• And the band played on.

    From left - Isaac Scicluna and Alexander Vella (Photo - Fiona Vella)Zejtun Band Club during its Annual Musical Program of 2013

    Isaac Scicluna playing for the first time with Zejtun Band ClubFrom left - Jane and Alexander  Vella donating the banderoles to Zejtun Band Club

    The crowds were cheering and clapping as the statue of their patron saint was brought out from the parish church in all its glory. Huge colourful flags that were adorning the roof tops of houses and band clubs rippled in the brilliant blue sky as the playful wind swooshed them around. Vibrant street decorations intensified the joyful feeling of the feast that was being celebrated. Yet certainly, this festive atmosphere would have been much more different were it not merrily animated by the effervescent music of the village band.

    It was during a surreal moment like this, back in November 1973, when Alexander Vella, together with his younger brother Raymond and their group of friends, decided that they wanted to play a more significant part in this spectacle, by joining Żejtun Band Club. Alexander, who was fifteen years at the time, remembers that his father was very pleased about this, since he had been forming part of this Society for quite some years. However, he was out rightly clear with his sons that if they wanted to succeed in this venture, they had to take things seriously by studying very hard.

    It was not difficult to be accepted within Żejtun Band Club since the primary aim of this Society which was founded in 1933, had always been that of giving an opportunity to anyone who wanted to learn to play brass or woodwind instruments. In fact, students were given free music lessons by professional teachers and maestros, and once they passed the theoretical sphere, they were even lent an instrument to play with. Eventually, the Society trusted that this standpoint would serve to gain new valid members which would enhance the reputation of its band.

    Certainly, from the very first lesson, Vella realized that this was not going to be an easy task. “You had to be really determined that you wanted to become a bandsman in order to stay because instead of the instrument that you thought that you were going to play, you found yourself confronted with a set of written musical notes which you had to learn by heart.”

    “I had never learnt music before and though my dad could teach me, he refused to do so, as he insisted that I should pay attention to what my teacher was telling me during the lessons. Indeed, after I failed to understand something during class, I only tried my luck two times with my father but on both occasions he reproached me and warned me not to waste my teacher’s time. After that, I never dared to ask him for any help again. ”

    Nonetheless the same disciplinary attitude was also present during class. “Our teacher, Edgar Lowell, was a great maestro but he was very strict. He expected students to attend regularly to music lessons and to be attentive. I recall clearly that during our first lesson, he held out his open hand in front of us and whilst he started to point out at it, he told us that God had given us five fingers with four spaces between each of them, so that we could be reminded that there were nine basic notes to remember.”

    “From then on, we were expected to strive hard on our own and to persevere to learn without asking for too much help. We had to learn to use our instinct and our ears in order to understand the correct music sounds and rhythms. One mistake during a lesson would have been enough for our teacher to send us back home to study properly until we learnt to keep up with the rest of the group. Praise was something unheard of and we would realize that we did our lesson well only when the teacher provided us with a new set of notes to try out. That was it!”

    Surely this is a far cry from how the Żejtun Band Club students are treated today. Isaac Scicluna, who is 11 years old, and presently the youngest bandsman of this Society, was attracted to join this group in the same manner as Alexander; that is during the feast of the village’s patron saint back in 2011. He also shared a similar family background in music, since his father, his grandfather and his great grandfather had all been keen players in bands. Like the elder bandsman, Isaac was confused at first when at just eight years of age, he discovered that he must learn to read the music notes and to study the theory before being able to play any instrument.

    However, the similarity between Vella and Scicluna ends there, since in the meantime, the perspective of our culture had changed from one based on discipline to one that is founded on a more supportive role. In fact, Isaac affirmed that both his parents and his teacher were always there to help him when he needed their assistance.

    “On the first day I was introduced to music notes and I started to learn their names, their type and their value,” Scicluna explained. “Then I was given a handout with written music notes and I was instructed to copy them and to study them. My father helped me to find my way until I was confident enough to continue alone. Yet in reality, even if you have the support, it depends very much on your ambition to learn in order to make it because lessons get tougher the more you get involved. Moreover, you need to manage your time well in order to coordinate both the studying relating to school and also to find time to dedicate to the band.”

    “Since I am left-handed, I had to train myself in order to get used to keep the beat with my right foot and to count the notes with my right hand in order to be uniform with the rest of the group. After some time, I was also requested to sing the notes so that my ears could become adjusted to the sound of the music in preparation for the instrument that I would play.”

    Whereas Vella spent more than three years studying the theoretical part, Scicluna was considered to be ready to start learning to play his instrument within a year and a half. On the other hand, when it came to the choice of the instrument, Alexander was recommended to play the saxophone due to his long stature, but he had insisted that he wanted to learn the clarinet like his father. Contrarily Isaac, who had originally longed to play the saxophone, had to accept to play the clarin, because his fingers were still too short for the saxophone and his lips were more suited for the other instrument.

    After four years of training, Vella started to play with Żejtun Band Club and soon he was also engaged to work with other bands too. Today, at the age of 53, he has an experience of 37 years with his village band and now he is able to play also a number of other instruments. In 2012, Vella and his wife Jane, donated a set of fifty velvet banderoles embroidered with gold in remembrance of their involvement within Żejtun Band Club, and in celebration of the 80th anniversary from its foundation.

    Meanwhile, year 2013 was of great significance to Scicluna and his family since he was officially introduced as the youngest bandsman in the Żejtun Band Club. Interestingly, this celebration was quite unusual as generally a new bandsman is admitted within the village band only during the celebrations of Good Friday. However, due to the sudden death of Fr Eric Overend, the Żejtun Parish Priest, many of the events had to be postponed to a later date and therefore Isaac had the opportunity to play for the first time during the Annual Musical program of 2013.

    Today, both Vella and Scicluna look forward to more years of service with Żejtun Band Club and though there is a wide difference in their age, the two bandsmen agree that they have in mind to keep on playing for as long as they can. At the moment, Isaac has only played with his club but he has already participated in some important functions such as during the funeral of the ex-minister Wistin Abela who passed away in January of this year.

    “A band’s role is mostly that of delighting the public with its music. Yet, there are also other occasions which are more sombre,” says Vella. “Although throughout the year I like to listen to funeral marches which the band plays during the Good Friday activities, when I find myself playing for a real funeral, I feel emotional. My sensitivity to such events became even more acute when our band played during my father’s funeral and it was then that I could clearly sense the pain and sadness coming from the different instruments. It resembled the symbolic cry of a society that was mourning the loss of one of its members.”

    Scicluna agrees.

    “I do feel awkward too when I play during a funeral but I am also aware that this is our way of showing respect. In the meantime, I look forward to brighten up the celebrations of the coming festive season.”


    (This article was published in the SUMMER FEST suppliment of the TIMES OF MALTA dated 11th June 2014)

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