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From Basra to Belfast... why the RAF band has many strings to its bow

By Ivan Little

Published 07/11/2015

In formation: members of the Royal Air Force Band
In formation: members of the Royal Air Force Band
On song: RAF band flautist Richard Murray

Flautist Richard Murray's Northern Irish background stood him in good stead as he prepared to play with his colleagues from the Royal Air Force band in a parade in Iraq at the height of the bloody war there.

For just 20 minutes before their Battle of Britain commemoration was due to start, a mini-battle of Basra erupted with insurgents firing mortars into the heavily fortified military base.

But the RAF band played on and Richard from County Antrim says: "I was used to that sort of thing growing up back home. But the mortars exploded well away down the airhead and everything was fine."

The musicians had gone to Iraq to play at ceremonial engagements but they also staged morale-boosting concerts to entertain service personnel

Richard, who's an RAF Flight Lieutenant, was just a rank and file musician in the band back then. But now he's the director of music with RAF music services and in just a few weeks' time he will be the conductor at a special concert at Belfast's Waterfront Hall to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

And Richard says he always enjoys getting the chance to play back home with his RAF band.

He was born in Carrickfergus and his first introduction to music was on a piano which his parents bought for their home. But later at Downshire school he was offered his choice of other instruments to learn. And he became a flautist almost by accident.

He says: "I don't really know why I picked the flute. But it was the encouragement of staff at Downshire and later at Belfast High School which really sowed the seeds."

His father was a bagpiper and Richard had a spell with Woodburn Pipe Band but there was only going to be one winner for his affections once the flute came along.

Richard went on to study music at the University of Ulster and he was also playing with the Ballyclare Victoria Flute Band, a highly regarded and award-winning concert ensemble.

Not surprisingly James Galway was a major inspiration for Richard who went to a number of masterclasses he was giving in England and also had unexpected meetings with him back home.

Richard used to attend classes by Colin Fleming, the principal flautist with the Ulster Orchestra, and sometimes Galway, who was a close friend of the tutor, in the same room in Belfast.

"I would end up playing with him and Colin Fleming. It was an amazing experience"

Their paths crossed again in Belfast in September when they both took part in the Big Flute Challenge when hundreds of flautists were assembled to form a massive orchestra which Richard conducted with more than a little help from Galway.

"That was absolutely fantastic and made my dreams come true. I am in awe of the man," says Richard, who adds that the Challenge only underlined for him the depth of talent among flautists in Northern Ireland.

He's been with the RAF band for over 17 years now but deciding to forge a career in it was a pragmatic decision, not a flight of fancy.

He says: "I had considered becoming a teacher but I also quite liked the idea of performing. However, for aspiring musicians trying to get your backside on a seat in a major orchestra, particularly for a flautist, is hard to do.

"I looked at the forces' bands as an alternative because they are the biggest employers of musicians in the country and their reputation is huge."

Richard had been particularly impressed by the RAF band after seeing them playing at a number of high-profile ceremonials such as the handover by Britain of Hong Kong to China, but they weren't his only employment target.

"The Army trailed their heels but the RAF offered me a place as a flautist. So that meant I would be playing symphonic wind band music in an orchestral fashion. I was delighted I was going to be paid to do my hobby.

"My initial idea was that I might stay for a while to see how it worked out. Now, 17 years later, I am still there. It's a phenomenal job."

The RAF insists that their new recruits from the ranks of university graduates like Richard undergo basic RAF training and they are sometimes used to help out in emergencies like in the event of a firefighters strike in Britain.

But in the main they are full-time musicians who travel extensively to play at official functions and at concerts, which involves a tough schedule of rehearsals but at other times the band members also take on administrative duties.

There are currently 177 musicians within the RAF, which has three bands - the Central Band, the Band of the RAF Regiment and the Band of the RAF College.

Richard's role as Director of Music, Headquarters Music Services, involves him overseeing the tasking, policy and recruitment for all the RAF bands, though he still has a very definite hands-on role as a conductor.

As well as Iraq, Richard's high-flying with the RAF has taken him right across the world to America, Canada, all of Europe, India, Bosnia Herzegovina and Saudi Arabia.

The RAF band's duties are frequently solemn and emotional. This weekend for example they'll play at the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall in London and at the national service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph.

But there are lighter moments too. And in 2012 Richard played at the Olympics in London and at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. "I will always remember the cheer for the RAF as the Central Band performed Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines as we entered Windsor Great Park for the Diamond Jubilee muster; it still raises hairs on my neck," he says.

"But the icing on the cake had to be our daily musical support during the Olympics in London… Wimbledon, Eton Dorney, Hampton Court, the Mall and the hardest job of all - beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade, but someone had to do it!"

The thrill of several three-week stints every year at Buckingham Palace at the Changing of the Guard never leaves him.

"It's quite an honour really and to be standing inside those famous gates is always a surreal experience," says Richard. "We play ceremonial marches but we also try to entertain the thousands of tourists who come along with music that they will know, like tunes from the shows and James Bond movies and Michael Jackson hits and recently we also added Pharrell Williams' Happy which went down very well."

The RAF musicians also play in smaller ensembles but one of their most popular offshoots is the RAF Squadronaires who are a big band who date back to the Second World War.

Unsurprisingly the music of the late Glenn Miller, who formed a 50-piece American Air Force band during the war, is a particular favourite with the Squadronaires who have recorded top 40 albums of swing music in their time.

Richard also released a CD with the band of the RAF regiment called From Russia with Love, which featured a wide variety of Russian music from classical, movie and big band genres.

On more sombre occasions, Richard also played at the Queen Mother's funeral in 2008 and directed the RAF's Central Band at Margaret Thatcher's funeral five years later.

Richard and his colleagues also had the harrowing task of providing the music during the repatriation to England of 14 colleagues who died when their Nimrod crashed during a reconnaissance flight in Afghanistan, the biggest single loss of life suffered by the British military since the Falklands war.

"That was a particularly sad day for all of us," says Richard who knows that the traditions of military music across all the services including the reserve forces are proudly maintained.

He admits that there's a fair bit of rivalry between them all. But he insists: "Everyone knows we are the best. Even the Army bands would admit that - albeit through gritted teeth. That's why we get so much work from the BBC and Classic FM. We are highly regarded in those circles.

"The Army do a lot of marching about - that's what they do but we have a fantastic concert series that takes us around all the major concert halls and we also support the major service charities."

Richard concedes that he's slightly jealous of the Royal Marines band and their counterparts in the Irish Guards but for one reason only.

"They may have the best uniforms and they may have the history behind them but we are the top band."

The repertoire of the RAF musicians and the diversity of their commitments are vast. "One minute you can be playing as a woodwind quartet, as the big band or as a brass ensemble," says Richard. "That's the delight of the job and shows the versatility of our musicians. We have so many strings to our bow. You never know what you might be doing from one day to the next."

Richard says that orchestral musicians couldn't and wouldn't be able to cope with the punishing schedules, which in one year alone saw him clocking up 40,000 miles playing 450 engagements with the RAF band.

Richard, who is married to Megan, a bassoon player he met in the RAF music services and has two young daughters, aged two and six, lives in Northolt in west London close to where he is based.

And despite his hectic work and family commitments he still manages time to conduct the Trinity Orchestra in Harrow and he has also played with orchestras in Lincolnshire.

"It's great to perform other music which is very different from the wind band world," says Richard, who promises an evening to remember for concert-goers at the Waterfront on Tuesday, December 1.

The concert is part of a tour to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and will include all sorts of music from Bernstein's Mambo to Holst's Mars through to the more modern era, though Richard says there will also be one or two Irish airs as well.

The aim of the tour is to pay tribute to all the participants in the battle and to honour the RAF personnel who have inherited their legacy in wars especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The concert will be compered by Alan Dedicoat whose name may not be familiar to many people but is instantly recognisable as the 'Voice of the Balls' on the National Lottery programmes on television.

Belfast Telegraph

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