The best military band in Canada is full of purple talent
When the bright red tunics of the Ceremonial Guard flash across Parliament Hill, there is a lot of purple woven into them - Western University purple. Each summer, several Don Wright Music students play in the parades, Guard of Honour, military function dinners and concerts.
The Ceremonial Guard is more than a top Ottawa attraction for three million visitors. It is a Canadian Armed Forces unit, and the 90 brass and reeds, and 30 pipers and drummers must complete basic military qualification (BMQ), or training.
“Before starting public duties (the Changing of the Guard Ceremony), all musicians go through an intensive training period for about a month,” said Lt. David Lewis, public affairs officer for the Ceremonial Guard. “They are working on music and all military aspects of the job, such as foot drill, band drill, uniforms maintenance.
“The days are full. We start at 0530 hours with physical training. We also have morning inspection every day. We have music rehearsal for parade music and training as parade band formation. We also do concert music rehearsal for future engagements. Usually, evenings are free but we ask our members to work on their music, personal practice and work to get ready for inspections.”
For many students, and musicians, the early mornings, physical training and intense schedule would send them in another direction. Not so for about a dozen Western students and alumni this summer.
Jayden Beaudoin, percussion
“The Ceremonial Guard offers a number of opportunities for both established and developing musicians. Mentorship from the returning members plays a huge role in bringing the new members up to speed on the standards in the Guard. In addition, members make valuable contacts across the country.”
Isabelle Hamel Carassi, flute/piccolo
“The salary is what piqued my interest at first. As a musician, there are hardly any other part-time jobs that can match a military salary, and it was a way to get paid for the musical skills that I’ve been working on for the past 10 years. Once I started asking my peers about it, I learned that this was in fact a military job, which required basic military training and the opportunity to work in an environment vastly different from the Music Faculty that I called my home. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to see if I could thrive in that kind of environment.”
Trevor Bowman, first/solo cornet on parade; first/second trumpet in concert
“Frankly the money, the glory, and not going home for the summer. This is hands-down the best job you can get in your undergraduate career. You get to play your instrument and get paid for it. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Skills and experience
The Ceremonial Guard holds auditions at music faculties across the country because they are looking for accomplished musicians, said Lt. Lewis.
The director of music and band sergeant major hear applicants play two contrasting pieces, as well as scales and some sight reading, followed by an interview. The process is excellent experience for young musicians who will play auditions throughout their careers. It also parallels the process for applying to Western.
“I remember being extremely nervous because two head honchos from the military were going to listen to me play,” said Bowman. “But after I introduced myself and realized how nice they were, it was much easier.”
“My audition was slightly atypical,” said Beaudoin. “Vancouver was their second to last location to conduct auditions, and as a result they could easily let people know on the spot if they were accepted.
“I joke that my cymbal technique improved more in my first summer than any other time in my life. New members often play cymbals due to the perceived easiness of the instrument, but I used it as an opportunity to practise the instrument. With each parade requiring a cymbal crash on every beat, I would play thousands of notes in one day. For the record, I have yet to play a perfect cymbal parade.”
For Bowman, it was sight-reading that improved noticeably. “You sight-read new marches every day on parade, which is much harder than one might think because you have to march and maintain proper drill at the same time.
“In addition, my teamwork skills have increased because in the military you are not an individual, you are a group. Everyone works together to achieve a goal, and it is so rewarding to work with such amazing musicians from across the country. Moreover, the bonds of camaraderie are very real, especially the musicians you go through basic training with. And of course, you develop the skill to play extraordinarily loud.”
Carassi changed from a sheltered flute player to someone who could work with all types. “I think they try to break the new recruits during BMQ so they can build them back up and mold them into good soldiers. This tough (no)-love environment was pretty jarring. The military succeeded in toughening me up because I’ve come back to CG every summer a stronger leader and team player, better able to face setbacks and conflicts. It definitely helped me in my role as student council president.”
To the tourists, the sight of the band in perfect formation playing beautiful music is part of the capital’s spectacle. But it’s not so easy.
“Simply playing and walking at the same time, with a tight uniform made of wool, a giant bearskin hat on your head with a chain that sits right on your embouchure takes a lot of getting used to,” said Bowman.
“Besides the obvious challenges we face in a military environment (strenuous physical requirements and training, countless inspections) the biggest challenge I face is staying focused on my music,” said Carassi. “There is a certain stiffness and lack of musicality that can creep into playing marches on parade, and so as a group we need to work hard to tap back into our musical training. It’s very easy to get caught up in the fun and exciting aspects of military life.”
For Beaudoin, teamwork can be tricky. “The biggest issue in the percussion section is the ability to sound tight with rotating instrumentation. Because we rotate side drummers, bass drummer and cymbal players every parade, it can be tough to really sync up with the changing styles that each member brings.”
The caliber of players, camaraderie and connections are big take-aways.
“There are many things that are great about the Ceremonial Guard, and I’m not sure if I can choose a favourite,” said Beaudoin. “The connections, the high musical and visual standards all serve to create a better musician.
“Since I’ve been the percussion section leader for a number of years before coming to Western, it helped me to establish myself at the University before I arrived. Knowing some of the students at Western was helpful in making connections.”
Carassi transferred her new attitude and confidence into her role as students’ council president. “I’m really proud of the person I’ve become because of it, and it’s been wonderful to see others grow.
“Western and University of Toronto have the largest number of students, depending on the year. It’s been interesting to learn about other programs, and a good way to promote ours. I like to brag about all the great stuff we have going for us! It’s meant that I have connections all over Canada and that is key for any kind of career path.”
Bowman enjoys being paid for doing something he loves. “I was able to buy a new trumpet, and pay my rent and groceries for the entire school year with the money I made last summer. It’s just an amazing experience and totally worth every moment. It doesn’t hurt your resume either.
“My favourite part of being in the band is playing for hundreds of thousands of people over the summer in our nation’s capital,” said Bowman. I’ve never felt more pride than playing O Canada on Parliament Hill on Canada Day, standing 20 meters from the Prime Minister and the Governor General, with jets flying by and artillery firing and thousands of excited Canadians in a sea of red and white.”
Carassi agreed. I’m proud to wear the uniform and represent the CAF on Parliament Hill every morning. We get to see high-ranking military personnel and politicians up close. It’s a job like no other!”
Sounds like the Armed Forces’ promotion - There’s no life like it.