Battling On

John Robert Brown

"This is the Army, not prison!" I receive a gentle reproach for asking a silly question. The speaker is Captain Darren Wolfendale, the officer commanding the recruiting team for the Corps of Army Music. I've asked whether army musicians are able to undertake any freelance work. He explains that army musicians are allowed to do outside gigs in their spare time. "Army musicians often play in different musical groups around the country," he says. "They teach, arrange, and compose like any other players. And we do have the advantage of a guaranteed additional wage," he adds, making a good recruitment point.

My visits, both to Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire (the largest British Army garrison in the world) and to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, have been triggered by the paradox that though army bands are currently being reduced in size, shortages loom on certain instruments. Though the total number of army musicians is being reduced from 1,149 to 924, a total cut of 225 players, the Corps of Army Music remains the largest single employer of musicians in Britain. So, while there is a reduction, Captain Wolfendale finds himself in need of many new instrumentalists, and not necessarily from endangered species such as double bass, bassoon and horn.

"I'm not convinced that we actually mirror what's going on in the rest of the country at the moment," he says. "Certainly the double reeds are a problem." Hence, this year the Double Reed Society was invited to hold its convention at Kneller Hall, a venue excellent both in location and facilities. A similar recruitment shortage is looming in the army's single reeds, which are normally plentiful. The Clarinet and Saxophone Society is thus also offered the opportunity to hold a single-reed playing event at Kneller Hall this autumn. "I'm going to need 32 clarinettists in the next twelve months, quite a tall order, considering that we are actually reducing," says Wolfendale. "Perhaps Mark Simpson's recent success in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition will raise the profile of the instrument."

I compare this with the recruitment needs of higher education music. The difference explains, for instance, why some college jazz departments enrol enormous numbers of guitarists. That wouldn't happen in the army. "We have an establishment for every instrument," says Wolfendale. "What we don't have at the moment are targets for string instruments, although we are looking at that for the future. We've never really had a problem with them, but we are starting to get more organised with our shopping list. As our vacancies diminish, because we are starting to meet our targets for recruiting, we will state exactly what we need for every single instrument, including the strings. We're now starting to recruit first-study vocalists, guitarists, keyboard players and drummers for the rock and pop bands. So we're really becoming more focussed on the end product."

That end product recognises that army music changes with the times. The Royal Artillery Band recently sent its pop group to visit the British troops in Iraq to perform, to allow the soldiers a welcome break from operations. "We're meeting the demand of the organisation we exist to serve," says Wolfendale. "We have a very important public relations role, serving the army as its public face. Some 64% of the army's soldiers are aged between 16 and 32, a huge proportion. Yes, concert bands and orchestras are good; most soldiers will recognise them at one level or another. But soldiers also have a desire or need for more contemporary music. If we're not doing that, we're not meeting our obligations." We will be showcasing our rock and pop capability at a huge outdoor music festival called Rhythm Force in the grounds of Kneller Hall on 14th September."

Does contemporary music ever mean the contemporary art music of Corigliano, Cage or Crumb? "No," says Wolfendale. "There's a limit to how far we can go. We are audience-driven. People have certain expectations from military bands. Whether that's a good or a bad thing, it's a fact. If we started to programme music that was too much on the fringe of modern, too far away from the mainstream, then our audiences would just leave. But we do play some contemporary wind music for the musicians' satisfaction in the confines of our practice rooms. Sometimes these pieces will make it into a public performance if they are accessible enough for our audiences. Typically, rehearsals start at nine, they go right through the morning, and sometimes a band will rehearse in the afternoon and have an engagement that evening as well. But there's no such thing as a normal working day," says Wolfendale.

String players currently represent around 10% of the musicians. One of the current projects is the Corps of Army Music Sinfonietta, which draws together all of the string players from the bands. "They do performances, going out and entertaining the public. The Corps Sinfonietta perform concerts a couple of times a year. The last one was entitled Mostly Mozart, to celebrate his 250th birthday. They performed Poulenc's Gloria to a packed a house at St Augustine's Church Whitton in February, with guest soloist Georgia Ginsberg. Their next performance will be at the Chapel Sandhurst on 14th October 2006, then at St John's Smith Square, London, on 31st March 2007.

At present the Corps of Army Music accepts recruits from 16 to 37, allowing musicians to serve up to the age of 55. All applicants must complete a period of basic military training, the duration of which is age-dependant: junior entry, below 17 1/2, is 20 weeks, while standard entry is 14 weeks. Here, recruits learn basic military survival skills such as sleeping outdoors, cooking in the field, shooting and work on fitness, stamina and drill to foster discipline and team spirit. "We are getting quite a few mature students, guys who have been through university and who seem to have a much more realistic grasp on life and opportunities. Coming out of university they have debt, as all students do these days. They need good employment immediately at a half decent wage, guaranteed for a few years. The financial package that we offer to somebody coming out of university includes accommodation. If they are married they can have a house. If they are unmarried they can have high quality accommodation in the camp. We pay health care, with money for courses, travelling expenses and allowances." Captain Wolfendale tells me that the starting salary is just over £14,000 per year, pay being based on an incremental system linked to time served and exams passed.

There are three music exams altogether that army musicians must pass, the ultimate one being an Associate Diploma with Trinity College London. "Staff come here from Trinity College to adjudicate those exams," he says. "By the time musicians have been with the band for two years there is no reason why they won't be earning more than £21,000 a year. There are benefits as well. If you are buying an instrument, for example, we would provide one free. The pension contribution is paid for you every month. If you are using our instrument, we insure it for you. All these things build up so that you are around £1,100 a month better off with us than if you are a freelance musician. I think security is the main attraction, but the financial package is quite good too.

"Musicians who wish to take the bandmasters' course need to be recommended by their director of music. The course lasts for three years. During that time the student bandmasters are prepared to take up their posts as deputy director of music in a band, at the rank of warrant officer class one, the highest rank in the army before becoming a commissioned officer. So the selection of the students for the course is important. During the three years, they not only study for an honours degree through Kingston University but learn the skills necessary to manage and develop the careers of musicians within the bands. The course is a 50/50 split between music and management studies. The students are really doing two courses in the space of three years.

"They've already had eight years in one of our bands. By then they will probably have been promoted, and have some management experience, so we know how they cope with motivating and dealing with other people - an important part of the job when they take up their post."

This article first appeared in Classical Music, 8 July 2006. Used by kind permission.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb