Military music school sounds note of regret: Army bands are being halved in defence cuts. Mary Braid finds a mood of sadness at the force's academy

'RIGHT WHEEL,' Brigadier Charles Bond barked cheerfully at the entrance to his office.

The commandant and troops at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music at Twickenham in south-west London, have received their orders. Britain's 60 army bands will be halved by the end of next year. Half of the 2,000 musicians' posts will also go and the brigadier suspects 300 to 400 bandsmen could become redundant.

At the school, home to bandsmen for more than a century, the news struck the sourest note, but in public - and in the company of Ministry of Defence press officers - the brigadier and his men are taking it like soldiers. Brigadier Bond 'deeply regrets' the loss of regimental bands, 'the esprit de corps of the regimental system'. The Army's public relations machine has cleared qualified expressions of regret; the brigadier expresses his repeatedly.

For the military these are turbulent and sensitive times. Under Options for Change, regiments are being merged and, by 1995, the Army's strength will be cut from 156,000 to 119,000. As if the loss of army bands, and the consequent sharing of those that are left, were certain to spark all-out revolution, MoD press officers refuse to talk of cuts and insist on 'reorganisation'. The brigadier is not so delicate. According to him bands are not just being cut but disproportionately cut.

This is clearly a black period for Kneller Hall, founded by the Duke of Cambridge in 1857 after an appalling performance by military bands during celebrations at the end of the Crimean War. Legend has it that they could not play the national anthem at the same tempo or even in the same key.

Since then British bandsmen - medical auxiliaries in war - have won international acclaim and, according to the Arts Council, made a valuable contribution to musical life at home. To their regiments, the bands have been the focus of collective identity and a source of pride.

But nostalgia cannot cloud unpleasant truths. More recently some smaller bands have presented a pathetic spectacle on parade; too small to be heard and when they are audible, often rather off-tune. Brigadier Bond admits: 'We have had trouble recruiting musicians of sufficient quality into some bands. The smaller ones were failing to meet the aspirations of good musicians. Now we will have fewer but larger bands and so be able to make a career in military music more attractive and the quality of music will also improve.'

Even the most ardent military music supporters admit the shortcomings. Major Gerald Horabin, retired Irish Guards director of music, approves of plans to increase minimum band size to 35. 'Taking account of the sick, lame and weary, some regiments could only muster 16 bandsmen on parade. When 500 to 600 men are marching past you could hardly hear the music.'

However, Major Horabin warns that regiments without their own bands may be robbed of some of their collective spirit. 'The Whitehall mandarins under-estimate the power of music . . . We risk getting rid of a tradition the rest of the world envies.'

In the Kneller Hall mess, Rodney Bashford, curator of its museum and the school's former director of music, argues - while the MoD man squirms - that cuts will spread the new, shared bands too thinly. He forecasts musicless military parades and fewer public performances.

Mr Bashford, now in his seventies, was born a mile from Kneller Hall and attended its concerts as a child. The first music he heard was the sound of the Royal Dragoon Guards marching past his house. He was in a military band at school and joined up as a junior bandsman at 17. He recalls the 'heyday' of the 1930s when army musicians still had an empire to play for. Some bands were 70 strong and regimental buglers often took numbers to 100. 'I have a sour view of these cuts. Military bands have been my life. They are the soul of a regiment.'

It is difficult to know what the current generation thinks. While senior officers have a little leeway, soldiers are forbidden to comment on government policy. This year Kneller Hall has 104 trainee bandsmen and 40 student bandmasters. In one hall, some 40 teenage boys play the 'Washington Grays March' by Grafulla. No shortage of talent there; they sounded wonderful.

Chris Brittan, 17, from Newcastle is typical. He played the tuba for seven years before deciding to join the Army. 'I watched the Parachute Regiment band marching in Newcastle and I liked what I saw,' he said. He wants to combine love of music with his keenness for fitness, foreign countries and firing rifles.

Civilian musicians have occasionally resented the money spent on army bands. But there is no doubt they have benefited from the military's expertise. 'We should be sad so many bands are being cut,' said Tom Higgins, editor of Arts Management Weekly, an ex-army bandsman and former oboist with English National Opera. 'People have come from all over the world to train at Kneller Hall because of its reputation . . . The bands are also a vital part of the British music scene.' Former bandsmen were found in all the main orchestras, he said.

In Scotland, the demise of two military pipe bands will have a profound impact on traditional music, according to Matthew Rooke, the Scottish Arts Council's director of music. 'The military pipe bands have provided an alternative university for piping in Scotland, keeping ancient skills alive,' he said. Community pipe bands had always fed on the skills of military pipers and the loss to the wider community was yet to be fully appreciated.

(Photograph omitted)

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