Lewis and Harris Youth Concert Band is a youth band made up mainly of school pupils from the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

Prior to the pandemic, the band would meet every Tuesday to rehearse. A major event in the band’s calendar is the Scottish Concert Band Festival because, each year, those qualifying for the finals of the festival travel to Perth in mainland Scotland to perform.

Responding to and learning from the Covid-19 Pandemic 

When the first national lockdown was announced, the band was able to move online quickly, thanks to support from the Western Isles Education Department, which acted swiftly to ensure all school children had access to electronic devices.

Having tried rehearsing on Zoom, the band felt this approach wasn't working for them. Instead, members began playing pieces individually with bandleader and music teacher, Gavin Woods. Each musician would record their own part, and these recordings would then be put together as a whole piece. 

This move away from the widely adopted Zoom format was inspired by the band’s take on the Thursday night tributes to the NHS, during which the individual band members recorded themselves playing in their gardens or on their doorsteps. Gavin recalls:

I got so many videos of the kids out in their gardens, on patios or decking playing to anybody who was walking past or to their neighbours. Or, in the case of one child, just to an open seafront because there was nobody else around her, so she played to the Minch every week. That was amazing, and the children’s families really enjoyed seeing those videos when we posted them on the band’s Facebook page.

The band set a ‘challenge tune’ each week through its Facebook page. Members would practice this and then perform it on Thursday nights. The challenge tune would normally be a fairly easy Scottish tune, to be played from memory.

Scottish Concert Band Festival

Lewis and Harris Youth Concert Band also submitted a video entry to the virtual Scottish Concert Band Festival and was awarded Gold. This digital entry was a video compilation of Neil Johnstone’s march ‘Colin Scott Mackenzie of Stornoway’, and their virtual performance had a special connection to the local community, as it was a tribute to the first military Brass Band in Scotland, that came from Stornoway (Ross and Cromarty Mountain Battery band).

The video they created highlights this historical aspect and conveys a sense of pride in the local area, using drone footage of the island and photographs from local archives. The video premiered on the Western Isles local authority Facebook page and has garnered thousands of views, with positive reactions in the comments section from individuals listening from as far away as Australia.

Opportunities for innovation and connection

The band was able to expand its connections through this new method of creating videos when it collaborated with Eccleshall Band from Shropshire, more than 500 miles away. The bands’ rendition of Camptown Races brought together around 60 musicians, again through the creation of a video in which individual sections were edited together to create a performance. 

Gavin recounts that after this first collaboration, exciting and innovative opportunities to connect with other musicians from all over the UK and abroad became easier and more abundant. Band members got involved with large national and international projects like The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’s virtual concert performance of Disney’s ‘How Far I’ll Go’ and the Music Education Partnership Group’s ‘Hey Jude’.

Moving Forward

Gavin noted that the band members responded extremely positively to making videos. He hopes that Lewis and Harris Youth Concert Band will continue to incorporate this way of working in the future. As Gavin says:

The kids really enjoyed making solo videos and it was something I would never have thought of pre-pandemic. I can't believe how enthusiastic they are about doing that and how many videos I get on a weekly basis. The improvement, not only in their performance but also in their confidence, is amazing.

As well as retaining the benefits of using video recordings to learn and share music, Lewis and Harris Youth Band will continue to use technology to maintain its connections across the country. A great example of this is the band’s second collaboration with the Eccleshall band, which brings together the in-person and the digital. Gavin explains:

The Eccleshall Band got back in touch and we collaborated with them again towards the end of June, to celebrate lockdown coming to an end. Martin Jones, their musical director, arranged a piece of music and their band played it outside and we played it outside here on the same day - both were filmed and then we amalgamated the two.

By incorporating digital technology into their musical practice as a band, the youth band will have the opportunity to collaborate well beyond the Isle of Lewis, while representing the local community on a national, if not global scale.