Thank you for the music... BBC Radio 2
A few weeks ago, I interviewed a group of talented and ambitious youngsters during the semi-finals of the BBC Young Brass Award. It's a job I've done on and off for the last 8 years. Except this year was different.
After announcing a huge shake up, the awards' host programme - Listen To The Band - is set to disappear from the station's weekly schedule. And whilst it's not known whether the awards will continue, it made me - and the staff who've been part of the event for so many years - wonder if it's our last time working together on such an amazing programme.
So here's why I've loved it, and what's it's been like behind the scenes working on specialist music programmes at BBC radio.
When I first began working at the BBC in 2009, I was part of a team in Birmingham which broadcast everything from The Archers, to Farming Today to The Organist Entertains...! It was this department where I was able to grow, absorb everything like a sponge, shadow and see how network radio was made by just a handful of talented folk. To say it was eye-opening is an understatement.
To watch producers such as Lucy Lunt, Rosie Boulton and Karen Gregor craft a Radio 4's Soul Music episode from scratch was magical - a 25 minute programme showcasing how one song had impacted people's lives.
Then there was the time I spent a few nights hiding behind the huge desk of a Maida Vale Studio recording with Radio 2's Big Band Special and executive producer Bob McDowell. Occasionally I'd wander and spend my breaks in the early hours to find old reel to reel players covered in dust in the corners.
Even at Birmingham Town Hall, I stage managed when Big Band went live infront of an audience - hosting the incredible Swedish jazz musician extraordinaire, Nils Landgren and his band with their album Funk For Life.
Having such opportunities was simply a dream come true, a chance to enjoy great music and be paid left me pinching myself on many occasion!
My own love of music began when I was just 6 years old. I was given a red recorder for Christmas.
I think my parents were baffled by my response. At the time, no one in my close family could read or play music. Yet within a few weeks, I'd taught myself a few notes and songs from just reading a book, then wrote a letter to my music teacher asking her for some lessons. (I wish we still had a copy of that!) I also remember having a tiny casio keyboard, writing the numbers 1 to 5 on each of my fingers and spending hours excrutiatingly teaching myself Rod Stewart's Sailing using the proper fingering patterns! I used my karaoke machine as a four-track recorder for my own compositions. At 13, I accepted with open arms an acoustic guitar and magazine collection of jazz legends after my uncle died. But it took me at least three attempts before I had the patience to master the bar chord.
A decade on from my red recorder days and I went on to reach Grade 8 standard at violin, Grade 5 in piano and learn to pretty much play an instrument put infront of me. I collected medals, trophies, book vouchers and certificates. I toured as a first violinist with Coventry Youth Orchestra across California at 16, performed in soul bands on bass guitar in Belgium and Holland, sang in cathedral choirs and later studied a BSc in Music, Acoustics and Recording in Salford. I gave every piece of my love and energy to music as a youngster.
So when I was asked to help organise BBC Radio 2's Young Brass Awards in 2010, I jumped at the chance. After all, I'd been in these youngsters shoes.
It was Matthew White, a cheeky spritely euphonium player who won in my first year. I watched from stage right as he tapped on a loop pedal and wowed the crowd with something a little different than the typical brass player. Only the year before he'd performed as part of a TEDGlobal event.
Getting to know the contestants and their families was most interesting. Some entrants were like me - their parents sightly perplexed where this amazing talent had come from, others who had been born with brass in their blood - their mothers and fathers professional players often well-known on the scene. Sometimes we'd see the same faces several years in a row, each year hoping to take the crown or just get a step further in the process.
As I became more experienced I began working as a reporter for the competition during the semi-finals. The structure meant that 8 contestants (aged between 16 and 21) got to record 10 minutes of music with Foden's Band and conductor Michael Fowles as they aimed to move a step nearer to lifting the trophy in the final. Frank Renton presented and I'd ask the players about the place music making had in their lives and how they'd been preparing for the competition.
I always had some fun with the interviews, my aim was to help producer Terry Carter have a little more 'texture' to play with between performance and speech. And, because of my own background in music, I found ways in uncovering some of the most unlikely stories of how the entrants had come to fall in love with their instruments.
Like Grant Jameson, a euphonium player who went on to win in 2015, who told me about how he grew up in Ohio, listening to CDs in his bedroom and learning about the British brass scene from afar.
And a fellow finalist in the same year, Adam Bokaris from Australia, who described why he came to the UK to study at the RNCM - including admitting to me his reaction the first time he saw snow fall a few weeks before!
We'd discuss the research they'd done in picking their pieces to play and reel off the handful of pieces that we as musicians find great joy in playing day and night - no matter what life throws at us.
Even more incredible, some of them explained why they were choosing pieces THEY'D composed! There was always cross over between the National Youth Orchestra, conservatoires and BBC Young Musician of The Year too.
There have been moments of laughter too. In between each interview I'd always pop back to the gallery with surprises for the team "you'll never guess what..." Such as this year when one of the semi-finalists, Christopher Barron, suddenly declared how his purpose was to promote the "return of the tuba". I think his exact words were "Clare, the tuba is coming back to the spotlight…"
Cornet player Thomas Nielsen who is still a teenager - and an incredible driven focussed one at that. (Watch this space, he will be a familiar face in a professional band in the future I'm sure.) Out of nowhere Thomas threw me a curve ball by saying he's a die hard Newcastle United fan (despite living in London) and he likes having a good curry. I wasn't quite sure how to react to that with my 'serious Radio 2 reporter' face!
Then there were the folk who take things a little more seriously. Like Ross Dunne, a second time finalist in the competition, who this year came prepared with pages of bullet point answers ready for any question I was to fire at him. He sailed through. Making a valid point on why his instrument - the tenor horn - needs to be taken more seriously. Ross had sifted out a brass arrangement of a violin concerto for his semi-final piece.
What I also came to like about the competition was that it's also a great showcase for demonstrating girls are just as good as boys - and some years, even better. Matilda Lloyd and Isobel Daws being just two of the event's recent winners.
There were always key themes that followed throughout the years too. Like the youngsters discipline, their ability to face rejection, have balls of steel, push themselves to develop, and have absolute utter dedication in mastering their skill.
And it wasn't just the contestants. The team running the production match a few of those traits too.
It's worth noting that John Cole has been studio manager for over a decade on the programme, production coordinator Lynne Holden and producer Terry Carter have contributed for the last nine years. Even Frank Renton the award's main presenter has been a part of brass band broadcasting on the BBC for over 25 years! Not to mention the huge talent performing behind the soloists at the semis and live final - Foden's, Black Dyke Band and The Cory Band. And the photographers too. Over the years I also interviewed the judges, the conductors. I watched from the outside broadcast truck, and chipped in my tuppence during of- air banter in the studio gallery in between performances. Every piece of the jigsaw - no matter how big or small - has made a difference, and it shows when you speak with previous contestants too. For many years they tell us they remember our names, our conversations and their experience of competing for such a highly regarded event.
Which reminds me of Brendan Wheeler.
In 2015, the final had a slightly different format. It was live from the RNCM, not pre-recorded, with Frank Renton presenting shoulder to shoulder with Ken Bruce. So when producer Terry called and asked me if I could present a ten minute segment to run during the interval, we took some time thinking over which of the many previous winners was worth reconnecting with.
And so we picked a tale of love, war and music. We reminded listeners how the award's 2004 winner, Katrina Marzell, went on to hand her trophy to a chap called Brenden Wheeler - a man she went on to marry some years later!
Brendan gave a fascinating insight into his experience of winning the competition a decade earlier and also how a life leading a military band often meant he had to put his arms training before his euphonium practice. A real career dedicated to service, not just playing.
So it seems quite sad that I may not get to work on such programmes in the future. This post a sort of doff my cap to the chance to be a part of it all during the last few years. It's been a blast.
Of course, it's absolutely right that changes to the BBC Radio 2 schedule make room for more female presenters. And as Listen To The Band is set to disappear from our dials within the next few weeks, the station assures listeners that brass band music will continue to be played elsewhere.
In a revent review, Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic at The Telegraph summed up the programme's contribution over the years quite perfectly: "What Listen to the Band has done, consistently, for decades, is keep alive the links between learning to play and performing at every level, from school to concert hall."
This year's semi-final airs on Tuesday 27th February at 11pm, where the four contestants through to the next round discover their fate as they prepare themselves for the live final on Friday 20th April at the RNCM. (You can be in the audience for free by the way.)
Or you can listen back to the semi-finals with Frank and me here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09sbypy
Oh and one final thing. Frank Renton assures me he is not retiring. He continues to offer his services as a voiceover artist! (and that's because I owe him at least two gin and tonics!)
My best wishes to him, Terry Carter and Lynne Holden who wait to find out where the talent will be utilised next. And also thanks all the incredible talented music producers who've taken me under their wing along the way.