An interview with Flowers Band's Luke Barker

We caught up with Luke Barker, principal cornet player of Flowers Band, ahead of the band’s performance at Morley Town Hall on Saturday 13 April 2024 as part of the Leeds Best of Brass 2023/24 series.

How long have you played with Flowers Band and what position do you currently hold?
I was invited to a Flowers Band rehearsal in May 2019 by a friend I’d met in the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain some years earlier. I enjoyed the challenge of playing at such a high level, and I joined Flowers Band in May 2019 on 4th solo cornet at the age of sixteen. The band, and conductor Paul Holland, have been very supportive of my development as a player, and I gradually progressed up the solo cornet line to the principal cornet position, to which I was appointed in 2022.

What’s the best thing about playing in a brass band?
That’s a difficult question as there are so many aspects of being part of a brass band that I enjoy. The high level of music making is definitely up there; we’re able to produce some fantastic performances in world class venues which wouldn’t be possible without playing in the band. I’ve also been fortunate to travel for international playing opportunities which wouldn’t have been possible without the connections I’ve made through banding. The other thing for me is the social aspect. As we spend a lot of time together as group we’re close and never miss the opportunity for a pint, a curry, or to celebrate a special occasion together.

What’s your highlight so far with Flowers Band?
With the amount of personal practise and rehearsal time as an ensemble we put in for contest performances, achieving a good contest result is incredibly rewarding. For me, my first British Open performance in 2019 will always stand out. This is not only because of the good result for the band, coming fifth, but because it was my first time performing at such a prestigious contest which from my earliest playing days had been described as the pinnacle of brass band competitions. On the concert stage, our appearance at The Three Choirs Festival in 2023 was a great experience. To be the first brass band to feature in concert at the event in around 40 years was really special. We performed three times at the festival, the final of which was a concert in Gloucester Cathedral to over 500 people, playing several major works. It was a heavy programme and a lot of work to prepare so much music in the band’s busy schedule, but the amazing reception definitely made it all worth it.

How did you get involved with playing a brass instrument?
I originally started learning the violin at school but was always drawn to the brass section at the back of the orchestra. Knowing this, my mum investigated the best way for me to learn and I went down to my local band fifteen minutes down the road, Shipston Town Band. There, I received an instrument, tuition, and membership of the band for free, and the rest is history, as they say.

What was your earliest musical experience?
My earliest musical banding experience was playing in the band’s own solo contest. I was eight years old, and I stood in front of the audience ready to play Victorian Ballard from the Team Brass book but before starting, I couldn’t even play a tuning note. Hopefully things have progressed since then!

Who has been your biggest influence?
This is difficult to answer as there are many people who I could talk about. Richard Marshall, Tom Hutchinson, Roger Webster, Philip McCann, Kirsty Abbotts; the list is long, and it’s impossible to name everyone whose playing I take inspiration from. Somebody I really must mention is Dave Birch, who gave me my first 30-minute lesson and continues to be a huge supporter of everything I currently do and have achieved to this date. My early days in Shipston Town Band were so crucial to my development as a player and I’ll always be thankful to the people who were patient with me, pointing, and singing rhythms for me when I was younger. In Flowers Band, I have the privilege to sit in front of Paul Richards on soprano cornet. Paul plays with such musicality and emotion and has given a lot of guidance to me. Hearing his playing week in, week out is just sensational, he really is the best in the business and is one of those people you never stop learning from.

Do you enjoy practising or find it a chore?
In short, yes. I like a challenge, and so having stretching music to play at band really motivates me to practice. I do enjoy playing in general, so I guess that makes it easier. That isn’t to say that I don’t have days when I don’t feel as motivated or get extremely frustrated with myself!

Were your parents musical?
Not at all, but they have always been extremely supportive of my banding and playing aspirations. Although neither of them can read music, they can tell a good performance at a contest, and will never be shy of offering an opinion on a performance or the progression of a contest day! My mum can often be seen selling programmes, CDs, and raffle tickets in our local concerts, so is definitely part of the extended Flowers Band family.

What piece of music do you most enjoy playing?
In general, I tend to like anything with a good melody. However, one piece that will always be special to me is Sand and Stars by Thierry Deleruyelle. As part of my languages degree I studied in Switzerland for a year and was fortunate to play on the front row with the brass band, Treize Etoiles. They commissioned Sand and Stars for the ‘Own Choice’ aspect of the Swiss Brass Band National Championship. We were lucky enough to win the contest, qualifying for the 2023 European Championship in Malmö, Sweden. The band used the piece once again for the ‘Own Choice’ part of the competition, and the reception from the audience after the performance will stay with me for a long time. It really was just fantastic to win the contest overall, being crowned European Champion.

What’s the best and worst things about performing?
I love performing to an audience, because it’s an opportunity for the band to demonstrate the hard work that we put in in the band room, and I get a huge amount of personal satisfaction when we play to our best. I love the sound of a brass band and haven’t found anything yet that can possibly compare to it. The most difficult thing has to be nerves… it can be daunting walking on to the contest stage, and it doesn’t get any easier! That said, the satisfaction at the end of a good performance makes it totally worth it.

What can the audience expect from a performance by Flowers Band?
Our programmes are really eclectic. There really is something for everyone, with brand new works, brass band classics, film music, solos and more. When we’re on stage, I think you can see that we’re really having fun with what we do, and that we thoroughly enjoy playing for our audiences. Our conductor Paul is a great compere as well. His light humour, and occasional tangents, always adds an extra layer to the music making.