A select band: The pride of the Royal Marines

PRIDE The Royal Marines Band performing at the home coming of ''HMS Daring. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (122559-3570)
PRIDE The Royal Marines Band performing at the home coming of ''HMS Daring. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (122559-3570)
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David Curwen, centre, hugs his mother with whom he wa sreunited. Completing the group is his brother Keith

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They are a familiar sight in their immaculate black uniforms and gleaming instruments at naval homecomings, parade grounds and concerts.

Most recently, the Royal Marines bands were watched by millions of people on television during the celebrations to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Yet few people who admire the world-famous musicians will know just what it takes to join the prestigious service.

The journey begins in the somewhat unlikely surrounds of a former navy prison – or detention quarters – at Portsmouth Naval Base.

The Royal Marines School of Music has been based there after moving over from Deal, Kent, in 1996.

Since then, almost 500 musicians have passed through its doors on their way to joining one of the six Royal Marines bands.

There is a gruelling five-day interview and auditioning process, followed by a two or three year course.

And youngsters don’t just have to learn two new instruments from scratch while marching, they also have to make the grade as a competent soldier as well.

‘In order for them to pass for duty they have to achieve a huge amount,’ says the school’s director of music training Major Jason Burcham, 43, who joined the band service in 1986.

‘They work so hard and we expect an awful lot from them. There’s one intake a year of around 30 musicians and the first 15 weeks is spent in initial military training.’

Thirteen weeks of that punishing start to military life is spent at the Commando Training Centre in Lympstone, Devon, where all fledgling Royal Marines begin their career.

The musicians have to tackle the assault courses, learn the famous Corps discipline, how to handle and fire weapons, and master the first aid skills they may require on warships and frontline operations.

Many musicians have been deployed to the Afghanistan – not just to play, but to work in logistics roles and as medics.

Maj Burcham says: ‘When we talk about versatility, we often talk about their musical capability. But there’s also a very operational role.

‘This time last year, the Commando Centre Training band were in Afghanistan in support of 3 Commando. It’s something that surprises quite a lot of people.’

After completing the basic military training, students return to the forbidding, red-brick Victorian building at Portsmouth Naval Base.

It still looks like a prison, surrounded as it is by high walls, with barred windows, open landings and nets between the floors.

It’s there the real work begins and students each have their own room – where they practice for around eight hours a day.

They regularly create ensembles with other students and the school’s 17 Professors or Music. They also have to learn how to march correctly on parade.

Surprisingly, only a few drop out of the course and earlier this month the latest crop of graduates – after a final five-hour exam – were declared ready for duty.

Ellie Moys, 21, of Fareham, joined the school in September 2009 and is now set to play in the Royal Marines band at HMS Caledonia in Rosyth.

She says: ‘Growing up in Fareham, I saw the Collingwood band quite a bit and I loved them.

‘From the age of six or seven I started playing the piano and I thought it would be a brilliant career option.

‘It was difficult to get in. I had a five-day audition and they offered me a place on clarinet and piano. I hadn’t played clarinet before but thankfully I managed to pick it up quite quickly.

‘It’s been an amazing three years. I’ve learnt so much and made so many friends. Now I’m excited about going to Scotland. It’s a big adventure moving away from home.’

Sam Martin, 21, of Lee-on-the-Solent, had to retrain from being a trumpet and cornet player to french horn.

He’s now set to join the Corps’ Plymouth band.

‘It’s been tough but it’s been really good,’ he says.

In May, Sam had the fortune to be called up to play at the huge Queen’s jubilee pageant at Windsor Castle.

Now he’s got the bug for more. He says: ‘It was crazy. There were thousands in the streets watching and thousands of military personnel behind us. It was an incredible experience and I can’t get out and do more of that now.’

A proud service history

AS long ago as the days of Admirals Drake and Hawkins in the 16th century, the drummer’s rhythm would advertise the changing of the watch or beat sailors to quarters.

Marine bands provided music on board ships during the Napoleonic Wars – including the famous Battle of Trafalgar.

In 1769, Royal Marines Divisional Bands were formed at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth, but the modern history of the band service began in 1903 when the Royal Naval School of Music was assigned to the Royal Marines.

Their traditional operational role is as stretcher bearers.

In the Second World War, 225 musicians and buglers were killed – a quarter of their strength at the time.

Musicians have also served in the Falklands, both Gulf Wars, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

In September 1989, the IRA bombed the RM music school at Deal, Kent, killing 11 musicians.