Darley Dale Band are tuning up for a special concert this month in celebration of the man who has kept them playing through good times and bad for 70 years.
Keith Sheldon attended his first rehearsal with the brass group in 1947, when he was just seven years old.
He said: “I just went along one day with my dad, Cyril, who had been playing tuba with the band for a long time. There wasn’t much else to do after school in those days, so I followed him and I found that the people were very nice.
“I sat and listened for a while, until someone suggested they gave me an instrument. So I started on a tenor horn, which was all they had spare.”
It was the start of a lifelong love for Keith, following old community traditions which are less common for players today.
He said: “I’ve never had a lesson in my life. I’m a typical Darley village player. Dad showed me the basic fingering and scales and other people helped a little, but we never had money for proper teaching.
“These days, young musicians will go for private tutoring then to university for all the theory, but we just learned as we went along. I came through the hard way.”
Keith eventually switched to the euphonium around 40 years ago, fitting in practice around his career as a carpenter.
He said: “It just came from listening to other bands and realising what a lovely instrument it was.”
“My euphonium has been a most wonderful friend to me. I still enjoy it so much.”
The key to Keith’s longevity is the dedication and hard work typical to the brass traditions.
He said: “I still practice every day for up to two hours. It starts getting harder as you get older, your mind can be a little bit slow catching up.
“But when I play in the band I want to be there on merit, not just making up the numbers, and I still enjoy it as much as ever.”
He added: “I have arthritis and spinal cirrhosis so I can’t march any more, but it has a lot of other health benefits.
“I also find it a very therapeutic thing for loneliness. I live on my own, and it’s much better than sitting there staring at the walls. My neighbours are very supportive too - I always remember to practice with my mute in.”
There is no question that Keith has earned his moment in the spotlight.
Having won his first solo cup at the age of 12, he eventually helped Darley Dale go on a run of success which included multiple area championships and performances on famous stages such as Wembley Arena in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
Keith’s greatest achievement though, has been to ensure the survival of the band.
He said: “After we started winning things and climbing up the leagues, the competition started to get much harder. Some people found it less rewarding, and eventually drifted away from the band.
“It can be quite an expensive thing to, and as a village band we’ve never had any financial support like some of the miners’ groups. It got to a point where I was the only one left in the mid-2000s, but I decided I was going to keep going.”
After issuing an appeal on the local television news, Keith also took the plight of the band national when he was interviewed by Chris Evans on Radio 2.
He said: “I was going to practice by myself, and setting up two or three stands and then gradually one or two people started to show up.
“I thought we should at least try and get through to Christmas so we could go out and play on the streets like we always had.”
From that low point, the band has now grown to include nearly 30 players from the local community.
Keith said: “We’re not competing at the moment, not everyone wants to do that we are doing park concerts and everyone is enjoying it.”
His determination also earned the respect of players around the country—in 2012 Keith was named bandsman of the year at the annual Butlins Mineworkers’ Championships—and he has also made friends around the world through the International Brass Band Summer School.
He said: “I was very fortunate that people noticed what I was doing, and I’ve met so many wonderful folk.
“I’ve never been one of the world-class players, but I’ve worked hard and played with pride and I think I am respected wherever I go. That’s a good thing to say in any walk of life.”
He added: “I have my own motto: often challenged, never beaten, simply the best.”
The band’s next appearance will be a tribute concert to Keith at the Edgefold Club in Matlock on Friday, October 20, starting from 7.30pm.
They will be supported by vocal harmony group Lah Di Dah and guest soloist Gary Curtin, principal euphonium with the Fodens Band.
Keith is preparing to play a solo too, he said: “I’ve chosen the traditional Welsh piece Myfanwy, and it’s quite emotional.
“70 years is a long time, and I don’t know what the 80th will be like. My proudest achievement is that I’ve done right by my community.
“I’ve stood by and kept the band together, but I am so grateful to all my friends and the people of Darley Dale who have supported us over the years. I think my dad would be proud too.”
The band will also perform at the Matlock Beer Festival on Saturday, October 21.
For more upcoming dates and information on how to get involved in the band, go to www.darleydale.org.uk.