Sinfonietta – sound of strings

Musn Wright

Musn Wright

Musn Wright is a Musician in the Royal Artillery Band, part of the Corps of Army Music. As a violinist he is given the opportunity to perform with a small orchestra namely the Corps of Army Music Sinfonietta. During the normal working day he will perform on a wind instrument at key ceremonial events and in support of the Army worldwide.

One-size-fits-all, cream of the crop ensemble

An unusually cold autumn morning set me up perfectly for rummaging through my wardrobe for a different hat. As an Army musician, I’m sure many have seen the plethora of different head gear that adorn the tunics; from bearskins to busbies and mirror-like brass to the humble beret. But few will be so familiar with the metaphorical cap that many of us sit under throughout the year – that of trained orchestral musicians.

Granted, the image of a macho soldier lending their hand to the subtleties of a violin or cello, are not the first to spring to mind when one thinks of  “jobs available in the army”. However, our country’s orchestral heritage can be traced directly back to this. The first official orchestra in Great Britain was that of the Royal Artillery Band in Woolwich, who as a unit, very proudly celebrated their 250th anniversary in October this year.

Other small string groups can also still be seen, made up from musicians of both mounted and Foot Guard Regiments of the Household Division.

So back to this cold autumn morning. What we have is musicians from the Royal Artillery Band and the seven bands of the Household Division descending upon the Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham, for a one-size-fits-all, cream of the crop ensemble. Known as the ‘CAMUS sinfonietta’, its anticipated annual occurrence and careful selection of players offer it up as a very distinct jewel in the crown of military music. And the extra sparkle comes in the form of the finest woodwind and brass players, trawled from all corners and cupboards of the corps of army music. Indeed this year, as in some previous, we have the pleasure of some guest players from the RAF.

Our first rehearsal was the usual mixture of emotions. A meet and greet of those that have seen each other recently and those who, as in any working environment, may be grateful that they haven’t. But tensions over who spilt whose coffee last year soon subside as we recalibrate ourselves for the task in hand. And this year it’s quite a task, yet with even less preparation time than last, owing to such a busy month for bands. After several hours playing I feel much more relaxed into the larger string section than normal, and by the sound of the rest of the orchestra it promises to an exciting program of music to get stuck into and bring some passion and energy to both venues in the concert series.

HRH The Countess of Wessex meets LCpl Shellard clarinet soloist

HRH The Countess of Wessex meets LCpl Shellard clarinet soloist

The two venues for this years CAMUS  Sinfonietta concerts were the Newbury Arts Centre and the prestigious Menuhin Hall at Cobham.

The audiences at both venues were a mix of music lovers, military top brass and even royalty at the Menuhin Hall. Yes we had the privilege of our Colonel in Chief , HRH the Countess of Wessex in attendance. Nothing like a spot of royalty to ratchet up the pressure and encourage the best possible performance.

So to the music…

The woodwind section of the Sinfonietta

The woodwind section of the Sinfonietta

Our opening piece was an overture by the lesser known Rosenberg. And quite an opener it was, possibly an eye-opener for those less familiar with 20th century composers of his ilk. It’s a sort of marmite music with not much between loving or hating it. I’d say the audience were split on both nights. No matter the stance taken on the style of music, there would have been no doubt as to the ferocity and commitment it was delivered with. The conductor, Lt Col Meldrum, could easily have been mistaken for an evil wizard as he tried desperately to conjure every ounce of the composer’s intent from the bold phrases and the gut-wrenching harmonies. Well that was my take on it. A passer by or those less familiar with the concert hall might have thought Paul Daniels had just pulled an orchestra out of a hat. However, I suppose unless you’re a musician it would be difficult to grasp the effect a conductor can have on an orchestra.

Alongside the great variety of musical observations to be had, there was plenty on show for the non-musical military contingent who seemed equally transfixed by the performance.

For example, the discipline and timing involved in synchronising the bowing and rhythms of a well-oiled orchestra could match the prowess of a top class drill team or air display without a second thought. Likewise, the hawk-eyed observation and self control required in those pin-drop moments that see a full string section playing together quieter than a whisper, wouldn’t be out of place in an ambush or reconnaissance role.

LCpl Shellard performs at Arlington Arts Centre Newbury with the Sinfonietta

LCpl Shellard performs at Arlington Arts Centre Newbury with the Sinfonietta

I’d say my two favourite works of the program were ‘ Banks of Green Willow’ and Gordon Jacob’s  ‘Mini Concerto for Clarinet and Strings’. In the latter we had the pleasure of LCpl Alan Shellard from the Band of the Grenadier Guards as a soloist.

The ‘Banks of Green Willow’ by Butterworth offered a welcome respite from some of the more jarring chords found in the first two works. Its flowing folk-based melodies, painted with expert writing, would certainly have warmed the audience on such a cold evening. Notable colours oozed from the orchestra in the form of Lance Corporal Chris Spencer’s opening clarinet motif, Lance Corporal Rebecca White’s stirring solo violin moments and Warrant Officer Class 1 Guy Bennet’s harp contributions. I did think ‘fair play’ on his behalf as most sergeant majors wouldn’t admit to knowing what a harp was, never mind strumming their own in public.

The response from the audience as the energy in the hall wound up to an impressive, if slightly sweaty, finish of Bizet’s 1st Symphony was most encouraging. So presuming they were as generous to the Soldiers Charity ABF (whom the concerts were in aid of) as they were with their applause, the entire project will have have been of great worth. It’s certainly one I would gladly take part in again.

Public events featuring the bands of the Corps of Army Music

8 days to go

Captain James Hulme writes this Maundy Thursday with the latest news of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment’s preparations for the Royal Wedding, which draws ever-nearer… 

Looking forward to the Royal Wedding

Looking forward to the Royal Wedding

It’s Thursday and the Easter weekend is almost upon us. Or at least it is for the rest of the world – not so for The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. What better time to train than in the week leading up to the Royal Wedding. At the moment, every hour counts.

This morning, I set my alarm for 0330hrs. Yes, that’s right, early! So what has been going on for us to incur such an inhospitable start? Well don’t worry, we’re not in trouble, it’s just that preparations are stepping up a pace. And if you thought that that was impossible, it is not. We are definitely in the business of ‘making time’. Soldiers’ eyes look perpetually glazed, and polishing fingers are almost worn down to the bone, but we are constantly reminded that our colleagues on the other side of the Regiment are in Helmand.

Thankfully, Tuesday saw an end to the parades in Hyde Park specifically for the Major General’s Review. That final parade is perhaps the most stringent test we undergo in the calendar. Essentially it is the test to ensure we can go forward to do the real events. The final phase of ‘Major General’s’ incorporated a charge, in review order, towards the Major General himself. It was quite a sight to behold. Thankfully the press were there to record it for posterity. Indeed, last week we were inundated by media types: ABC, ARD, BBC, CBS, CNN, NBC, TF1, RTL etc. All the big names were baying for us to perform behind the camera, for a world audience.

Don’t worry, we remain humble in light of this world interest, because when all is said and done, it might be one of our 18-year old troopers behind the camera, opening up about his arduous lifestyle, and all the hours required to produce excellence in what we do. Thankfully all our soldiers stepped up to the mark when confronted, and were particularly confident. One member of 1 Troop Blues & Royals, Trooper Denton John, is currently breaking hearts across America with his existentialist views of what it means to be a Yank on the Wedding within the Household Cavalry. A future star of military diplomacy, maybe?

So, on to today and that hellishly early start. It was actually our first rehearsal specifically for the Royal Wedding escorts, so perhaps the wake-up was justifiable. At an ungodly hour, we rehearsed with the Royal Mews and their carriages the entire format for the big day. Now some things I will not discuss quite yet. But let me assure you, it felt pretty good being a part of it. In my opinion, the spectacle is what it is because of quantity, and we get it just right. There are enough of us to really add a sense of Majesty.

So Knightsbridge at 0600hrs erupted into life with a display, put on for our own purposes, but hopefully enjoyed by tourists and commuters lucky enough to be waiting for buses at the right time. Who knows how we did, we are yet to be briefed about our performance. Thankfully not a single rider ‘dismounted’, and not a single Life Guard doffed his helmet… to the ground. The poor old Life Guards, they are smart, but rather impractically choose to have their helmets’ chinstraps fastened under their bottom lip. The Blues & Royals position chinstraps… well, under the chin.

The rehearsal ended with members of HQ Squadron’s ‘rent-a-crowd’ vigorously waving flags and bunting, banging drums, shouting and, generally sniggering if any of our horses reacted badly to the distractions. This is known as ‘Sticky Ride’. I am happy to report that our trusty cavalry blacks are getting use to the crowds. I have been reliably informed that riding on a Royal Wedding is something akin to riding through the middle of a rock concert; anyone sane shouldn’t really do it.

And which horse was I riding on, I hear you cry? Well, yet another one I’m afraid. George was my trusty charger today. Young, flighty, but very noble-looking. In fact George didn’t once let me down. Don’t worry, I still go and visit William daily, and still hope that he is fit for the big day.

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17 days to go

Here’s another blog from Captain James Hulme, Troop Leader and Unit Press Officer for the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. With 17 days to go before the Royal Wedding morale remains high, despite the endless kit cleaning…

William

William

A busy week so far, but at least the weather is holding out here in Knightsbridge, the home to the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. This freak proto-summer has been a big help to the rehearsals. Also a bit of sun just eases the Regiment through what is a very stressful time. I am happy to report that morale is very high and looks to be staying that way. When in a normal season, soldiers might be beginning to tire of the endless kit cleaning, but this year it has definitely helped that the hard work is for a wholly justifiable reason. We really are privileged to be taking part in something so special.

In the pipeline for this week is an event that will see our home at Hyde Park Barracks open to the world’s media. Everyone wants to know what we’re up to in the final three weeks leading to the big day and, as the Unit Press Officer, I’m the one to organise their access. Not that it’s quantifiable, but I think that the Royal Wedding will be one of the biggest media events of the decade. I will hopefully be able to let the reader know an estimation of where to see us, and when. Please keep your eyes glued to www.facebook.com/hcmr for details.

At least working over the weekend did give me an opportunity to check up on my charger William. He still hasn’t completely recovered, though he is no longer lame at the walk. He certainly had enough energy to break free from his stall and raid the hay storage area in the stables. He really is quite an escape artist. I took him for a bit of walk out into the sun, and I think he appreciated this, he certainly laps up the attention. His vanity knows no limits. He will definitely be chuffed that his photo appears online.

Since William’s little mishap (definitely attributable to over-excitement), I have been on two different horses, trying them out for size, just in case William remains on sick leave the day of the Royal Wedding:

Cornet: a beautiful horse, but not quite as tall or handsome as William. He also belongs to another Officer. In my opinion, his longish ears make him look a little like a mule. Cornet has his merits though. He is very easily controlled one-handed, which is always a bonus. He is much less headstrong which means the rider can relax a lot more and settle down to the job at hand – commanding a division. He is rather slow at the walk though, and one really has to push him on.

Jubilee: I took this youngster on a Watering Order on Monday. He isn’t an Officer’s charger, so I would never really be able to use him on a parade, but as a competent troop horse he is definitely the future. One has to avoid his hind quarters though, he has a tendency to kick out. He will eventually learn some manners. I will probably ride him again tomorrow, just to confirm my assessment.

Today though, our Commanding Officer inspected the Regiment. We are yet to hear the feedback, the exact detail of how we might improve our performance, but there were no major mishaps at least. As a Blue & Royal, I painfully have to concede that The Life Guards win the contest for the smarter ‘dressing’ today, ie their ranks were geometrically perfect. The Blues & Royals will have their day yet, let me reassure you…

Everything at Knightsbridge starts early

In his first blog, Captain Anton Lin writes from Knightsbridge about rehearsals for the Major General’s Inspection, and an upcoming performance at the Royal Tattoo.

Late last night I managed to finish the planning details for the Royal Tattoo, which I sent out to the relevant parties.  I was glad to have this burden removed and it allowed me to concentrate better on this morning’s rehearsals for the Major General’s Inspection.  This is a parade we carry out at the start of the season in order to demonstrate to the Major General that the Household Cavalry is ready to perform its duties to the high standard expected.

Rehearsals are always early – in fact, everything at Knightsbridge starts early. A normal working day starts at 0600hrs for us all so we can have the roads and parks as much to ourselves as possible when we ride.  This morning’s rehearsal was a mix of exercising the horses and walking through the parade to learn the words of command.

Upon returning from riding and breakfast I saw that I had a hundred questions arising from my email last night.  Most of them relate to logistical details concerning the French Garde Republicaine – our mounted counterparts in Paris – who are riding with us at the Royal Tattoo this year.  What time will they take over their accommodation?  Are our vets allowed to treat their horses or will they bring their own vet? And so on.

Luckily I am off to Paris this afternoon to watch them perform and hopefully have some of my own questions answered.  Once I get back I will need a long meeting with our Riding Master to come up with a routine that will best demonstrate the varied skills of our Ride and their mounted band.  Our two groups together will number nearly sixty horses and we have only 14 minutes each night…

23 days to go

In his second blog, Captain James Hulme from the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment details another rehearsal (and an even earlier start to the day!) ahead of the Royal Wedding.

Reveille was at 0430hrs, so an even earlier start to today (6 April). I am now getting slowly more fatigued even though the Royal Wedding is still over three weeks away. A quick walk to work, a change into ERO ‘Escort Review Order’ (khaki service dress jackets, breeches, field boots, my sword, and our famous state helmet with plume), and I arrived at the stables to get my horse ready.

London is still sleeping, but at the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, the Blues & Royals Squadron were preparing for a major rehearsal. It was all hands on brooms, pitchforks and wheelbarrows to get the indoor stables clear of the overnight mess. Mucking out was followed by grooming. Each man picks out the hooves of his horse for that morning, removing scurf from the horse’s coat, brushing the mane, forelock and tail, sponging-off eyes  etc. Horses get their hooves oiled for shine, a quick shave with a safety razor and chalk dust is applied to brighten their white ‘socks’.

Today I was on my trusty charger, a horse called William. Standing at 17 hands high, he is an elegant beastie with great ‘head carriage’, and at 19 years old he is a real veteran. He was in a better mood today, and was easier to tack-up as a result. Most of the horses are Irish Draught crossed with an element of thoroughbred, a mixture that we call a ‘cavalry black’. William definitely has more thoroughbred in than most of the horses, and therefore has a lot more speed and stamina than most – or so I thought.

We mounted-up on the Regimental Square (we are taught how to vault onto the horses ‘quickest and best’, but for parades we use a mounting block) and position ourselves into two ranks. The thinking behind this is, that in battle, a gap in the front rank can always be covered by someone in the second rank who would step forward. The trumpeter sounds “March on the Officers”, and four us take up positions at the front of the Squadron.  I am No. 4 Division Commander, that is, in charge of 24 soldiers and horses acting as a sort of a rear-guard to the whole parade.

“From the right, form sections, walk march”, and we left the Regimental Square, out of the Ceremonial Gate into Hyde Park for our drills. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun just rising over the Serpentine, with commuters passing by, and joggers getting in their own form of morning exercise. I am glad to say that our riding was okay too, straight, and precise.

The morning was almost complete when I noticed a distinct change in William’s rhythm at the trot. Something was definitely up. William, for the first time ever is not quite right. He’s happy enough, ears still forward, but he is definitely not firing on all four cylinders. I leave the rehearsal a little prematurely, to prevent any further aggravation. Getting back into barracks he is quickly seen by one of the Farriers and the Regimental Veterinary Officer, Major Ann O’Flynn. It was difficult to diagnose conclusively, but poor old William is going to need a bit of rest and remain under observation for the next few days. He’s going to need to be doted on a bit.

A little concerned that I was going to need to choose another charger to use for rehearsals, I set about the rest of my day as a Troop Leader and Unit Press Officer. Having spoken to my troop (30 soldiers & 40 horses) about the strains of the ‘silly season’, I felt that it was time to tackle today’s Royal Wedding media request inundation. As it is in the rest of the British Army, an Officer in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment also remains largely deskbound in the afternoons.

After a pleasant evening meal with a guest speaker, my old Brigade Commander from Afghanistan, I contemplated the next day. We were due to conduct another, even bigger rehearsal, to be completed on a horse that I had never ridden before. Enter stage left: Cornet.


You can like the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment on their official Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HCMR.

25 days to go

Captain James Hulme
Captain James Hulme

The Life Guards and Blues & Royals of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR) will be playing an important role in the wedding of HRH Prince William of Wales and Miss Catherine Middleton on 29 April. They will form a Sovereign’s Escort for Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and a Captain’s Escort for the Bride and Groom as the wedding party travel to Buckingham Palace from Westminster Abbey. This will involve almost 200 horses and soldiers on the day to escort and protect their carriages.

Captain James Hulme, Troop Leader and Unit Press Officer for HCMR will be blogging over the next few weeks as the Regiment prepares and rehearses for the big day.

I generally don’t like Mondays, and for this one, the worry was justified. An 0530hrs wake-up is never fun, and today it was particularly unwelcome – Officers had refresher training with the Riding Master, Captain Mark Avison, in the outdoor school. Riding for civilians can be very pleasant, but with the Household Cavalry at times, it requires intense concentration, discomfort and being shouted at… even when you’re a Captain.

This morning we were wearing ‘Military Review Order’, the order of dress that includes the ‘Albert Pattern’ helmets and plumes, the metal breastplate ‘cuirasses’, and the infamous jackboots. Yes it is uncomfortable, yes it is hard to ride in, yes it is difficult to get looking shiny. Please don’t underestimate the amount of time that goes into getting this kit ready, the boots might take 4 hours alone, each time you wear them! Brasso and black polish; we get through them by the bucket load. My horse William, elegant but extremely tricky to make behave, was being really bolshy. It was definitely a Monday morning for him too. Some people may have ‘dismounted’ earlier than they should have!

The rest of the Regiment exercised their horses (the cav blacks) around the streets of West London on what we call the daily ‘Watering Order’ – if you’re a Londoner you will probably have either seen or heard us early in the morning (even on Saturdays). I must admit that when I chose my Regiment at Sandhurst, I didn’t quite realise that it was an 0530hrs start kind of Regiment. Well, it’s the price you pay for the satisfaction of working with the horses, but also, in my opinion the best soldiers I’ve encountered in my five years working in the Army.

International media interest has also been intense recently, so I am definitely feeling the strain as the Unit Press Officer. At 1015hrs today, German camera crews from ARD turned up at Horse Guards to prepare their footage of the day, Germany always holding a big interest in our Army and the Royal Family. Americans are also fascinated, so I am trying to give NBC what they require too. It is quite a task getting the outside world to understand such a complex unit that has so many peculiar traditions that might not be understood. Some people don’t even realise that we’re Army, a particular bugbear of mine.

So preparations have already been arduous for the Royal Wedding, and will continue to be for the next 24 days. At the moment we practice pretty much every day, points that will be pertinent to this important event. Control of your horse, riding straight and dressed-off with your neighbour, precise and yet elegant sword drill, ‘carrying’ your plume, projecting your words of command… there is so much that goes into such a spectacle – it has all the drama of an opera. And before the Royal Wedding we have another parade to complete, the Major General’s Review, just to check all is in order – he shall not be disappointed!

I will take the opportunity to say a warm hello to the Household Cavalry Regiment soldiers and officers now serving in Afghanistan. D Squadron (Prince William’s old Squadron) are currently on patrol in Helmand Province, and doing a fine job in their Scimitars and Jackals. It has only been a year since I was there myself. Last year I was dusty and being shot at, now I’m on a horse, and hopefully very shiny. Such a role reversal is part of life in the dual-role Household Cavalry. With another long but colourful day completed, the countdown to the Royal Wedding gets ever shorter.