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Life in an Army band

The RMSM at Kneller Hall owes its creation to an unintentional yet highly embarrassing public affront to Queen Victoria. To round off a Grand…

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The RMSM at Kneller Hall owes its creation to an unintentional yet highly embarrassing public affront to Queen Victoria.

To round off a Grand Review celebrating the much loved monarch’s birthday, a score of Army bands were brought together to perform, in rousing unison, ‘God Save the Queen’.

But because at that time the trend was for each regimental band to engage an independent civilian conductor, who organised their bands and the arrangements of music they played, just as they saw fit, what the ensemble of musicians delivered was not a harmonious and uplifting anthem, but the uncoordinated blowing of a brass raspberry.

As Commander of the First Division during the Crimean War, the host of the Review was the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge. He vowed that such chaos would not happen again, and so the school was established in Twickenham in 1857.

Ever since then the RMSM has been the home of Army music, earning a worldwide reputation as the benchmark of excellence in military music.

Today the British Army has 23 professional bands spread across the UK who depend on the school to provide them with the 800 or so top quality musicians needed to satisfy the 13 skill sets that make up a military band. They are not easy people to find:

The students we recruit are already highly accomplished musicians,” explained Colonel Mark Cuthbert-Brown, who is both the Director of the Corps of Army Music, and the Commandant of the School.

Not only are they proficient musicians they are people who want a career in the Army. We are looking for an unusual combination of skills.

Before passing through Kneller Hall’s ornate gates to start their training, the intake of roughly 65 students each year must first pass a rigorous audition and complete Phase 1 Basic Recruit Training, usually at Pirbright.

With that squared away the students are welcomed back and allowed to spend a week or two to ‘refind their embouchures’ before embarking on the Phase 2 training which will turn them into military musicians and qualify them for assignment to a band.

There’s a lot to learn, including music theory and history, which, depending on the attributes of the individuals, can take anything from 11 to 44 weeks to complete:

Playing an instrument at the same time as marching and reading music is a skill you have to learn,” said Captain Stewart Halliday, one of the school’s Operations and Deployment Officers.

You need to be constantly aware of what is going on around you as well, and that isn’t easy if you are wearing a bearskin limiting your forward and peripheral vision. There is the physical aspect too, especially if you are a tuba player.

Each musician must also learn how to combine two contradictory mindsets:

They are marching, so of course everything has to be precise and disciplined. But at the same time the music must have artistry, it must flow,” said Captain Halliday.

Due to the particular qualities required, the age range of the recruits can be quite broad:

We often have eighteen-year-olds rubbing shoulders with people in their mid to late thirties,” said Colonel Cuthbert-Brown.

For those with particular talent, the school provides a two-year course for potential bandmasters from which graduates emerge to join bands of the Regular Army in the rank of Warrant Officer (WO):

They learn about leadership, how to prepare an event, choose an appropriate programme; in fact they have to acquire the same skills that any other WO would need to command a sub-unit,” said Colonel Cuthbert-Brown.

Here it is possible to rise from Private to Warrant Officer in just three years.

There can’t be many opportunities in the Army to do that. And of course the pay is better than they could achieve unless they were in one of the very top orchestras in London.

We are all familiar with the sight and sound of military bands accompanying state occasions. Perhaps so much so that we tend to take them for granted.

But of course it takes a lot of hard work to make something look effortless:

It has to be nicely judged, the pace, the programme of music, there has to be balance,” said Major Simon Haw, SO2 Organisation and Deployment.

You aim for pride and heritage without it looking arrogant or jingoistic. It’s something we are very good at.

Major Haw has drafted what might be the first doctrinal paper on the use of military music, and its value extends far beyond the ceremonial:

Music is a way of influencing people,” he said. “It distils people’s thoughts and is easy to understand. It brings coherence, whether that’s in corralling troops, strengthening the sinews, raising morale, or bringing people together to express and deal with their emotions.

It is a civilising force as well. There was a good reason why General Rose asked the Band of the Coldstream Guards to play in the stadium in Sarajevo during the Balkans war. It was a subtle form of defence influence and reminded people of their humanity.

The musicians often put down their cornets and tubas and plug in keyboards and strap on electric guitars to entertain the troops in forward operating bases in Helmand province, sometimes with mortar teams providing the mother of all percussion sections:

It is a boost to morale, and if we can mentally take soldiers out of their environment for an hour or two, that’s a good thing,” said Major Haw.

Celebrity conductor Gareth Malone met with Major Haw before the making of the latest series of his TV hit ‘The Choir’, where he brought military wives together to find purpose through singing:

I think Gareth is bang on the money,” said Major Haw. “What he is doing is exactly right, looking at the whole package of support.

I think that is an area we need to think about, using music to keep the soldier motivated in theatre and happy, knowing that his family is being looked after while he is away.

That is what the RMSM teaches its students, that music is the common glue, binding people together, expressing things that cannot easily be put into words.

Captain Halliday perhaps sums it up best:

I’ve conducted or played at all the state occasions, but it’s playing during a homecoming parade that gives you, as a musician, the biggest sense of pride.

You can see the effect it has, the marching soldiers hear the music and they seem to grow a foot taller, and their families are full of emotion - that and watching the families during a passing out concert at the school.

You know that you are an important part of it, and that what you are doing is making a big difference.

This article is taken from the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.

Published 13 January 2012