Music in the military

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Fri, 23/6/2017

One of our Manchester music-therapists-in-training, Guy Booth, came to Nordoff Robbins from a rather wonderful route – having played music around the world for the military. Seeing the power music has first hand, he wanted to follow this calling even further, and signed up to train with Nordoff Robbins.

Over to Guy:

Where to begin? 

Well, as a young lad leaving school aged 16, I knew that I wanted to play music, earn money and be in London, so I auditioned for the Band of the Welsh Guards. This also meant joining the British Army as a musician. Some might wonder how music, being from the arts, could ever sit comfortably with the army. Well, in some ways it doesn’t, but in so many other ways it does. There is a long history going back centuries of music playing important roles across the military. But now’s not the time for a history lesson, so I’ll get back to my story. 

For the first 12 years of my career I performed as a saxophonist and violist at state and ceremonial events such as Trooping the Colour, Changing the Guard, Remembrance (Cenotaph), State Opening of Parliament, Jubilee celebrations, Investitures and many more. We also performed concerts the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in some fantastic concert venues, and I was fortunate enough to tour overseas a great deal to countries such as the USA, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, Belize and mainland Europe. It’s a cliché, I know, but music really is an international language.    

However, in 2000, having completed a three-year bachelor’s degree I took a different course in music and became a bandmaster/ conductor. I served in Germany with the Band of the Royal Lancers for three years, where we undertook two tours to Bosnia, and then back in the UK with the Band of the Royal Engineers for a further three years. 

I was honoured to receive the Queen’s Commission in 2006 and accepted the appointment of Director of Music with the Band of the Royal Signals in Blandford, Dorset. We again toured extensively to some interesting places, and Pakistan in particular stands out as a fascinating place to have visited. 

A couple of roles at the Royal Military School of Music, at Kneller Hall in Twickenham followed, and then came a very exciting opportunity to set up and pilot the first ever full time contemporary rock band in the British military, namely the Band of the Adjutant General’s Corps. The remit was to choose the best musicians, train them up and then deploy on an operational tour to Afghanistan to provide Troop Morale Support as part of the Moral Component of Fighting Power. In other words, go out to the front line and entertain the troops with the music that they listen to on their iPods. 

We undertook intensive military and musical training so that we would be fit for purpose as both military capable soldiers, and as musicians. 

We spent two months flying in helicopters around Helmand Province, being dropped off at Patrol Bases and Forward Operating Bases, performing to 40 or 50 troops at a time, in ram shackle surroundings. The environment we performed in was tough and we were literally within 100 yards of the front line on a number of occasions, giving the troops out there some small respite from the daily trauma of living, fighting and surviving within a conflict zone. But it was clear how powerful music could be, even in such a tough environment. We received many reports, letters and comments from those who attended the gigs, saying that it had given them a lift, brought them together in a positive environment, or helped them forget about the reality of where they were – just for that moment in time. 

For me, it was hugely stressful, being responsible for my guys and girls while we were deployed. However, it was undoubtedly the most rewarding musical and life experience I had in my 30 years as a musician in the army. Seeing musicians on the front line, making a difference, being relevant, simply by playing music!

On the back the operational tour, I was invited as a guest speaker to the Musical Brain conference ‘Worlds in Collision – Music and the Trauma of War’ at the Mansion House in June 2013. By this time, I was becoming quite convinced that my musical journey was going to take yet another turn. My experience in Afghanistan, coupled with a few short courses I had undertaken through Nordoff Robbins, cemented in my mind that it was the right time to think about leaving the army – and pursuing what seemed to be a calling rather than a career. 

However, all good things need planning and so my final fling in the army was a two-year attachment to the Jordanian Armed Forces as advisor to the King, Royal Courts and Armed Forces on Music and Ceremonial. I worked with the Jordanian Corps of Music, advising on training, examining, teaching and assessing standards. It was a fascinating experience, particularly as my family was able to travel with me and explore Jordan and the surrounding countries. During that time, I signed off from the army, applied, auditioned and was accepted on to the Nordoff Robbins Master of Music Therapy programme  that began in Manchester in September 2015. 

This brings me almost to the present. I began the course a month after returning from Jordan, so we as a family had some serious cultural changes to deal with. For me, the monumental change from being a Major in the British Army having served for a little over 30 years, to being a student on a music therapy course! 

It has been tough going at times, feeling as if you are having your professional understanding of yourself musically stripped back and rebuilt. However, it has also been hugely rewarding, and I am so excited to be close to graduating and beginning what I hope will be a successful continuation of my musical journey, meeting, making music and learning with and from some amazing people.