. Gordon had even persuaded the B.B.C. to record the Regent Hall concert for ‘Listen to the Band’. This was a mixed blessing, as some of the less-experienced delegates suffered very badly from attacks of nerves. All the tutors played and, along with a liberal helping of interviews, we produced an interesting programme. This was wonderful publicity for the course.

The Harry Mortimer Summer School, as it was then known, was up and running, though it needed new premises. Gordon looked at several possible venues and recommended the Lady Spencer Churchill College in Wheatley, Oxford. This proved to be ideal and was to be the Summer School’s home for over a decade.

On our first course there we had just over 50 delegates, with ages ranging from 12 to 60+, and including a blind cornet player. This number was to increase over the years and undoubtedly, one of the attractions was the end-of-course visit by Harry Mortimer to direct a few items in the final concert.

We were again able to form two separate bands, which played both individually and massed. These now became ‘Wheatley’ and ‘Headington’. There were also the usual sectional rehearsals and private lessons. Tutors gave a pre-lunch concert one day on each course, and we also had evening student concerts.

There was an organ in the hall and during the early years there I’d join forces with the band in the big finale – conducted by Mr Mortimer. The first time this happened he was rehearsing Finlandia. Unknown to him, I was at the organ and joined in. He cut the band off at the end, but I held the chord on. Completely mesmerised, he couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. He thought he’d found the Lost Chord!

The tutors thought it would be a good idea to invite a guest speaker or soloist, as an added attraction. I decided we’d have this on the Friday afternoon so as to give lips a bit of a rest before the evening concert. We called it ‘The Friday Masterclass’, and amongst our guests in the early years were Gordon Langford, Crispian Steele-Perkin, Goff Richards, Rod Franks and Philip Wilby.

Harry Mortimer was our President until his death early in 1992, after which the course’s name was changed to The Brass Band Summer School. We then invited Philip Jones to become our President. Philip was an influential person in the wider world of music, a highly respected professional trumpet player and founder of the famous Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. His wife was Swiss and he was invariably holidaying in Switzerland at the time of our courses, but at his own expense he flew back every year so that he could meet us all and introduce the items in our final concert.

After some years, the tutors wished to run a Conductors’ Course in parallel with the Summer School. Richard Evans was brought in as Course Director, to enable me to work with the student conductors. This was one of the few things we did that didn’t come off. Numbers were down on the main course and some members of my group could barely manage to play a hymn tune. The idea had been to form an ensemble, with students conducting in turns, but this wasn’t very successful. We made the most of it by giving individual tutorials to those who had potential, with the rest taking turns to literally just beat time as the group struggled to play from ‘beginner’ band books. The experiment wasn’t repeated!

The BBSS was now at a cross-roads. Low attendance and increasing difficulties with sponsorship caused us to consider disbanding. Had the course run its time? Should we make the next course the last one? Another major problem was that we were not able to use the Oxford venue again. They’d had an application from a large overseas group wanting the site for a full month. They couldn’t turn this down and informed us, with much regret, that we couldn’t return there in 1999.

Having given over a decade of service to the BBSS, both as Administrator and as Horn Tutor, Gordon decided that now was the time to retire, much to the regret of students and staff. There was also another resignation, as John Hudson, the long-serving cornet tutor had moved to Norway and felt he could no longer be a part of the BBSS.

Nevertheless, the course survived, new premises were found and the Bromsgrove School was to become more or less our permanent home from 1999. The staff also had a new look, Philip Biggs replacing Gordon as Administrator and new tutors appointed to replace him and John. The course continued as before but bands were renamed ‘Hathaway’ and ‘Shakespeare’. To everyone’s relief numbers were up this year.

One of the first decisions to be made by the new-look staff was to try a weekend Winter Course. This took place in January 2000 at Silsoe College, Cranfield University, Bedfordshire. It attracted just over 40 delegates and was quite successful. However, the tutors felt that the response had been disappointing, and the idea was never tried again.

With 96 delegates attending the 2000 Summer School, this was declared to be the best yet. We were saddened this year with the deaths of Mrs Margaret Mortimer, who had been a great supporter from the very beginning, and of our President, Philip Jones.

A decision was now taken that I would direct two more courses, would then retire as Course Director and become the Brass Band Summer School’s next President. Therefore, from the year 2003 my active involvement in the BBSS ceased and Richard Evans was appointed Course Director.

Happily, as President I am invited each year to attend the last two days of the course. Muriel comes with me and we are both treated very well. We arrive on the Thursday and then, on Friday I run through a few pieces, which I then conduct in the evening concert. Muriel, incidentally, though not a player, has attended most courses from the very beginning.

Another lady, without whom I doubt if we’d have survived was Patricia Lord (‘Trish’). She was, in effect, the Assistant Administrator, helped with bookings and room allocation, and sorted literally all problems that arose during the courses – and there were plenty. She retired just a couple of years ago and her place has been taken by Liz Lancaster.

The Summer School has, without doubt, been one of my great joys. I believe that we’ve brought something special into the lives many hundreds of ordinary bandsman and bandswomen. I’m honoured and humbled to have played a part in it.

Roy Newsome - January 2009

Following a further decade of successful BBSS courses, in 2019, BBSS Administrator Philip Biggs passed away and both Nicholas Hudson (trombone tutor) and Steve Sykes (tuba tutor) retired from the organisation, having given a combined service of more than 40 years, many of which as Directors. The running of the course then became the responsibility of Co-Directors, David Childs, Owen Farr and Brian Taylor, and in 2020, amidst a global pandemic, The Brass Band Summer School made history by hosting the first Virtual BBSS - a hugely innovative success involving brass players from all over the world.

The ongoing pandemic prevented the 2021 'in-person' course from going ahead, and both Musical Director Richard Evans and President Bramwell Tovey sadly passed away in 2022. Dr. Robert Childs was appointed as the new Musical Director and led one of the most successful courses in the organisation's history, culminating in a 35th Anniversary course Finale Gala Concert at Harrogate's Church of St. Wilfrid on 12th August 2022.

Having survived a somewhat turbulent three years, the BBSS is now healthier than ever at its new home - Harrogate Ladies' College, and with a variety of sponsors and partners, including Besson. The managment look forward to presenting the 36th Brass Band Summer School from 6th - 11th August 2023.

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