History, tradition, and magic: Lancashire's world-class Leyland Band on Covid, musical passion, and what makes brass bands special

The word everyone uses is 'special' when talk turns to the topic of 'just what is it about brass bands?' Dozens of hearty coils of metal, humming with the breath of their players into a crescendo which sweeps over you like a wave of warm bathwater before receding again. To be a part of that is emotional. It's magical. It's euphoric. Special.

By Jack Marshall, Reporter
Monday, 7th February 2022, 4:55 am
Musical Director Tom Wyss conducting Leyland Band (credit: Goldy Solutions)
Musical Director Tom Wyss conducting Leyland Band (credit: Goldy Solutions)

Leyland Band was founded in 1946 in the heart of industrial Lancashire as the Leyland Motors Band, taking its name from the world-famous automotive company, and has, for the intervening 80 years, established itself as one of the country's finest brass bands. Now an independent group of 30 musicians, their maxim remains the same: quality.

Having performed around the world as well as at world-class venues closer to home including the Royal Albert Hall, Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, and Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Leyland Band also as a competition CV boasting wins at the British Open Championships, the National Championships of Great Britain, and the All England Masters Championships to name but a few.

The band's current Musical Director Tom Wyss was born in Switzerland, studying music at the Conservatoire of Bern and Fribourg and being named Swiss Tuba Champion six times before coming to England in 1986 to study at the University of Huddersfield. He eventually went on to perform in numerous local brass bands before conducting a great many more.

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Leyland Band (credit: Goldy Solutions)

"My family was quite musical, so I started playing brass when I was about nine - I started on trumpet and ended up on the tuba," explains Tom, 57. "I fell in love with it immediately and have been hooked on brass ever since. British banding was always the standard everyone in Europe looked up to, which is why I came over here.

"Music started to become a career option, I met my wife, and I've stayed ever since," he adds. "Brass bands are unique, the sound is just amazing. As a conductor, you get the full sound, too. It's quite emotional because it hits you like a wave. Once I tasted that, I couldn't get enough. You're always chasing that feeling.

"When the chance to be Musical Director at Leyland came up, I was just excited to work with a top band at such a high level," explains Tom, who has been Musical Director at Leyland for six years. "And it's been great - we treat small gigs and big competitions with the same respect because we always want to show the best of ourselves."

Possessing of a rich history, Leyland Band is a band which specialises in firsts. In 1980, they became the first western brass band to set foot on Japanese soil, performing a ground-breaking tour to sell-out audiences; in 2011, they became the first brass band to be listed in the Classic FM Hall of Fame; and in 2015, they were they first English brass band to be perform at the Innsbruck Promenade Concert Series in Austria.

Leyland Band was founded in 1946

Safe to say that the band's prestige tends to make an impression.

Chairman and e-flat tuba-player Chris Doran has been with Leyland Band for 20 years. "My uncle used to play in brass bands and my dad brought a cornet home one day when I was about seven," he says. "I was having a play on it and I thought I'd like to give it a go properly. I joined the juniors at Hesketh Bank Band and it just stuck.

"Brass clicked with me straight away - the social aspect was a big thing, as well," adds Chris, 39. "I joined Leyland Band in 2002 when I was 19 - I'd just started studying chemistry at university in Manchester and I saw a seat come up at Leyland, so I jumped at it. I'd always wanted to play for them because I'd seen them in concert and they made a real impression.

"To hear a band of that standard made me want to be a part of it," he continues, having been chairman since 2014. "And here I am, 20 years later. It's great to be a part of something so prestigious, especially as a local lad. There's something special about brass bands: it's a very unique sound, so it's a moving thing to hear.

Amongst some of Leyland Band's honours is the British Open Championship (credit: Goldy Solutions)

"I still get that buzz from hearing brass bands and being part of one, particularly when it comes to certain pieces of music. When it comes together on stage, it's so exciting. It's magical."

Flugelhorn player and back-to-back 'Player of the Year' with the band Ryan Broad is one of the younger members of the band at 26, but nevertheless embodies the love of brass bands which keeps this most British of traditions alive and kicking.

"I was inspired to join a band by a music teacher called John Doyle I had at Lostock Hall Academy," explains Ryan. "At about 12, I got the bug and was just gripped from the very start. What makes brass bands special is the homogenous sound created, people working towards the same thing with similar instruments gives off this energy around the room.

"Because of the nature of the instruments, it's difficult to get right every time, so it becomes almost a sport, especially when you're competing," he adds, having been with Leyland Band for 10 years. "And the social side of things is brilliant as well - there's a real sense of comradery. When you get a piece right and nail it as a group, there's nothing like it. It's euphoric.

Leyland Band musicians in action (credit: Goldy Solutions)

"After a good performance, you appreciate how all the hard work pays off," continues Ryan, who also conducts Lostock Hall Band whilst also working as a freelance musician and teacher. "The commitment is a big ask, but it's a passion. I love that we're loyal and make the area proud - plenty of players have had offers to go elsewhere, but have stayed.

"We're here to show what Preston and Leyland has to offer."

Leyland Band's repertoire is variegated and legendary, incorporating everything from classical transcriptions, show music, and great marches to movie themes, popular songs, and stunning solos. But Covid did something to the band which it had never suffered in its entire history: it prevented them from rehearsing.

In response, the band went online, producing a series of videos in which each bandmember recorded themselves playing their part from home before each contribution was stitched together to create a virtual performance. Submissions from members came from as far and wide as America and Australia.

"Covid was difficult because I don't think I've ever had that length of time away from playing," says Chris. "It was bizarre and it was hard for us as individual players because you can practice all you want at home but it's just not the same. And having nothing to aim for was tough. Coming back again and seeing people you hadn't see for 18 months was wonderful."

Ryan, who masterminded the virtual lockdown performances, agrees. "Covid was really strange," he admits. "During the first few weeks, the break was nice, but then you started to wonder if it'll ever be the same. It's been really good to be back playing with Leyland having not seen each other for so long."

The band has been able to rehearse once again since September last year (credit: Goldy Solutions)

Having been able to rehearse again since September last year, the band has since performed at Chorley Town Hall and is currently preparing for a competition performance at Blackpool Winter Gardens which could earn them a return to the Royal Albert Hall later this year - a venue they last played almost three years ago.

"We're working to improve after a few years off which have been difficult for everybody," says Tom. "It's a case of regrouping; it's like in football when a player is fit but not match fit. Playing at home is completely different in terms of stamina and physical effort, so we've been building that up again.

"Covid was difficult, so it's been great to be back. During our first concert back, we did The Royal Tiger, which was our signature tune march, and it was quite an emotional performance. I could feel it across the band. As soon as we finished, the applause from the audience... It was quite an emotional affair.

"I think the audience missed us, which was overwhelming."