Ladies of the band

Adriana Bishop caught up with the only three female assistant bandmasters [mistresses?] on the island

Brass bands have come a long way from their early beginnings as all-male ensembles and the nadir of the 1980s and 1990s when band clubs had a rather unsavoury reputation for too much booze-fuelled raucousness. Today, a quarter of the 4,000+ bandisti across 87 band clubs are women and clubs are nurturing a new generation of musicians through their own music schools with an encouraging number of girls learning to play wind and brass instruments.

Bandmasters, conductors and band club committee members remain overwhelmingly male, but three young women have been selected to rise through the ranks and are currently Malta’s only female assistant bandmasters, with two of them even performing conducting duties.

Brass bands are so ingrained in our festa culture that we would be forgiven for thinking they have been around “forever”. Research carried out by music historian Anna Borg Cardona shows that 17th-century religious processions in Mdina were already featuring musicians playing small keyboard instruments known as spinetta or regaletto. The procession of the Immaculate Conception in Valletta of 1796 included musicians playing drums, pipes, horns and flutes not dissimilar to today’s bands. A caricature of the procession of St Lawrence in Vittoriosa from that same period depicts musicians wearing a uniform.

Of course, they were all male, as women then performed music only in the privacy of their homes. Militia regiments in several towns had their own drums and fife bands. These musicians were given a soldier’s pay and additional bonus for performances during carnival and religious processions.

According to Dr Borg Cardona, by 1800, the Civil Commissioner of Malta, Alexander Ball, already had at San Anton one of the earliest established wind and brass bands on the islands. Band clubs started formally taking shape in the middle of the 19th century with St Joseph Club, De Rohan Band and St Philip Band Club AD1851 of Zebbug all claiming to be “the first and oldest” in Malta.

Band clubs today remain steeped in tradition and stereotypes are hard to break. So much so that when Jessica Ellul was asked to step in unexpectedly to take over from the bandmaster at a concert during Holy Week, there were a few raised eyebrows from her fellow band players, with some asking her incredulously: “Are you going to conduct us?”

It was a turning point for Jessica. Still only 24 years old at the time, she already had a master’s degree in music under her belt. While she had no conducting experience, her musical qualifications were beyond question. This was her first experience taking the baton. “I thought I was going to die [with nerves],” she confessed. Today, Jessica is assistant bandmaster of three bands, Sagra Familja in Kalkara, San Giljan AD1927 and San Leonardo AD1858 in Kirkop.

Jessica started playing the clarinet at the age of seven with St Joseph Band in Ghaxaq. She would continue her musical education with the School of Music and studied for a music diploma while reading a business and computing degree at university. It was, in fact, during her second year at university that she was appointed assistant bandmaster of the Kalkara band.

Today, she juggles a full-time job at Pantalesco Group with rehearsals and performances with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra as well as duties with her three band clubs. “You have to create opportunities yourself in order to work full time in music,” remarks Jessica. “Sometimes, I have to take leave in order to play with the orchestra.”

That first time on the conductor’s podium, Jessica felt the band players looking down on her, but not for long. “They are getting used to having a woman conducting them,” she notes. Her age is another matter. “Most bandisti are amateurs; not many are professional musicians, so they do not understand that I am a professional musician and do not accept that such a young person can conduct someone like them who is much older; someone who is not academically trained as a musician, but has a lot of experience playing in bands. Now, they are accepting me even when I correct them. Last December, I conducted a full concert on my own because the bandmaster was studying abroad.”

Bands are currently facing a crisis as the older generation starts retiring and not enough younger musicians taking their place due to lack of investment in music students a decade ago. “We have an active call for people to join the band. At the moment, we are experiencing the consequences of the lack of music students 10 years ago. Now, we don’t have enough local band players, so we have to pay for musicians from other localities to play and this has led to some bands facing difficult financial situations. At the moment, there is a huge lack of musicians and prices are going up. Some bands have to bid for musicians to play with them, with fees ranging between €50 and €100 per hour,” explains Jessica.

But the future is looking hopeful. She is actively involved in teaching the next generation of musicians and she is proud to point out that three-quarters of her students are girls. “Somehow, girls are better than boys; they are much brighter. Three-quarters of the clarinet section in the three bands I am involved in are girls. We are attracting new students because we are teaching in a professional way,” she says, adding proudly that two of her band club students have made it into the Malta Visual and Performing Arts School to specialise in music.

This is no mean feat considering that the school only accepts 40 students per year, 10 for each sector. Girls also seem to be more committed to sit for music exams. The majority of band clubs offer music lessons for free.

“At the moment there is a good new generation of musicians coming up, but we are still missing a lot, especially in the brass section,” says Jessica. And it seems that gender stereotypes are hard to break with brass and percussion sections still being largely male dominated.

Jessica’s goal with her students is to foster a new generation of proper musicians, thus raising performance standards across the band. “They need a good two or three years of studying before they are ready to go out on band marches, but now, I am trying to ensure that they continue studying. I don’t just want a bandist tal-marc but proper musicians. I want them to be able to play any type of music. We are investing in musicians rather than bandsmen. Everyone can be a bandsman, but not everyone can be a musician.”

And speaking of those famous festa marches that punctuate Maltese summers, I ask Jessica about her experiences on the festooned streets. “I don’t do marches anymore. I don’t like them,” she admits. “There is such a dearth of band players that it is always the same group of people who are going round the same bands. They are so frustrated having to play the same music all summer long that they just play by rote, without feeling. So, I restrict myself to concerts. When I was younger, I used to do many marches; even three in one day – morning, afternoon and evening. I didn’t really like it. The conditions are not so good. The morning march can last up to four hours and it is not healthy in that sun. There is a lot of wasted time and we would spend three hours walking around the village for nothing, then the final hour is good. I prefer doing short performances of just two hours.”

However, morning marches are a lucrative business for band players as they pay double. “The morning march can easily cost the band club €3,000, so it’s a huge financial burden on the club,” she adds.

Jessica is also not so keen on the masculine uniforms with their classic ties and military-style peaked hats, criticising the outfits as not catering for women. “The uniforms are not adapted to women. They haven’t caught up yet. It is only recently that they have started allowing women to wear a black dress for concerts while the men wear the band uniform.”

Changes are also happening at committee level where there are now a few female presidents. “Socially, they are changing for the better,” comments Jessica. “The problem is that they are being run by people who are not musical. That is the biggest hurdle we have to overcome because decisions [about music] depend on people who are not musical. In the big feasts, priority is given to fireworks, then the decorations, then the discos, and lastly the music; that is what makes band clubs less important. That is a problem for someone like me who wants to run a band in a professional manner.”

As assistant bandmaster and teacher, 28-year-old Jessica already has her hands full and she feels she is not yet ready to be a full-time conductor. “I don’t feel mature enough to hold that position. I am still learning and taking master classes. I prefer teaching and playing. I am a performer not a conductor. If I were to be offered that role in the future, I would consider it, but only for one band, not three!”

However, she knows exactly how she would change things if that baton had to be handed to her on a permanent basis. “There is such a lack of quality in the bands that so few of them play any classical music. The concerts are mostly pop songs. We are lacking balance. Many people argue that the audience wants this type of music. I insist this is not the case. It is only so because we are not cultured. It depends on what you give the audience. I would want to go for something more innovative and not too serious. Some people do not leave the village and think they are the best and we cannot do any better. They are not musically educated and involved. Changing the mentality is the biggest problem.”

Change and innovation is exactly what Christine Dimech spearheaded with the [relatively young] Ghaqda Muzikali Marija Bambina Banda Vittorja of Naxxar, which she joined in 1990 just one year after the band was formed. Now aged 36, Christine was barely 20 years old when the committee entrusted her with conducting duties.

“I am very lucky that the band club I work with trusts me a lot, so it was never a big deal to be appointed assistant conductor at such a young age. At that time, I was ambitious, but I didn’t see the potential problems. The club mentality was avant-garde. They give me carte blanche and I can go ahead and work. I always felt respected,” says Christine.

As a saxophonist, she is used to facing stereotypes. “My musical instrument is associated with men rather than women. When I wanted to further my music studies, the only saxophone teacher in Malta at the time refused to teach me because I am a woman.” But she was undeterred and, today, having pursued saxophone studies at a conservatoire in Paris, she is the only woman to play with the Big Band Brothers and only one of three saxophone teachers on the island.

Christine has a pointed message to all aspiring musicians, whether they are girls or boys. “No instrument has a gender. All instruments are unisex. If you want to play the tuba, percussion or flute, just go for it. Take up the instrument you like. We have women who play the trombone, trumpets, French horn. Enjoy playing music. If you really love it just keep going.

“People will question how much money you can make from music. Music is not a hobby. It can be a career. You can be a teacher, event organiser, or a freelance musician for example. You just need to have entrepreneurial skills. Local band clubs are a great start, which can open up opportunities. They are like a family. Most of the members will be your neighbours. Don’t be afraid of band clubs. Today’s parents are the generation that saw band clubs at their worst in the 1980s and 1990s when they were not safe environments for women to be in. That stigma still exists. A woman in a band club? No! But actually, it is not like that anymore,” she insists.

Christine, who helped set up Malta’s only band club school of music that has a teacher for every different instrument, explains how the government is investing in band clubs so they can set up music schools and organise music workshops. “Last year, we had six teachers from abroad who came to Malta to conduct workshops. People are trying to emulate what happened in Spain, where band clubs got organised and a conservatoire was set up. In Malta, we have a School of Music, but that is not enough. There is a lot of potential and we can easily fulfil that if we all get together as an area not just one village on its own,” she says.

On Christine’s insistence, the Vittorja band club’s music school is not free, but students must pay a small donation as a sign of their commitment. “The students are tomorrow’s band. At the moment, we have a good mix of boys and girls, around 50/50. However, we face the problem that parents are still hesitant to bring their children to band clubs.”

She was also instrumental in setting up a youth band, which she conducts and leads, organising an annual show with a crop of musicians aged between eight and 20 years old, most of whom are girls. This year’s performance of Talent Zaghzugh was held in November and featured the theme Vive la France.

“The concert had a mix of music styles, which is a perfect learning experience for the young musicians. This is something I’d like parents to understand: band clubs are a good source of music learning. Students can get performance experience in concerts and meet a variety of people. We are working to get that message across,” explains Christine.

The most recent addition to this small ‘club’ of female assistant bandmasters is 20-year-old Nicole Spiteri, who took on the role only last May at the Stella Maris AD1914 band in Sliema. Currently reading a BA [Hons] in music and psychology, Nicole juggles her university studies with documenting, archiving and teaching duties at the band club and playing the flute with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I was very flattered and surprised to be appointed assistant bandmaster. I did not expect it,” she says with a smile.

Nicole too has experienced the stigma surrounding band clubs, but she insists she has never felt intimidated. “It is a very male environment. People stare at me because I am a girl, but I still go into the club; I try to integrate,” she says. However, she does draw the line at that infamous Sunday morning festa march. “I have never done the marc ta’ filghodu and I will never do that. I don’t want to go out with beer splashing around me. I don’t want the beer on my instrument or in my hair. I am just afraid of the morning march. It is too much for me,” admits Nicole.

Originally trained as a pianist, she joined the band at the age of 14 where she learnt to play the flute. Today, when she tells her orchestra colleagues that she plays with a band club, she is met with raised eyebrows “because of the quality” [or assumed lack thereof] of the bands.

“Bands are not as professional as an orchestra. They play as if they are a group of soloists. That is part of their timbre. But orchestras play as a whole, and you learn to blend yourself. However, when I joined the orchestra, I found that my experience with the band had helped me, especially when it came to sight-reading music,” she says.

While it’s still early days for Nicole, she already has some clear ideas of the kind of changes she would like to see. “I would prepare a less difficult, simpler repertoire and make it more fun. I would focus on more quality of sound and would dedicate rehearsals to honing a better sound quality. Everyone can achieve quality with patience and the right mindset. I would decrease the number of musicians by half. If there are less people, it would be easier for them to play in tune.”

Nicole expresses her concern about the future of brass bands in general as she too is aware of the dearth of musicians. “I don’t want bands to die. Some people say that in 10 years’ time, the festa will end. People are demanding more money for services related to the festa, but villagers are donating less towards it. The festa is losing its popularity because religion is losing its popularity. It is also difficult to recruit new band players. Flute is becoming more popular, but it is still difficult to find flautists to play in bands.

“I really want to encourage parents to send their children to learn a musical instrument at the band clubs. It is free of charge and they will learn with a qualified teacher,” she says, reiterating what Christine and Jessica said about the friendly environment within the clubs. “There is nothing to be afraid of. There are many women in the bands now.”

Christine enjoys feasts. “They are a casual event, tiring sometimes, but fun. They are part of our identity and if we don’t nourish and sustain them, we will lose them like we’re losing our architecture and language. It is a fundamental part of being Maltese. We should hold on tight to our core traditions.”

Jessica Ellul has just finished recording her first album with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which will be launched on December12. Mewga features works for solo clarinet and orchestra by Maltese composers Charles Camilleri, Ronnie Debattista, Freddie Mizzi, Ray Sciberras, Joseph Vella and Etienne Spiteri. The project is supported by Arts Council Malta.

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