Most of us dream of playing music professionally, enjoying a secure salary, travelling the world, sharing the stage with the likes of Jools Holland and entertaining the Queen but surely this is just a dream unless you’re one of the lucky few?
Think again because this is exactly how the 833 musicians of the Corps of Army Music spend their working days. Spread across 23 bands, with another 20 territorial bands in addition, these players are living this dream every day with total job security in every sense.
While the elusive ‘quick route’ to fame is pushed in our faces by the likes of X-factor, the military band often slips under the radar, but there are a wealth of opportunities for young musicians in every style of music.
As Corps of Army Music Warrant Officer Class One, Richard Allen explains, “A career in the Corps of Army Music can offer an instrumental performer an exciting and diverse professional vocation in a modern and stable environment.”
We’ve all witnessed the impressive changing of the guard ceremonies with mesmerising performances from one of the Guards bands, but the scope and diversity of music within the army stretches far beyond this. As Richard states, “Army musicians represent the public face of the Army, both at home and abroad. Although our bands are based on the Symphonic Wind Band we can produce many other musical groups to meet the demands of the wide variety of engagements that we are required to perform. In addition to Chamber Orchestras and Marching Bands there is also the opportunity to perform in many different musical combinations, such as Fanfare Teams, Dance Bands, Jazz & Dixie Bands, Folk groups, Big bands, Rock bands and Pop bands.”
Army band life offers excellent incentives that aren’t available in most other careers, musically or otherwise. Beyond playing in some of the world’s greatest venues and earning musical qualifications such as diplomas or degrees, the job delivers sport and adventure training, a full time salaried and pensionable career up to the age of 55, a golden hello’ of £3,500 for graduates, with commitment bonuses up to £1500 and a bursary scheme for students on performance based courses in both Further and Higher education.
Of course, an army musician is part of the regular army and as such is required to do some military training to keep a level of fitness and weapons handling maintained. Richard tells us, “Our operational role is in support of the Army Medical Services, and therefore we spend time honing our Basic Casualty First Aid Drills. This is the same for every person in the Army. Everyone that joins must complete their military training and learn their basic survival skills. However, 95% of our time is spent on music.”
The initial training comes in two phases. The basic training in phase 1 lasts between 14 to 28 weeks and includes basic soldiering skills, map reading, signaling, marching, weapon handling, field craft, nuclear, biological and chemical personal protection skills as well as physical fitness, although there is nothing here that any reasonably fit young person cannot handle.
Phase 2, lasting for 11 to 44 weeks depending on musical ability, is largely music related and includes aural perception, theory of music, orchestration techniques, instrumental performance, general musicianship, performance skills, fitness, marching band and more military Training.
The Instrumental tuition is given to each musician at the excellent Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, by a team of highly dedicated and experienced instrumental professors, many of which are key performers in the London based Orchestras.
So what does it take to become a professional army musician? According to Richard, “Army Musicians need to be versatile and adaptable, both musically and in their personality. They need to be willing to try many different musical ensembles and combinations in addition to performing a broad range of repertoire. One of the beauties of our job is that there is no ‘typical day’ in the life of an Army musician. It can be tough with late nights and early mornings, but the reward is a challenging and stimulating career, being paid to do what you love; Music!”
Once accepted into the Corp of Army Music, a musician will enjoy the luxury of a salary, something which isn’t guaranteed in many areas of musical performance. This starts around £13,000 during training, rising to £16,200. On completion of training, musicians take their Trade Employment Qualification and the salary increases to £17,400. After 2 Years and further Trade Employment qualifications, musicians can earn in the region of £21,000, although there is potential to become the senior musician in the Corps, the Principal Director of Music with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and a salary in the region of £64,000.
However, you do not need to join the Army for life and you will be free to decide after serving only four years whether to stay in or to take your training and experience into a civilian career in music. But there are opportunities to get a taste for this career before committing.
The Corps of Army Music offers Insight (work experience) placements with most of their bands and also at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall. Insight courses usually run for 5 working days, although day visits are also available in some bands.
The courses are designed so that instrumentalists are able to gain a good insight into life as a musician within the Army, as well as observing the training processes of the musicians. During the course, performers are able to informally participate in the day to day working environment of a musician and join in any number of group rehearsals, possibly culminating in an engagement with a band.
The visits are primarily centred on music, which may involve anything from concert band rehearsals and marching band, to watching ‘Changing of the Guard’ at Buckingham Palace. There may also be some physical activities, including an introduction to military life, as well as social interaction with our musicians. These ‘insight’ courses are available to anyone over the age of 14, who play or sing to at least ABRSM grade 5 or equivalent standard. The courses, which are completely free, will provide an honest and realistic insight into army life within the Corps of Army Music.
If this career path sounds appealing, the first step is a two day audition process. This takes a candidate through a theoretical paper which equates to ABRSM Grade 5 standard, an aural perception assessment, scales and a sight reading assessment. The candidate is then asked to prepare two contrasting pieces of music to play on their primary instrument and a secondary instrument if relevant. These pieces can be drawn for the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus or higher.
Now at such a senior position within the Corps of Army Music, Richard says, “I have been an Army Musician for 24 years and feel every bit as excited about the job as the day I joined. During my career I have travelled widely including tours in Germany, Bosnia, Japan, Cyprus, France, Belgium, Prague, Egypt, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Finland. Highlights of my career include participating in 22 Queens Birthday Parades and sounding fanfares in London’s Guildhall on the occasion of the anniversary of VE Day in the presence of HM The Queen and 50 Heads of State from around the world. No two days are the same and this continually presents new challenges.”
For further info visit the ARMY MUSIC website.