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How The Mentoring Scheme Has Helped Me

Andrew Whitaker

   Andrew Whitaker has been the Musical Director of the Lofthouse 2000 Brass Band for 11 years, and a member of the NABBC since 1997. Over the years he has been with the band he had not realised that just like those of us who have been driving for many years, how the bad habits had crept in, and what made the situation worse was he didn’t know they had. That was until he took up the opportunity of taking part in a mentoring scheme Number 2 Area had organised.

This is Andrew’s own story, and his experience of the scheme, the benefits he has gained from it, and how soon he realised how wrong he ha been from his initial thoughts about the scheme,

“…. I was falling into the same trap just as a number of other lower section band conductors would be thinking, I don’t need this; it will be too basic for me — how wrong I was....”

  Andrew Whitaker How The Mentoring Scheme Has Helped Me, as the one on the scheme it is probably the members of the band I conduct who would be in a better position to answer this question. So for now I will explain my experience of the scheme, and some of the things my mentor Alan Morrison has tried to improve.

   I think the first thing I would point out is when I joined the NABBC, I will freely admit that I joined to make myself a better Conductor. I thought that by “rubbing shoulders” with the great and good of the brass band world would improve my skills as a conductor, and allow me to improve my band. I am a regular attendee at the numerous workshops that have been organised. I remember one Workshop at Durham where I was the only one there, and had Ray Farr and Fishburn Band to myself for two hours, what a fantastic experience. So, when the idea of the mentor scheme was first suggested at a regional test piece workshop at Dobcross I thought, “what a fantastic idea”. 

   The Association will pay for a top brass band conductor to come to two rehearsals, and advise a conductor on his or her conducting skills. This is a brilliant idea and I wish this had been available when I started! How conceited could I be. I was quickly falling into the trap that a number of lower section band conductors might recognise, by thinking ‘I don’t need this; it will be too basic for me’,

   I hadn’t realised that over the 11 years with Lofthouse 2000 Band the bad habits I had developed. Not just in the conducting style, but also in my own management style within the rehearsal. The worrying part was I didn’t realise until my mentor pointed this out. My players didn’t mention it, after all it probably made rehearsals easier. My bad habits needed to be pointed out by someone who I respected, and who was willing to work at putting them right. As conductors we expect our players to keep on top of their practise, so eliminating any bad habits, but of course as conductors we never develop any bad habits, do we...?

   As I drove away from the Area meeting at Dobcross bandroom I was thinking, good idea, but not for me. At the next meeting, this time at my own bandroom, the mentor scheme was discussed in greater detail of how it would work in reality.  

   Once I had completed all the forms, and was eventually contacted and after some initial checking of diaries a date was arranged. Our first meeting was on Thursday 20th May at Lofthouse bandroom. and before the rehearsal we had a pre-rehearsal chat. I explained what I hoped to gain from the scheme, where the band was at this moment and where I hoped we could go. I outlined what I believed were my strengths, weaknesses, and explained a number of problems I was experiencing — we then started the rehearsal.

   At the time we were rehearsing for the Ripon Brass in Cathedral competition, but I realised that my mentor was there to help me, and not help with the contest. I think at this point I would need to quote from the comprehensive feedback I received after the rehearsal.

   “Andrew spent the first 15 minutes on hymn tunes which warmed the band up effectively. The 3rd hymn was then broken into quavers and then into rhythmical patterns. I am not sure if the band know why they do this and how it benefits them, but they seemed happy to oblige. First impressions of stick technique showed a rigid right hand and upward pointing stick that could relax a little more to indicate smoother lines. Minimal left hand gestures were apparent but the musical line did flow.”

Alan Morrison conducting Brighouse & Rastrick  “ was apparent that the sitting postures of several players seemed rather lazy with outstretched feet, and some crossed legs. Perhaps an area of concern that the MD should address.”

“…addressed problems of tuning and balance spending time using a tuning machine on all cornets individually, relying entirely on the readings of the tuner. I would prefer him to have the confidence to listen more and trust his ears. The tuner also doesn’t take into account tonal differences and a blend was not achieved.”

   “….tuning was worked on and suggestions of alternative fingering for horns made, but nothing was decided upon and not much improvement was achieved. Beating was very similar and phrase release need more care.”

  “...the march was started every time with a 2 beat count in. Get them used to preparatory beats or just bring them straight…”

   "...good humoured response to percussion requirements made for an enjoyable session on this piece which showed considerable improvement...”

  “...trombones were taken in isolation to achieve an appropriate entry, but would have been helped by a more assertive entry gesture each time so they knew exactly where to start...”

Andrew Whitaker

   “...Andrew has a relaxed demeanour in front of the band and is quietly spoken, however a suitably engaging rapport has been established. The band works well for him showing an acceptable level of respect and discipline in rehearsal. He needs to try and avoid continuous up-beats and develop a more obvious down-beat. The left hand could be used more to indicate dynamic levels and entry assurances along with more eye contact…”

   “...the head is often buried in the score. The total reliance on the tuning machine worries me. I would encourage Andrew to use his ears more and only refer to the machine for confirmation. Intonation and blend can then be addressed more.”

   That is only a short selection of the report, a number of issues in my conducting style were brought to my attention, also the fact that I don’t go that extra mile to make sure changes are completely bedded in. What was also pointed out is that I sometimes avoid the difficult decisions that a conductor has to take being less laid back, and more forthright in my approach.

   The next stage is being planned, an informal get together to have further discussion about his report before we have a second and final session. So this article may be the first of two who knows!

   At the outset I said my band should be the judge of the success of the scheme, one player described my style now as “...more intense and clearer, I know what I want and I go for it...”. I still need to work on my beat patterns and the use of my left hand and this is something I practise at home, I am sure as conductors we all do, don’t we? I have taken a number of difficult decisions that I would have let drift in a hope they would sort themselves out. So from one rehearsal a number of issues have been addressed.

  So, would I recommend the mentoring scheme, without doubt I would say yes, and if you have the opportunity to be involved in the scheme, take it on with both hands. I will take this opportunity of thanking Alan Morrison for his help and guidance. 

Andrew Whitaker
Musical Director of the Lofthouse 2000 Brass Band