Lo, Star-led chieftains!

This weekend has seen the start of my Christmas gigs with the Menai Bridge Brass Band for this year (the band actually started its season with another gig last week, but I wasn’t needed for that one).

Last night the senior band played for the RNLI Carol Service in Trearddur Bay, which has been an annual fixture on the band’s calendar for quite a few years (I gather), although this is the first time I’ve been able to make the gig — this is my third Christmas with the band but I had prior commitments for the past two years. As well as a handful of presentation items by the band, we played for about half of the carols. A pianist played for the others, which meant we got to sing along.

One of the interesting features of the evening was that when we sang O come, all ye faithful we did several verses that I haven’t sung for very many years. This carol is one of my favourites of the perennial classic carols that get dragged out every year (and, indeed, at almost every carol service or carol singing/playing gig that takes place through the season) but is usually only sung with 3 verses, or 4 on Christmas Day (or any other time that you feel like singing “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning”, though it’s traditional to omit that verse on other days) and as far as I can make out these are the translations of the verses originally written in Latin (probably) by John Francis Wade in the mid 18th century.

There are, however, several other verses which sometimes get sung (though not usually in the musical circles in which I move). We did 3 of these, along with the 3 standard non-Christmas-Day verses, last night. My favourite of them is one which begins “Lo, star-led chieftains” and I like it especially for that very phrase, which has a nice ring to it.

In general, I think the standard 3 or 4 verses make the song just about the right length and they are definitely the 3 or 4 I’d choose out of the 7 or 8 available. Still, it’s nice sometimes to sing a few extra verses if only to introduce a bit of variation.

My Christmas carolling continued (albeit in instrumental-only mode) this morning, when I played with the intermediate band down in the centre of Menai Bridge (making it one of our most local gigs of the year). There were two senior band gigs going on simultaneously, one in Bangor and the other in Llangefni, but there were just about enough other musicians to cover those and I figured the intermediate band (with whom I play semi-regularly anyway) would probably most benefit from my help seeing as they have no other trombone players – apart from the conductor, who is generally busy conducting instead – and there are several other bass players in the senior band (it was nothing to do with the attraction of a gig within walking distance of home and the promise of mince pies!).

The band is actually having a relatively quiet Christmas season this year (probably just as well, as it’s been an epically busy year), although we will be out a handful more times over the next fortnight. I will probably only be taking part in a couple of these gigs — at the Farmers’ Market in Menai Bridge next Saturday with the senior band (another one of our annual fixtures; this one I’ve been able to attend every year since I joined the band) and at a nursing home on the outskirts of Bangor the following afternoon with the intermediate band.


Reduce me to a muzak fate

I love Christmas.

As well as the day itself, with all its traditions and trimmings, I mostly enjoy the build-up over the weeks beforehand, including several opportunities to freeze various appendages off while playing carols with the Menai Bridge Brass Band outside supermarkets (especially fun as a tuba player because you get to hug a large amount of very cold metal, which also happens to be a very effective collecting device for rain and snow).

One thing I don’t enjoy so much is the festive muzak they insist on playing inside the supermarkets at least a month in advance.

Actually, today (which is only one month until Christmas Eve) was the first day I noticed and was irritated by the sonic backdrop to my shopping, which seems a bit later than usual.  Only one more month to put up with it…

Fortunately, I happened to pass the beer aisle and noticed a festive brew called “Bah Humbug” (an offering from the Wychwood Brewery, whose beers I generally enjoy greatly) on special offer, so I decided that a bottle of this would provide suitable compensation for having to endure the annoying tunes.  (NB in case you were wondering, I did actually buy the beer – it didn’t even cross my mind to do otherwise and I don’t think I’d have been able to convince the store detective that they owed me a bottle in return for subjecting me to such musical torture!)

I suppose, ironically, this means that the muzak was effective, if only minimally so, in encouraging me to purchase Christmas-related products (which, presumably, is the reason they choose to inflict it on us – I hope they are not just sadists).  I’d probably better not buy a bottle of beer every time I go shopping over the next month, as it wouldn’t be good for my wallet, my waistline or my liver.  As a one-off, though, I thought it was a pretty good excuse. 🙂

Thinking about all this reminded me of a line from a Queen song, which I remembered as “reduce me to a muzak fate” and thought came from the song Death on two legs (on the Night at the Opera album).  Checking up by listening to a handful of tracks from my collection of early Queen albums, backed up with a swift bit of googling for the lyrics, I discovered that it’s actually from Flick of the Wrist (on Sheer Heart Attack, so I was only out by one album) and the line is actually “reduce you to a muzak fake machine”.  Still, I decided to keep my slightly mangled version of the line as the title for this post.


‘Tis the season

One of my musical ventures this year has been to join a brass band. This is in fact the second time I’ve played in such an ensemble, as I spent about a year playing with the adult beginners’ band (wonderfully entitled “Last of the Summer Wind”) of the Beaumaris Band a few years ago. That served as my introduction to brass playing and taught me the rudiments of playing the Eb bass (or tuba, as it’s commonly called outside the brass band world).

I had to stop playing with that band after a while as I got too busy with other things but a couple of months ago I was delighted to discover that the Menai Bridge Band meets just a few minutes’ walk down the road from where I live and that they were looking for some new players. In particular, they had a spare Bb bass (i.e. an even bigger tuba than the one I used to play) and wanted somebody to play it. Needless to say, I was more than happy to oblige and it’s been great to be at it again.

I started playing with the band towards the end of September and my first public appearance with them was for a competition in early November. Apparently competitions are a fairly major feature of the brass band scene and (adult) bands are divided into 5 sections, with the best bands playing in the Championship section, the next best in section 1 and the worst (at least of those who take part in recognised competitions) in section 4. It’s a bit like the league system in football, with divisions 1 to 3 and the premiership. I think it made a lot more sense when it was just divisions 1 to 4 with the best teams in the first division, but there you go! (And, yes, I’m as surprised as you that I actually used a football analogy in my blog, given my usual complete lack of interest in the game.) Menai Bridge Band is in section 4, so we’re not one of the greatest bands out there. Still it was satisfying to get 2nd place (out of 6 competitors) in our section at the North Wales Rally at Llandudno this year.

Since the competition we’ve been focusing on getting ourselves ready for various concerts. The first of these was a joint event with a local male voice choir (Cor Penrhyn, in case you’re interested) at Bangor Cathedral in mid-November. It was then that I discovered how good the Cathedral’s acoustics are for playing the low brass instruments. I managed to get the best low F I’ve ever managed. 🙂

For the past couple of weeks, the band has been pretty busy with carol services and other seasonal gigs, including quite a few open air carol singing (or at least playing) sessions. Fortunately they let the basses sit down for those, although the rest of the band play them standing up (unlike our indoor gigs, which are usually sit-down events for the whole band). I haven’t been involved in all of these gigs, as some of them have clashed with prior commitments and some have only required a small subset of the band.

So far this month, I’ve played for one carol service (back at Bangor Cathedral, for the Emergency Services) and a couple of outdoor carol events also in Bangor, next to the town clock. I’m due to be playing a couple of short gigs in Menai Bridge on Saturday morning and may be going up to Holyhead for a couple more in the afternoon (the details are not yet confirmed). I’ll possibly also be playing outside Tesco in Holyhead next Thursday evening. This represents somewhat less than half the total number of gigs the band are doing this month.

I suspect that the lead up to Christmas is probably the busiest time of year for most brass bands. Certainly the sound of carols played on brass is one of the sounds I’ve long associated with Christmas, so it’s quite fun to be part of making those sounds now, instead of just listening to them. I hope that by next Christmas I’ll still be playing with the band and will have experience of a whole year in the life of a brass band to look back on.