For the last 7 and a half years it is my privilege to have been a member of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. My last day of service was the 20th of January 2015.
The Central Band is based at RAF Northolt, and since the Second World War, when many of the finest classical, jazz and session musicians in the UK volunteered for the band to avoid general conscription, the RAF have managed to maintain a standard of music making that is the envy of the other two services in the UK. The Philharmonia Orchestra was actually formed from musicians who were members of RAF Music services during the Second World War. Similarity the RAFs swing band the Squadronaires was also formed at that time and was continued as a civilian ensemble in the 50's making the name famous. The band is manned by musicians who are fully deployable troops trained and employed on the same terms as every other member of the UK Armed Forces. Admission to RAF Music Services is by audition, but there are a plethora of other medical, fitness, security and general criteria that must be met in order to become a member of the service.
Unfortunately it's painfully apparent that even within the Royal Air Force, RAF Music Services is not understood or even in some cases recognised at all. When on a recent promotion course my colleagues from other trades in the RAF were completely unaware that there were full time musicians in the RAF at all. It was quite a challenge to explain that being a musician could be a full time occupation within the Royal Air Force, and that in some cases we get paid a higher rate because of technical ability. Likewise, very few potential recruits in schools, universities and music colleges around the UK actually have a clear idea of how the RAF recruitment process works, the pitfalls and criteria required to join, or what the life of a military musician is like. My wife spent four years at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and didn't have any idea of how to apply for, explore or research a potential career in the RAF. Only because I was a member and she spent time actually in the RAF band room did she realise how it could be a career she would be interested in.
This article isn't designed as any kind of recruitment device, but rather, I have invited three people, two of them recently passed out and now posted to bands and the other a potential recruit in the process of application to give, in their own words, their impression and experiences of the application process, training and eventual posting into RAF music services. Hopefully this will give a clear indication of what happens from an insider point of view, showing some of the positive and negative aspects that an applicant can expect to encounter. After this, I will mention some technical aspects that people should be aware of before applying including rates of pay, contracts and pension scheme.
Adam Rosbottom (Senior Air Craftsman)
Age 19, Grimethorpe Band. Cornet.
It was during the later years of my school life when I became aware of a music career in the Royal Air Force, and began to research the application process on the RAF careers website.l wanted to pursue music as a career, and it was whilst I was applying for universities and music conservatoires that my application for the RAF Music Services began.
From researching the job on the RAF website it seemed a very exciting career. As well as online research I also discussed the prospect with some of my colleagues in my previous band, Grimethorpe Colliery.
The first step of the application process was through the Headquarters Music Services, who invited me to attend a familiarisation day. I visited the Regiment Band at RAF in Cranwell which was an opportunity for me to experience a normal working day, and also to meet the members and talk to them about the job. I also received a small presentation on RAF Music Services which was informative. I found this motivational and I left determined to carry on with the application.
Following the familiarisation day, the application process began, and throughout contact with HQMS remained close.
After my visit, I was assigned a local Armed Forces Career Office (AFCO). The AFCO was the venue for my initial interview, in which I discussed my background such as family life and personal interests, and I was also questioned on my knowledge regarding the modern RAF, such as ongoing operations, rank and the role I had applied for.
On completion of the initial interview, I then received various emails regarding the next steps of the process. The next step for me was a medical examination, which when successfully passed leads to an invitation for an RAF Fitness Test. All the information on requirements for both the medical and the fitness test are available on line and I had prepared myself. The AFCO will found the closest place for both assessments to take place.
Following success at these assessments, I was then invited to audition, referred to as a Specialist Interview. It is an all day interview which first includes a solo performance in front of a panel of 4; in which you are required to perform 2 accompanied pieces of your choice to a required standard, also sight reading, scales and an oral examination. Following that I then sat in on a full band rehearsal which gave me the opportunity to play in the section and perform some of the band's repertoire. In the afternoon I played with a brass quintet which was then followed by an interview with the Head Quarters Music Services Director of Music. The day is a very thorough assessment and you are observed in all three situations. It found it enjoyable and I had the opportunity to talk with many of the band members who were really welcoming and informative. I would encourage everyone that you make the most out of the experience and really get as much information as you can.
On passing the Specialist Interview I was then invited to attend the Pre Recruit Training Course at RAF Halton. This is a 4 day insight into what to expect at your Basic Training. You undertake functional skills tests in Maths and English and also do an RAF fitness test, of which all these aspects have to be passed. During your 4 days at RAF Halton you receive various presentations from the staff there about what to expect. I would recommend getting to know some of the people on the course with you as many of the recruits on my PRTC were on the same intake during my Basic Training.
Following that you then are invited to your Final Interview which is your Offer of Service Interview. This is very similar to your initial interview and it just confirms that you have maintained your knowledge about the RAF and your specific role.
On completion of the interview you then will receive a date for your Basic Training at RAF Halton.
Basic Training is a very intense 10 weeks of military training which I found very hard at times. Its robust training and I would stress to anyone to never give up and always give 100%. I personally used the music career that I was going into after the 10 weeks as motivation to keep going when the times got really tough. I think its worth noting that in phase 1 training I did not have time to play my instrument at all.
After graduating Phase 1 training at RAF Halton, which was one of the proudest days of my life, I arrived at RAF Northolt to begin my phase 2 Familiarisation Training. For fully qualified entrants you are in training for 4 weeks and for part qualified entrants your receive 3 months of training. Personally I was going in as a part-qualified entrant.
This phase is really exciting, because first and foremost, you are a musician again! You get lots of time to practice as well as the opportunity to sit in rehearsals with the band and have drill lessons in preparation for parades. As a part qualified entrant, there is academic work to complete and you have 3 appraisals during your time in the school to monitor your performance progress. You receive constant feedback to help ensure progression and you are assigned a mentor from the band who is there to guide you during your training.
After passing the final appraisal you are then posted to 1 of the 3 bands.
I was posted to the Central Band of the Royal Air Force on the 9th of February 2015.
Gordon Macglauchlin BMus:
Age 22, Royal College of Music, Trombone
I first considered applying for one of the Forces bands at the age of 16 however at the time was convinced into furthering my education - a good decision in hindsight. Fast forward to being half way through the final year of my degree at the Royal College of Music and I was exploring the options for after I finished, in particular Army music. I went on a couple of familiarisation days and was ready to apply before someone recommended I looked into the RAF bands too. I got in contact with the recruiting Sergeant at the Central Band and went on a familiarisation day. Needless to say I was really impressed with the standard of the playing and facilities so soon put an application in.
My application got as far as the selection interview where it ended abruptly. My Interviewer could not accept music as a serious team work exercise, unlike football which apparently would have done wonders for my communicational skills with in a team compared to music. Nor could she accept that whilst at a Music School I had little time or opportunity to participate in anything other than music. To add insult to injury my fitness was questioned and I was accused of being arrogant by some one who appeared over weight and spoke to me condescendingly throughout. My knowledge on current affairs of the RAF was brought up in the debrief and I feel that was completely fair. It seems that Head Quarters Music Services have absolutely no control or influence over the AFCO process.
My advice on the interview is to approach it with music as a back up to other arguments why you may be capable at aspects of general life in the Forces. Or don't mention it at all!
Undeterred I reapplied 3 months later to the day and flew through (excuse the subject related pun) my interview by re thinking how to portray my abilities best and reading up a little more about current general RAF affairs and affiliations. I didn't however change my demeanor and my interviewer stated that I didn't come across as arrogant at all, interesting to plainly see the consistency of the interviewing evaluations.
My next stumbling block was and is the medical. I was required after my medical to et various things checked by my GP before continuing in the application process. I had slight asthma as a child and a very faint heart murmur was detected in my medical. This has been dismissed as non existent by no less than three GPs afterwards but still I am in lingo due this.
The private company whom the RAF contract to perform the medicals took two months to sort my file out and book me a follow up medical, a wait that seemed a little unreasonable. Come the follow up medical and the doctor could still hear something in my heart and I was required to go back to my GP and get an Echocardiogram on my heart. This is not a quick test to have booked in and done. Why the private health company were unable to say they required this form and test after my first medical is a mystery to me as it has added another two months onto the process, somewhat unnecessarily. This is where I am in the process as of February 2015.
I strongly recommend anyone applying to the RAF tries to check their medical records are at their surgery if they've moved around (my surgery couldn't find mine which was another month to wait) and also to check out any medical conditions no matter how small as thoroughly as possible. The RAF medical will root it out and I could have made my process quicker by requesting my GP investigated my suspected heart murmur thoroughly even though he said couldn't hear it. The military stethoscopes are super sensitive! I'm currently waiting for my medical to go through, or not go through, but in the mean time I just have to accept that I've been one of the unlucky ones to suffer such inefficiency and incompetence in the process.
Jono Read ATCL, BA, MMus (Senior Air Craftsman)
Age 25, University of Nottingham (U-grad) University of Sheffield (P-grad), Clarinet.
I had always known that you could be a musician in the RAF but I wouldn't have realised it was for me if I hadn't come to know people that were already in the band and then lived through my fianc? applying and going through basic training into the job. I have always pursued music quite seriously and was completing a masters in music research when I came to know about the job properly. I had always been realistic about opportunities as a performer and always knew I had a long way to go despite being a proven soloist and busy ensemble player. This job requires to me to continue to develop as a player and allows me to travel, compose and pursue other enjoyments such as sport. There is also a whole other half to being in the RAF which I don't mind although it's much easier to say having come through some bits of it!
My first point of contact regarding the job was the RAF website and I spent a lot of time coming to understand the application process and what would be required of me. Soon after completing the online application I heard from Head Quarters Music Services (HQMS) who invited me to a familiarisation visit when I got to play with the band and to sit down with various people, including a very free and honest Q & A session about some of the more military aspects of the job. Once I had decided to go ahead with the application I had a lot of support from the Flight Sergeant at HQMS who I think appreciated better than I how long the following process was going to be.
My local Armed Forces Careers Office (AFCO) was my next port of call. I had an initial interview which required a bit of research although I had been well prepped with what to expect and it was fine. Then I had a medical assessment for which again I had no issues although I noted that it is a time when the assessor might find something that will either delay or finish your application as perhaps one or two applicants didn't make it to the next stage. I did however fail my fitness test the first time which meant a delay of ten weeks before I could retake it, although I was grateful for the time and I felt it showed my serious intent on getting the job and this seemed to be recognised by the AFCO staff.
I was invited for a formal audition which is a pre-requisite before being offered a post as a musician and I really enjoyed it. I was given a room in the junior ranks block the night before my audition and turned up on the day ready for a morning's rehearsal with the Central Band ? during which a number of my peers were asked to comment on how I did. The formal audition is similar to an ABRSM examination, 2 accompanied pieces at an appropriate level, sight reading, scales and a brief oral examination whilst being watched by a panel of four one of whom was, in my case, a clarinetist. I don't remember there being any part of the audition I didn't expect. In the afternoon I played with a wind quintet and finally had a formal conversation with the Director of Music of HQMS which again emphasized certain aspects of band life that made it different to a civilian job. Whilst it is true that part of my job is more than just a bandsman, and I felt a good number of people wanted me to appreciate this on my audition day, I have not found myself doing anything I didn't feel I signed up for, or prepared for by either HQMS or the AFCO. Beyond that however band life seemed very exciting and the camaraderie had been very apparent from only two visits with the band.
The next step was a Pre-Recruit Training Course (PRTC) which takes place at RAF Halton (the venue for the 10 week basic training also). I found this course helpful as it allowed me to put a picture to the place everyone at the AFCO and HQMS was talking about. It was three nights and four days and it was obvious that as far as possible we, as civilians, were being exposed to what the lifestyle was going to be like. Our accommodation was the same (16 people to a room) and the early mornings etc were the same. I would say the biggest difference was that the staff in charge of us were more friendly but also honest about what to expect.
Having traversed that I had a final "offer-of-service" interview. This required some preparation but I imagine anyone who puts in the work would find it fine. Then there's a wait of about ten weeks for Basic Training to begin.
I would imagine that most people would be encouraged to take more time, as I was with my fitness, during the application process in order to be as prepared as possible for Basic Training and so perhaps 6 to 9 months is how long an application might take.
Basic Training is a tough ten weeks and there are times when it can seem overwhelming. I found it helped to remember people I had met or already knew that had already passed out (graduated) and the fact that they had managed it. Also it helps knowing that you are going on to an exciting job and this was an advantage I felt I had over some of the recruits. There are so many aspects of Basic Training that I didn't appreciate until afterwards and that is very frustrating at the time. So many things seemed unreasonable and there was definitely a "ploy" to tell recruits as little as possible so that often you didn't realise the worst had passed until much later. That said I heard many stories of what basic training was like before going and my expectations were a lot worse than my memories of it but perhaps that is just the way it goes. I did have hard times and work with many people going through the same but I can't say I experienced people being unfairly treated. Whilst the flight staff in charge of us didn't make it easy they were very helpful and it was obvious that their intent was to get us through the course and if need be they were easily approachable.
Passing out was a very proud day.
Phase Two training at RAF Northolt was great. I learnt a lot and really valued my mentors for the three months I was in the school. ( I was a part qualified entrant). Whilst I enjoyed a significant development in my technique and performance style I saw others that benefitted from Drill practice and just the time to get back into playing their instruments and adjust to military life. It still felt like I was a step away from integrating properly into a band but I sat in on rehearsals and was used for some of the concerts during my time at the school. Everyone was friendly and willing to help.
Since then, and my posting to Central Band, I have had to get used to the pressure of ensuring that I, personally, am ready with everything required of me when it comes to rehearsals, concerts and parades etc. Having kit ready and becoming acquainted with the music before rehearsals are a must and whilst being unprepared for one rehearsal might get overlooked they certainly expect an improvement in the next. I still have lessons with other clarinetists in the band and I am taking on more responsibility as I become comfortable with what I am doing. I am involved in station sport and have been involved, with members of the band, in both walking and skiing expeditions. I feel like all the hard work and the time that was put in during the application process is coming to fruition.
So, as you can see, the recruitment process for a career in RAF music services is complex and lengthy. That's said with the Army and Marines courses involving 12 ? 36 months of musical training at their respective schools, and 12 ? 14 week initial basic training periods, the RAF process is positively spritely at a mere 9-12 months from start to finish.
However, It's not to be taken lightly and requires significant preparation, both physically and mentally. Patience is also important as things don't always progress as swiftly as they perhaps could and military personal don't like being told to do anything by anyone without the right stripes.
The basic elements of an RAF application are:
Familiarisation / Band visit day
AFCO initial interview
Pre joining Fitness test
Offer of Service
PRTC 4 day course
Phase 1 training (10 weeks at RAF Halton)
Phase 2 training ( 4-12 weeks)
It should also be noted that during the first 6 months of service a recruit can leave the RAF with two weeks notice, but after this period a total if 3 years service must be completed before you can leave. The days of buying yourself out are gone, so short of a catastrophic family or personal change resulting in a compassionate discharge or a dishonourable discharge you will be tied into a 3 year return of service after the first 6 months.
While on basic training (called phase 1) there is no guarantee that it will only take 10 weeks. At any stage, and for just about any reason, a recruit may be "back flighted" and placed in a flight of troops further back on the course. They run at 2 week intervals. This can be as a result of a failure in certain element of training that there is no time to address, or as a punishment, which does not have to be justified in any way by the course management, or as a result of an injury incurred on training. Recently a music recruit broke her ankle while on training and spent more than 12 months on the training flight. She did have the option to leave of course, but decided to stay as she was of course getting paid for the entire period of her recovery.
It is also worth noting that once over the initial 6 month period of two weeks notice a member of music services has to give 12 months notice to leave the service. So if wishing to leave at the three year point notice would have to be given at the 2 year point. This notice period was recently changed from 6 months in an attempt to improve retention of members. The fact is most employers will not accept 12 months as a reasonable notice period for changing jobs, so you really have to accept that unlike most other forms of employment, RAF Music Services expect you to resign before finding gainful employment elsewhere. Of course this is intentional to retain members. That said, the support for military personnel leaving is second to none and will be covered extensively In the third part of this article.
A very important aspect of military service, that is not part of the joining process but should receive considerable thought on considering joining up is war fighting. As a member of the armed forces you are trained to bare arms and if necessary to use them. In the crudest terms that means to kill someone. The RAF's primary role is to put bombs on targets and every member of the force has to be willing to expedite that in whatever way is appropriate at whatever time. Although this is of course not the everyday life or situation of a musician in the RAF (in fact it would be extreme), it should be carefully and thoughtfully considered as it could happen. It's the reason the rank structure and it's very clear lines of command and respect are maintained at all times. The band is no exception. Once you're a member and someone orders you to do something you don't want to do, its too late.
A musician in the RAF signs out of any fair working practise legislation and is contracted from 00:00hrs until 11:59hrs 7 days a week. A standard military contract. There is no overtime as may be expected, and there are no real rules governing when and where you may have to work. This is of course because the contract has to be designed to move people to a war zone and fight without legal restriction. It is illegal under military law to be a member of a trade union, so musicians union members should consider that. You will never be found out of course, and many members do use the union to protect themselves when working outside.
The RAF are part of the Military Pension scheme 15. This is a non contributory scheme but it is vastly different to any that has gone before, and from anything you may have heard about "uncle Bob's" military pension. It is worth studying so you understand the potential benefits you will be entitled to at age 60. There is no longer any benefit available below the pensionable age without special arrangements, but it is still planned that members will have to retire at age 55, with some higher ranks being allowed to continue to 60. Worth considering. A quick google search for AFPS15 will bring this up. Members of the service are on pensions from 1975, 2005 and from April this year all will be on the 15 pension. The blunt truth about this pension change is no one really knows exactly what they will be entitled to when they leave, so its best to seek professional advise, or read for yourself the paperwork. Don't take anyone's word for anything unless they are a financial adviser.
Rates of pay for musicians remain on the higher pay band up to the rank of Corporal. Sergeants and Chief Technicians are lower pay band and Flight Sergeants and Warrant Officers are high pay band. As a musician you will start on higher pay band level 5. If you come into the service as fully qualified (decided at the audition) you will receive back pay from the second day of phase 1 training at that pay level when you are posted to a band after phase 2 training. You will be paid on the basic amount while actually on training. A reasonable rate of promotion is 5-7 years to the next rank, but this is far from guaranteed and depends completely on a complex report system that is not under the direct control of music services. It is possible to achieve promotion to the next rank more or less quickly depending of many varying factors. I've known the quickest members manage it in 3 years and the slowest 16. I was about average at 6.
|HIGHER SPINE||LOWER SPINE|
|Warrant Officer||Level 7
|Flight Sergeant Levels 5 - 9
Chief Technician Levels 1 - 7
|Junior Tech/Senior Aircraftsmen (T) Levels 5 - 9
Senior Aircraftsmen Levels 2 - 5
Aircraftsmen/Ldg Aircraftsmen Level 1
|New Entrant Rate||?14,492|
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The initial contract offered to musicians is 12 years, with a further offer of 22 years made after promotion to Corporal and completion of the appropriate course. You may leave after 3 years with 12 months notice, but if you have not been promoted at the 12 year point the RAF can decide not to extend you're contract. This is influenced by Music Services, but is not under their direct control.
This first part of the article was intended to give a true and honest reflection of the process of applying to, auditioning for and joining RAF Music Services through the eyes of recent recruits and applicants. I hope this has been an interesting read and hopefully it will prove a valuable resource to those thinking about embarking on the application process, and no less importantly for those who may be in a position to advise young people on the possibility of a military career.
When I was joining 8 years ago I truly wish that a document like this had been available to me. So much of what we base our decisions on is hear say and rumour. The military have such complex systems of pay, pension, contract and general requirements that it is absolutely worth asking every difficult question you can think of straight away. If the person your asking doesn't know the answer they should go away and find it for you. Keep asking until you are satisfied.
In part two we will discover what everyday life is like for a member of RAF Music Services.