With Brass and Health the focus of this year’s Durham BRASS festival, David Whetstone talks to Rachel Wolffsohn and Michael Bonshor, speakers at this weekend’s Healthy Brass Day.

HEALTH is the theme of this year’s Durham BRASS festival, now in full swing, and a Healthy Brass Day on Saturday will shine a spotlight on some musical matters that merit wider attention. Sessions relating to the physical and mental aspects of brass playing, and music making in general, will take place throughout the day at Elvet Riverside Building, Durham.

Rachel Wolffsohn will talk about the OHMI Trust, which pioneers the development and adaptation of musical instruments for use by physically disabled people. Those initials stand for One-Handed Musical Instrument but you won’t find that on the website.

The Birmingham-based charity, which says its name should be pronounced “oh-me”, doesn’t want to deter people who might feel “one-handed” doesn’t describe their needs. It was set up in 2011 by Dr Stephen Hetherington, a one-time orchestral musician who was alerted to the lack of instruments for disabled musicians by his daughter who is hemiplegic (a condition affecting movement on one side of the body).

Rachel’s son, who is 16, has a similar condition after suffering a stroke when he was just two-and-a-half.

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“That’s how I met Stephen,” says the former music teacher. “He was looking for a general manager and this really bought my personal and professional skills together.”

The Trust holds regular competitions to encourage innovation in instrument making or adaptation. Recent winners include a one-handed 3D-printed recorder and a mount enabling a trombone to be played with one hand.

In some cases it also helps to meet the cost of extended music lessons if a child needs more time to prepare or for equipment to be set up.

“We work where there’s a need,” says Rachel. “We’re not aware of any other organisation doing this work so we get inquiries from all over the place. People also hire instruments from us as a way of trying things without committing to the cost.”

In the early days, says Rachel, most inquiries came from musicians who couldn’t play any more owing to some misfortune and were desperate to get back into it for social or professional reasons.

“But as time’s gone on we’ve been looking at children who, because they were born a certain way or something happened early in life, have never started to learn.

“There are all sorts of reasons why that might be. A lot of families rule out music because they think it’s not feasible – and there aren’t the role models that there are in sport.”

Rachel says many people know about Dame Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist who is profoundly deaf, and Felix Klieser, the German who plays French horn brilliantly with his toes.

But there are no Paralympics in music. The OHMI Trust believes that, given the right tools, a disabled musician can be anyone’s equal.

Rachel tells of two American girls who play cello with their feet. They joined their county orchestra after a blind audition, where they were heard but not seen.

Giving disabled musicians the ability to perform to the best of their ability and to the highest standard is the OHMI Trust goal.

Rachel says: “Kids are kids. They’ll take things up only to drop them, or they won’t practice. But the rule we have for our competitions is that the instrument must never be the reason they might fail.”

Clearly there’s work still to be done, though. When OHMI Trust asked the country’s 121 music education hubs about provision for disabled children, about 50 per cent replied and between them could identify only 17 children they had dealings with.

“They started talking about special schools,” says Rachel. “But 90 per cent of children in England with a physical disability are in mainstream schools. There are 30,751 of them.”

Are they, for whatever reason, missing out on a music education?

The OHMI Trust, as you will hear, is working hard to ensure they do not.

ALSO speaking at the event will be Dr Michael Bonshor, a music psychologist at the University of Sheffield and co-author, with colleague Dr Vicky Williamson, of a new study called Wellbeing in Brass Bands: The Benefits and Challenges of Group Music Making.

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Michael says a lot of research has been done into the physical and psychological benefits of singing in a choir which are now pretty well understood.

“In a choir you breathe more deeply because you’re having to sing long phrases in a coordinated way with other people.

“Your breathing slows and that lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.

“Singing can feel more like physical training than an art form but when you’re singing in a group you can benefit from a release of dopamine, a reward hormone.

“Also, your level of cortisol, the stress hormone, will go down. It’s a win win.”

According to Michael, singing in a choir can also release “bonding hormones” such as oxytocin and beta-endorphins. “Normally these come with having sex or being intimate. They give a feeling of belonging.”

But what of the brass band world? Brass players will be excited to learn that the new study was to see if the benefits enjoyed by singers also apply to band members.

First an online survey distributed by Brass Bands England asked band members to explain how brass banding affected their life physically, psychologically, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

There were 346 responses. “People were very generous,” says Michael. “They wrote us mini-essays and spoke of good stuff and, though not so much, bad stuff.

“In the psychological category the main negative was performance anxiety, although it wasn’t reported as a disabling problem,” says Michael.

“Most people said they get nervous before a performance or competition but they’d often then say, ‘OK, but through doing competitions I’ve learned that I can get over being anxious and that helps in other parts of my life’.”

Michael says benefits were reported in all five areas and tended to impact on each other.

“Massive social benefits – teamwork, a sense of belonging and community support – will have a positive psychological impact. Physical benefits, such as heart rate and muscle tone, will also make you feel better psychologically.”

Psychology is now an accepted part of our sporting culture but Michael suggests it is less so in entertainment, with music psychology a relative newcomer in the field.

“You don’t necessarily need a psychologist attached to every brass band but I think it’s useful for people to understand more about things like performance anxiety,” says Michael.

“I think it’s also useful for people to know how to maximise the benefits of playing.”

Survey respondents told how brass band membership had increased their confidence and provided a means of escape.

One wrote: “One has to concentrate on the music and in doing so abandon, if only for short periods, the everyday worries and concerns that we all experience.”

Michael says his main message, following publication of the report, would focus on the benefits of brass banding. “I think that must be a powerful tool in recruitment, advocacy, lobbying and fund-raising.”

Healthy Brass Day, featuring a series of workshops and discussions, runs from 10am to 5pm on Saturday, July 20 and tickets are free. Find details of this and more at www.brassfestival.co.uk