Kind hearts and cornets in the battle of the brass bands

A Slice of Britain: Once there were 20,000 across the country. Yesterday the remaining few sounded off for the cup final

The reigning brass band champions curse their luck: it is cup final day and the Cory Band, World and Open Champions of 2009 have been drawn to play first. No one ever wants to do that: Cory's 16 rivals are delighted. It's hardly surprising: out of 157 British Open Champions, precisely none was first up on stage.

Then again, as the 30 musicians from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales walk on stage an hour after drawing the dreaded number one, the reaction from the 3,000-strong crowd in Birmingham's Symphony Hall suggests the other bands may have to postpone their celebrations.

Members of the most successful British brass band of the 21st century seem ecstatic with their performance as they come off to huge applause. Everyone agrees they are once again the team to beat.

Ten years ago, Cory became the first Welsh band to win the British Open. This is no small thing: thought to be the oldest music competition in the world, it started off in Manchester in 1853, remaining there until 1982. It decamped to its current home in 1997.

So this it how it works: Britain's 17 best amateur brass bands compete for top dog by playing the same piece of "test music" in front of a live audience and three judges, whose identities are kept secret until competition day in order to deter cheats. Yes, it is that serious.

The three judges are seated behind a curtained-off area at the back of the hall, armed with pen, paper, refreshments and a toilet – so their cover isn't blown.

This year, for the first time, there is an American judge. This set the cat among the cornet players: brass banding is as traditional and British as cricket. It is a tradition born out of 19th-century industrialisation. The first community brass band is thought to be the Stalybridge Old Band, formed in 1809 and still in existence. Many have their origins in local industries, especially the coal mines, with industrial areas such as Yorkshire, the west of Scotland and South Wales boasting the richest and longest histories.

That tradition captured filmgoers' imaginations with the release of Brassed Off, a 1996 film starring Pete Postlethwaite and Ewan McGregor, which depicted the troubles of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, and changes to a whole community, during the Margaret Thatcher and John Major years which ended with the pit's closure. The changes the stoic traditional men were forced to embrace included a female member, played by Tara Fitzgerald.

The real-life band remains one of the country's finest, and this year, for the first time in its 93-year history, it too has a female horn player.

The last bastion without a single woman is another favourite of the critics, Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band from West Yorkshire, which hasn't won the cup for 32 years.

Having never before listened to a live brass band performance, the thought of "enduring" the same piece of music 17 times in one day fills me with a more than a little dread. But Peter Graham, the renowned Scottish composer, has written a beautiful, and blessedly concise, piece of music, "On the Shoulders of Giants", which is strongly influenced by the American jazz giants Miles Davies and trumpeter Tommy Dorsey.

This means some of the performances make you want to stand up from your seat and jive; some use the percussion to add a Latin twist; while others are much more melancholic.

The 16-minute piece sounds different every time, sometimes beyond recognition to my untrained ears, reflecting each conductor's style and interpretation, as well as each band's talent.

It is a way of life: family bonds are as strong as class. Martin Mortimer, the Open Championship organiser, has brass bands in his blood. He watched his father and grandfather play in this competition, and has a family history dating back more than a century.

Betty Anderson, 80, won her first competition playing the tenor horn with her village band in 1938. "I only got to play the horn because my father played and he let me have a go. But within five weeks of picking it up, I'd won my first competition. Once you get into brass bands, you never seem to get out."

Betty quickly moved into conducting and, in 1978, led Leicestershire's Ratby Brass Band into the Open final – becoming the competition's first female conductor. There is a fair spattering of female musicians here this year, but no conductors.

At its peak, in the early 20th century, there were 20,000 brass band instrumentalists in the country. Against the backdrop of hard physical work, the early bands intended to try to keep menfolk away from the temptations of alcohol. Although a noble aim, it seems to have failed miserably at the Open: more beer has been sold at this event than any other all year.

In truth, banding is in decline, linked undoubtedly to the eradication of the coalmining industry, but also to the decline of Britain's industrial communities more generally.

There is, however, plenty of young blood around, in the crowd but also many playing in bands. Alex Rees, at 12, is the youngest. He is excited, nervous, but also a little embarrassed about playing cornet for the Tongwynlais Temperance Band, which has made it to the Open for the first time in 123 years. The son of professional trumpet and oboe players, Alex loves his instrument, and the crowds, but is weary of being teased at school where guitars are cool and brass instruments most definitely are not.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tony Burrows, 61, a cornet player in the same band. He's been playing for more than 50 years, so has lived through the decline of banding. "It is a dying institution, with the mines gone, less money and less commitment; banding has become very fragile, but there's nothing like it."

With the bands all safely in the bar, the results are announced. The curse of first-on performance continues; the Cory Band comes in fifth, losing out to the in-form Tredegar Town Band. They played eighth. The pundits are shocked, but Tredegar's supporters are delighted as it's a first title for the 160-year-old band. Llongyfarchiadau (as they say in Wales).

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