UNKNOWINGLY HEROES - CHRIS GOMERSALL
Updated: Jun 4, 2020
The second in this series of interviews is with a player I've only relatively recently had the joy of getting to know. Chris Gomersall, affectionately known as 'Swampy', is a trombone player that I grown to have complete and utter respect for. A couple of years ago I remember watching a Facebook video clip of Swampy soloing with Grimethorpe Band at the Brass in Concert Championships, held at The Sage in Gateshead. After listening, I responded immediately by typing a comment along the lines of "this chap is the best thing that has happened to brass band trombone playing in decades. Listen and learn." I still stand by that remark.
For those of you wanting to hear what I'm talking about, follow this Facebook video link https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=938029906262901
I've got to know Swampy and his playing much better recently as he's been part of our trombone section at Desford Band for a couple of years. To be in the enviable position of having Swampy and Tom Challinor (Principal Trombone with the British Army Brass Band) and Geraint Griffiths on bass trombone making up our trombone roster? Well,... beat that!
NH: Am I right in thinking you come from a Salvation Army background? Is this where it all started?
CG: My Mum’s side of the family is Salvationist, but my Dad’s side definitely not! On my maternal side my Mum was a music teacher who played euphonium and piano, Grandad was a music teacher who played trumpet, cornet and piano and my Gran played piano and trombone in the Army band. On my paternal side my Dad played trombone and although he’d stopped well before I was born, my Grandad played in contesting bands too. I was surrounded with brass bands from an early age.
I started in the YP band at Jarrow when I was 7 years old but I was contesting from the age of 9 so really it was a mix of both worlds. From a young age my Dad encouraged me to listen to as many different styles of music as possible. The earliest things I can remember watching are VHS tapes of ‘Best of Brass’ and ‘Granada Band of The Year’– to the point where I could still tell you what bands played what pieces, who was playing in certain bands, who were the soloists and who conducted. Which I suppose is incredibly sad and pretty much useless information!
At that time my favourite bands were Desford and Fodens conducted by Howard Snell, so I think my tastes were formed quite early, sat on a bean bag as a toddler watching the TV in my Grandparents house, while my parents were at work.
NH: Didn’t you leave the ranks of the SA to join an impermissible ‘outside' band?
CG: My Mum was the bandmaster at Jarrow Corps so she turned a bit of a blind eye when I started contesting, helped along by the fact my Dad was conducting the band I was contesting with!! The rules changed pretty much after I started contesting from what I remember, so that wasn’t an issue for too long.
I played for Westoe Colliery till I was 12, in the 3rd and 4th sections. Then after a brief stint in a first section band I joined what was the Newcastle Brown Ale Band in the Championship Section, on solo trombone having just turned 13. I played my first top section area in 1998 with Peter Graham's ‘Montage’, which seems a frighteningly long time ago now! I stayed with Newcastle Brown Ale Band till I was 16 or 17 and kept my association with the Salvation Army due to family ties and the social aspect. In truth I think it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me if I was to say I wasn’t particularly good at being a Salvationist, it wasn’t really for me!
Being at Brown Ale was great and it’s lovely to see so many of the same people still there, and the band doing so well right now.
NH: Tell us a little about where life took you after your venture into northern banding ended.
CG: When I was 11 I passed my audition for the National Youth Brass Band and was accepted onto my first course in Easter ’97, aged 12. Major Peter Parkes was the Guest Conductor and playing pieces like ‘Paganini Variations’, ‘Diversions on a Bass Theme’ and ‘Le Roi Dy’s’ was a massive leap up from what I’d been used to. I really enjoyed it and there are people who I met on that course I’m still friends with today, and still play with today, which is nice. I spent five years in the band, completing 10 courses, including a couple on Principal Trombone. However, it was the conductors, the music and the players around me that really opened my eyes and ears. Roy Newsome was Musical Director when I started and guest conductors were Major Peter Parkes, Elgar Howarth (who followed Roy as Musical Director), David King, Jim Watson, Jim Gourlay and Sian Edwards.
Aside from brass band test pieces like ‘Paganini Variations’, ‘Connotations’, 'New Jerusalem’ and ‘Lowry Sketchbook’ there were transcriptions of ‘The Planets’, ‘Enigma Variations’, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, ‘Les Preludes’, ‘Gottadamerung’, ‘The Firebird’ and original compositions by Michael Tippet, Robin Holloway and Byron Wallen. It was such an interesting and exciting time to be in the band.
In terms of players in the band, and being influenced by what was around me, by the summer course of my second year in the band (you were guest soloist!) the section I was sat in consisted of; Ed Jones, Becky Smith, Simon Powell, Neil Gallie and Andy King (tenors) with Garrath Beckwith and Steve Lomas on bass trombone. When you look at what those young players went on to achieve, it is really quite incredible!
I entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year a few times and eventually got to the brass final in 2003/4, and I won a trombone competition Warwick Music sponsored at Repton School in 2001. One of the judges that day was Andy Berryman, who was then Principal Trombone of the Hallé Orchestra and became my teacher during my 6th form years. Andy was my first ‘proper’ teacher, aside from my Dad, and listening to as much music as possible.
During my time with Andy he mentioned that the Hallé were starting up a youth orchestra, and it might be a good idea for me to try and have at least some experience of playing in an orchestra before I went to college. So, I auditioned and played Principal Trombone for a year – which was only made possible by my Dad being mad enough to spend his Sunday’s driving from Tyneside to Manchester and back!
NH: You know I like to hear your stories from your time at the Academy, and I know you developed a strong bond with James Watson and Denis Wick. What impact did they have on you personally, and what kind of approach did they have with their tuition.
CG: I should start really by saying I was far from the perfect student! Despite two attempts, I never actually finished my degree, so Jim’s patience in particular I probably tested more than most! Jim was brilliant, the brass department was probably busier than any other in terms of departmental concerts, and memories of them will always stay with me. He was hard, could be intimidating and he certainly knew how to put you in your place (sometimes it only took a look of utter disgust), but he was also incredibly supportive, which is why so many students – including myself - loved the man.
The atmosphere was incredibly competitive but when I look back, there was a brilliant social side to the brass department too, and that really came from him. He was such an inspirational and charismatic personality, and on a personal level he was absolutely fantastic with me. I think he pretty much tried everything to keep me hanging in there. Jim was a force of nature and to hear him play? His personality was so evident in his trumpet playing, just a giant of a man in every respect.
Denis became my teacher when I went back for a second go, and made me enjoy playing again. I was massively frustrated (I still am) because my sound in the middle and lower registers varied from average to frighteningly poor, it was obviously an issue. Rather than starting from scratch to try and fix the problem, I remember him giving me the Maxted Alto Clef studies, the idea being to strengthen what you’re good at, and we’ll fix the rest as we go along. I think the biggest thing Denis taught me was how to analyse and solve problems, without causing irreversible damage and as a result, the whole (never ending) process became something I started to enjoy, rather than feel like I was head-butting a wall.
Denis also worked out that, on the whole, I really wasn’t happy at the Academy and more than anyone else became someone I could talk to about it. I only stuck around as long as I did because of the hour, every Wednesday afternoon, with him. He has the amazing ability to tell you stories for what feels like an entire lesson, yet you still come out of the session and whatever issue you had with your playing had disappeared!
Bob Hughes was also a very encouraging, supportive and motivating figure. Although I only had one ‘one to one' lesson with him. Bob directed the trombone choir and I thoroughly enjoyed that, quite possibly because he let me play a lot of high stuff! He was brilliant with everybody in the trombone department, and with me in particular. Bob is a real gentleman, and a fabulous musician.
I had a really strange relationship with the Academy. In hindsight I definitely wasn’t mature enough to cope with the music college environment, or the bright lights of London. Although I was pretty disciplined with regards to practice. Aside from that, music wasn’t the 'be all and end all' before I went there and consequently I found that switch really difficult. Obviously I tried twice and didn’t finish, so something wasn’t right!
Although I was far from a perfect student, looking back I know I didn’t do anything that could be seen as really bad; I didn’t upset anybody to my knowledge and I certainly wasn’t the only person who had ever missed academic lectures, and I was far from failing the academic work. I don’t know…it was just a bad fit for me. I have often thought “what if I’d done something else”, at University first, then studied music, or if I had gone to a different college…. but all the things I did take from the Academy are a major part of why I’m doing what I do today, so despite the odd frustration with myself for not making the absolute most of it, how things have eventually turned out….. I can’t have too many regrets.
NH: You have a busy freelance schedule working with the BBC Philharmonic, RLPO, Flat Cap Brass, Desford Band, Austonley Brass….. the list is endless. If a full time orchestral position became available either in the UK or overseas, would you be tempted? Or are you content with popping in and out as and when needed.
CG: A full time orchestra position is still the aim I suppose. I might have to get better at auditioning for that to happen! I can honestly say I’m happy doing what playing I do now and working with the people I get to work with. Although, like many other people in my position, I’d like to do more of it! I consider myself lucky, in the last 4 years of really getting back into playing I’ve had experiences that I’d probably resigned myself were never going to happen. So yeah, very lucky.
Overseas? I’m not sure. As I’ve got older the all encompassing dream of getting an orchestral position has moved into second place, behind being happy in life, so maybe not? This is probably the most thought I’ve given to moving abroad to be honest! I need to make more of an effort in putting myself 'out there’ with regards to sending CV’s out with regards to freelancing. It’s something I feel really uncomfortable with - I’ll have to bite the bullet and do it sometime I suppose.
On a slight side note, the trombone players I have most regularly played with over the last few years; Richard Brown (Principal at the BBC Philharmonic), I played in a section at Grimethorpe Band with Geraint Griffiths (now bass trombone at Desford). Geraint played in a section at YBS with Simon Cowen (Principal Trombone at the RLPO) and currently with you at Desford, and previously with you at Faireys. You played in a section at Fodens with Simon Chappell (bass trombone with the RLPO) and with Garrath Beckwith (Austonley Brass and Flat Cap Brass), currently in Austonley and previously at Faireys. Garrath played in a section at Grimey with Garry McPhee (second trombone at the BBC Phil) and at YBS with Simon Cowen and Simon Powell (second trombone at the RLPO). Lastly you and I play together at Desford and Austonley Brass - it’s a bit of a tangled web!
NH: I first heard of your playing a considerable number of years ago, when Andrew Justice and I recorded a duet composed for you and Dudley Bright. Andrew told me you were 13 when that duet was written? I remember thinking “Grief, he must be good if he can play this at 13!” How did you get involved with Dudley, was this through college or initially through your SA roots? And what was the background to the composition?
CG: I was 15 when we played that duet, but you did hear me when I was 13 though - you were guest soloist with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and judged the solo contest where I rather ambitiously tried to play Defaye’s ‘Deux Danse’!
It was through the Salvation Army, it was commissioned for the Salvation Army’s ‘Millennium Congress’ at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m not sure how or why it came about though.
The first time I met Dudley was when we had a quick rehearsal, just the two of us. Dudley couldn’t have been more supportive and I can honestly say that’s the most calm, and least stressed I’ve ever been, regardless of the occasion and venue, and that’s completely down to him. Dudley played Peter Graham’s ‘The Guardian’ as a solo too, and that was really inspiring. Playing the duet with him was the first time I’d been ‘up close’ to a trombone sound like that. It definitely changed how I wanted to sound.
The Salvation Army presented a massed trombone bonanza at the Royal Albert Hall two years later, and the way Dudley was with me that day made my mind up about wanting to go to the Academy and study with him. Dudley was a great teacher too - pretty much all of the basics I think about when I play come from him, using the Lafosse Book 3, as the core of my practice, comes from him and his sound will always be my aim.
NH: Where did life take you after your college years. Did you move back up North for the trombone position with Grimethorpe?
CG: No, I moved back up North because I had no money, and no chance of making enough money to stay in London! I did an audition/interview to go and do the last two years of my degree at the Royal College, but from what I can remember there was a bit of an admin issue and I didn’t receive the letter informing me I had a place, so when term started - I wasn’t there! I had to explain that I was already in the North East with no way of financially being able to manage it. I did a bit of teaching at Newcastle University and helped out the Hammonds Band at a couple of contests, then having been back in the North about 8 or 9 months I joined Brighouse and Rastrick Band in May 2009.
David King had just been appointed Musical Director at Brighouse and I stayed there for two and a half years, winning two Yorkshire Areas titles and two National Championships. I was good friends with David’s son Andrew when I was in the National Youth Brass Band and quite regularly stayed at his house as a teenager, so the chance to work with him was great. I’d deputised at a couple of contests with Grimethorpe and Leyland while I’d been in London, but this was my first experience of full time 'top' banding and it got me playing to a proper level again.
I joined Grimethorpe Band in October 2011, and that was very different. Less contest focused but off the top of my head I think we had 16 weekend overnight stays in my first year, and 40 to 50 concerts a year. I played a solo at the vast majority of the concerts and that was quite a culture shock, doing something I hadn’t done for a while! A lot of my closest friends were in the band during that time, which meant socially it could be a bit of a riot at times! It sort of became all encompassing though (banding politics is something else) and towards the end I became really frustrated at how the same mistakes could be repeated, with the expectation of a different end result.
Another thing, if I’m being honest, is that despite the fact I’ve done the same things in my personal practice since I was 18, I found the twice a week rehearsals, rehearsing the same things over and over again and playing the same music week in week out, to be mind numbingly boring. You’ve sat next to me now and even with Desford’s condensed and much shorter rehearsal schedule I find rehearsing test pieces to be equally as dull! On the whole though I enjoyed it; the band toured Australia, recorded a few CD’s where I recorded solos, won the British Open Championship and Brass in Concert Championship, and got to play with some really great players - who I learned a lot from. Listening to Roger Webster week in and week out was as educational as it was enjoyable. Everything so well nuanced, so thought-out and so classy, that really made me think about things in my own playing.
Grimethorpe needed a second trombone player for the Yorkshire Area Contest in 2016, so I quite cheekily asked Simon Cowen (Principal trombone at Royal Liverpool Philharmonic). He said yes, which was a really pleasant surprise! I hadn’t done any playing outside brass banding for 6 or 7 years and had pretty much decided 'that was that' for orchestral playing. Simon gave me a gentle nudge and a confidence boost that I should do an ‘extras' audition for the trombone section at the RLPO, and really everything started from there. I owe Simon a massive thank you!!
NH: You started playing in brass bands at a very young age, and have now come back to banding a number of years later, having built an enviable reputation as a freelancer in the orchestral world. How do you think brass band trombone playing is regarded amongst the more classically trained player nowadays. Do you think the brass band style of trombone playing has changed?
CG: Honestly, I’m not sure there is an opinion on brass band trombone playing from outside the movement? From my earliest memories of watching the 'Best of Brass' and 'Granada Band of The Year' videos I remember Martin Wilson at Whitburn, yourself at Fodens, Paul Filby at GUS, Stan Priestly at Grimethorpe and Chris Jeans at Desford. Solo playing was lyrical with differing styles of vibrato, but band playing was straight and not at all stereotype 'brass bandy'. As I got a bit older and started going to watch the major contests in the 90’s and early 00’s the players that really made an impression on me were yourself, Simon Cowen, Simon Johnson, Mark Boyd, Jon Pippen, Jonathon Beattie, John Barber and Rupert Trippet - the sound world and approach of all these players was very symphonic because they had all been music college trained. I vividly remember Byron Fulcher guesting with Foden's in the late 90’s, sat there thinking “**** me, I want to sound like that!!”.
I did tap into the vast experience and wisdom of the trombone legend that is Jimmy Kitchen on this, and he said that from the early 80’s, both sides were pretty much using the same equipment and being taught by the same people and, aside from the function of the instrument being very different in the different scenarios, on the whole there wasn’t much difference.
So, in my lifetime the stereotype brass band style of playing really hasn’t existed at the top end of banding, although there are a few obvious exceptions to this!
NH: I know you have a very high regard for Ian Bousfield and have benefitted from his tuition at college. You play very much in the same way. Is he your ‘ideal’ trombonist?
CG: Yeah he is, it’s very much like the Roger Webster thing, when you hear him up close, regularly…he has a touch that just draws you in. To have that range, technique, sound, power, showmanship…… and still the thing that gets you most is the delicacy, subtlety and musical thought of everything he does. I think it’s just astounding. We may have clashed on a couple of occasions but he was amazing for me as a teacher. Ian understood I may have found the combination of the Academy and London a bit too much, and he was really good with me about it. I’ve been very fortunate with the teachers I’ve had; Andy Berryman, Dudley Bright, Denis Wick and Ian, each one has had a huge influence over every aspect of playing the trombone, and musicality in general. But my 'go to' place for how I would like to play will always be Ian.
NH: Onto the compulsory trombone geekery question; I know you’re a lover of the old Elkhart Conn trombones, and even have a shed full of Elkhart slides and parts! Does this mean you don’t think anything currently on the market is better? What do you like about them….
CG: It’s almost definitely a mental thing, but nothing else quite feels the same, even in terms of how they are to hold. It’s the response and sound they make more than anything else, and even though they can be quite different they still have the same feel. My better half has an Elkhart 88h and it blows quite differently to mine (I prefer it actually!) but the end result is very similar. I can chop and change bits and it all feels very comfortable. If I try that with new model Conns it’s simply not the same.
I recently acquired a straight model of the Courtois, which is based on the Conn 8h, and that’s very nice. In fact, I’m using the Courtois slide with my Conn Elkhart bell, so I’m broadening my horizons a bit. I’ve got a closed wrap Yamaha Xeno which I like and I’m spending time getting acclimatised to it, slowly. I used it sat next to you not long back and you said there wasn’t much difference in sound at all apart from getting a bit zingy when playing loud, but that’s me rather than the instrument I think! I find the larger width Bach style hand slides really uncomfortable, which limits me a bit, but if I had the money I’d definitely look at Rath and Shires to see if I could find something that felt right. For now I’ll persevere with what I know and try and get used to the Yamaha.