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Ready for take-off

High-flying musicians are choosing an unusual career path to hone their skills. Gerald Haigh meets the young recruits of the RAF bands

Drums and marching feet, the trumpet call to arms, melancholy bugles at sunset: music and the military are inseparable. The Royal Air Force used to have 10 bands but now, in leaner times, there are just three: the Central Band, the band of the RAF Regiment (the force which protects airfields), and a band at the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. Together with smaller groups such as the RAF salon orchestra, which includes strings and piano, and the "Squadronaires" Dance Band, they make up the RAF Music Services. But, as its name suggests, the big attraction is the prestigious 75-strong Central Band.

I grew up among the bands and choirs of northern England and have always been a fan of the Central Band. So, to be invited by the current director, Squadron Leader Duncan Stubbs, to a schools open day at its RAF Uxbridge home was something of a lottery win for me. From the start, when we are treated to a short showcase concert by the full band, I know I won't be disappointed. In the thrilling lead-up to the galloping coda of the William Tell Overture, Duncan Stubbs suddenly reins the band to a halt, turns round and says: "Do you really want the ending?" Oh yes, Squadron Leader, we certainly do.

But it doesn't end there for the school students in the audience. Because open days at RAFUxbridge aren't just about listening; pupils are encouraged to bring their instruments and take a seat alongside band members. For those who do, it is the ultimate deep-end experience, because there is no rehearsal, no quick run-through; they are given their sheet music, the conductor's baton comes down and off they go.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Trennery, from Bishop's Stortford high school, Hertfordshire, sits in the middle of the clarinet section, concentrating hard and, to my ear at least, making no mistakes. "I won a woodwind prize at school, and I'm studying for grade 7," he says afterwards. "But it was quite difficult sight reading."

Tom is one of 15 young players from Bishop's Stortford, a boys' school which has bands, choirs and an orchestra. Their teacher, Charles Spanner, says the open day is a superb opportunity to motivate young players. "The value is in the practical side, playing with professionals," he says. "The boys enjoyed it, and they felt really encouraged that they were able to join in."

The day was a revelation for anyone who thinks that military bands are only about marching and pomp and circumstance. There is plenty of that - passing-out parades, sunset ceremonies, mess dinners, servicemen in full dress uniforms - but, increasingly, military bands have become professional concert bands, appearing in major halls tackling a wide and demanding repertoire.

Simon Salisbury, head of High Wycombe Music Centre, where a number of Central Band musicians teach young people from Buckinghamshire schools, points out that military bands give musicians an excellent opportunity to play for a living. "I have an ex-pupil in the Royal Marines band," he says.

"She's grade 8 on five instruments. She's also very sporty and she loves the physical rigours of the whole thing."

Ellen Driscoll, 21, a horn player who joined the Central Band last autumn with a music degree from King's College London, agrees. "It's so difficult to get freelance work, let alone a permanent job. This is a really good alternative," she says. Clarinettist Dominique Thistleton, 19, says: "If I ever left, I think I'd have to stop playing because I'd never find another job as good as this."

Dominique left Birkenhead high school for girls in the summer of 2003.

Already an accomplished player - a member of the Wirral Schools Concert Band - and with A-level music, she was considering going on to music college until she read some leaflets about military bands. Not all her teachers approved. "Some were dismayed, though others did say that I'd love it, because they knew I'd get the sports side which is also something I'm keen on."

The audition, which she took in the autumn after she left school, was a challenge - it lasts a day and a half, and you have to be a grade 8 player before you apply - but she passed, and went off to RAF Halton, near Aylesbury, to do her nine weeks of basic RAF training.

"The first couple of weeks were hard," she says. "I didn't enjoy getting up at five. Looking back, though, it was nothing."

After Halton, Dominique did three months' training with the band at Uxbridge before becoming a full member in spring 2004. Though an accomplished player, she found herself stretched at first. "If you're good at school, you're a big fish in a small pond," she says. "Then you come here and realise you're among superb players. I was shellshocked to begin with, but you just have to get on with it."

Since then, Dominique has been living her dream. "I did the Edinburgh Tattoo in August, and a tour of Australia in January, as well as giving classical concerts in halls and theatres."

Squadron Leader Stubbs, at the other end of the RAF hierarchy from Dominique, knows how she feels. He joined the Central Band from York University as a bassoonist 22 years ago, rising through the ranks and, at the same time, developing his conducting skills at the Royal College of Music. Commissioned as a director of music in 1990, he became director of the Central Band in 2000.

"I do feel genuinely privileged to be where I am," he says. "The quality of the people now coming in keeps me on my mettle.

"It's a real challenge which I enjoy and it keeps my attitude positive. I say that at the end of every concert, and I mean it."

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