The Whitwell Brass Band prepare for the festive season

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin - Credit: Archant

As we deck the halls and belt out Christmas carols, Peter Naldrett explores what this time of year means for Derbyshire’s brass bands.

Whitwell Brass Band

Whitwell Brass Band - Credit: Archant

It's that time of year again, when we wrap presents, freak out about cooking a posh dinner and stress about the relatives coming round to play silly games.

When I think about 'what Christmas means to me', without getting all Stevie Wonder, it's about the smell of the pine tree, tasting mulled wine, the appearance of decorations I've not seen for 11 months and, most of all, the joyous singing of carols.

Now, there's singing carols and there's singing carols. The difference between different carolling experiences may be subtle, but it's important. And the ultimate evening of singing While Shepherds… is when the lovely, haunting melodies of a brass band accompany the crisp, winter voices.

Christmas is a vital time for brass bands; not only is this the time of year when most people engage with them and have a nice sing-along, but it's also crucial for fund-raising.

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin - Credit: Archant

Peak Cavern in Castleton is famous for hosting underground carolling events in December that feature several Derbyshire brass bands over the season.

Whitwell Brass Band is one. Coming from over on the eastern edge of the county, they bank on Christmas carols pulling in much needed money over the festive period and play a number of gigs in addition to the cavern.

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Reliant on donations and grants to buy much-needed equipment such as jackets and outdoor coats, as well as pay for room hire and other necessities, the Christmas fund-raisers can pull in as much as three-quarters of their annual income.

Band Secretary Lorraine Palmer said: 'Christmas is such an important time for bands to fundraise, so we'll play at supermarkets and we do work at Centreparcs as well, which always does very well for us.

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin

Peak Cavern at Christmas Photo Paul Deakin - Credit: Archant

'We have had a hard time lately because our conductor left in the summer and we have had to cancel a couple of jobs. We have been through a big change but we know have somebody new so we can start the contests again in the new year.'

Despite entering those contests, there is not always the public appetite for a brass band like there is at Christmas and quite rightly brass bands throughout the north of England capitalise on this time to make the rest of the year less lean.

From shopping malls to outside football grounds, you can encounter brass bands almost anywhere in the festive period, and there's likely to be a much-needed donations bucket nearby so you can make a contribution.

Whitwell Brass Band is one of the oldest in the country, so playing for them is to continue a long-standing tradition. An article in a local newspaper mentions the band making its debut at the Whitwell Flower and Vegetable Show in 1867.

Like any good band, they've enjoyed a number of name changes over the year, having gone by Old Whitwell Village Band, Whitwell Temperance Band and the Whitwell Colliery Band. A commitment to quality music has run through the band over the decades, as well as having fun experiences and getting young people involved in playing instruments.

Getting those young people playing instruments is not as easy as it might sound, especially when all the distractions of TV, Internet and games consoles are taken into account.

Lorraine adds: 'Up until last year we have always had a training band. We had a couple of people running it voluntarily and that has fed the main band, but unfortunately they can't do it anymore and now we don't have our training band.

'Some of the young people have joined other bands, so we would like to be able to set it up again. But we rely on volunteers and it's not easy to get people involved and to make a commitment.' There's also less of an emphasis on music at schools these days, something else which plays a part. 'When I was at school there were more opportunities to get into a jazz group and orchestra,' Lorraine adds. 'But for my children there was not half of these opportunities and many schools have let the music go. The priority is on other things.'

For the 30 people currently involved in the band, the history of it is important but it's also about looking forward to the coming years and making sure there is still a band in place for future generations.

Lorraine told me: 'I think it's really important to have a band. I have been here since 1980 and you can see how being in the band is passed down the generations. It has been a thing in Whitwell for years. Sometimes we have struggled and been down to five players. It has been hard and a struggle but we kept going. A lot stopped coming when the Welfare finished because we lost a place to play. Now we rely on grants and a community centre to play in.

'I'm looking forward to playing Peak Cavern. It's one of our big Christmas jobs and we enjoy giving people a nice night singing carols there.'

Lorraine's favourite things to play at Christmas include 'The Snowman', 'When a Child is Born' and 'Stop the Cavalry', a song dependent on brass.

Preparations for the Christmas gigs have been going on for weeks, and it can be a little strange starting to play carols in October. 'Generally a lot of the Christmas music isn't too difficult but there isn't a lot of time to get ready and we have to practise a lot so that we are up and running in time.'

Another benefit to brass bands at Christmas is the wonderful mindfulness triggered by having a good sing together. There is significant research that shows communal singing is very beneficial for those taking part. So, clear your throat, dust off the book of carols and get ready to belt out your best 'We Three Kings.'

Christmas is here and the brass bands are tuning up to make it a special one.

Whitwell Brass Band will be playing at Bolsover Lantern Parade on 30th Nov., Peak Cavern on 14th Dec., for details.