A final note: RCN musician’s career spans four decades

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Crowsnest - Spring 2017 / April 26, 2017

By Peter Mallett

After 41 years of hitting all the right notes, Maritime Forces Pacific’s Naden Band musician Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Savich has packed up his tuba and called it a career.

The band’s longest serving Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) member, who has also played bassoon, euphonium, bass guitar and Sousaphone in a career spanning four decades, says he really doesn’t want to go. But on February 28 he turned 60, the mandatory retirement age for military personnel.

“It really is very difficult for me to leave the band because I have had such a tremendous career. After four decades of playing music for ‘Team Canada’ I don’t think any other career path could have made me happier,” says PO2 Savich.

His current and former band mates are also be sorry to see him go.

“Mike has committed his life to the preservation and promotion of the Music Branch, and is also the greatest archivist the branch has ever seen,” says former Naden Band Commanding Officer Captain Matthew Clark. “I always relied on him to instill a sense of calm, and his natural ability to express proper concern to the chain of command is one of legend. Simply put, when he spoke, I listened.”

PO2 Savich says his career allowed him to make a living at the thing he loves most – playing music and travelling Canada and the world. Career highlights include playing at Vimy Ridge six times, an outdoor mass at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympics, the Calgary Stampede, and multiple appearances at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo music festival and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

“It would be unfair to pick just one event as a career topper because there are just too many,” he says. “Even the local events we play every year, we may have performed at the event 10 times but there is always something different at each time that makes it interesting.”

A memorable performance

But if he had to pick one memorable performance he says his participation with the CAF Vimy Band in the 60th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton, Ont., in 1984. It was a ceremony that involved over 1,200 military members marching in unison on the tarmac of the base’s runway. It held special significance for PO2 Savich because his father, Sergeant (Retired) John Savich served in the RCAF during the Second World War.

His father met his mother Betty when they both sang in Ontario Hydro’s choir in the early 1950s, and although both parents encouraged all five of their children to pursue their musical interests, it was his mother who kept up supporting and promoting his musical side.

“She deserves a lot of the credit,” PO2 Savich says.

He joined his high school’s band and shortly afterwards began his military musical career as a member of Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corp Illustrious in Toronto.

“As a teen growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, being involved in music kept me on the straight and narrow,” he says. “I simply loved listening and playing all music from a wide range of genres, from country to rock to classical. With the cadets I was exposed to marching and concert band music for the first time and knew it was my calling. It was a no brainer for me.”

He joined the CAF in 1976 and did basic training at CFB Cornwallis, N.S., before being posted to Canadian Forces Music School at CFB Esquimalt, B.C., later that year.  It was a career that would see lengthy spells in all three element uniforms including the CAF Vimy Band in Kingston, Ont., the CFB Cornwallis Base Band, and the RCAF’s Central Band based in Ottawa, along with two separate postings in Esquimalt.

It was his first spell at this base where he met his lifelong friend Petty Officer 1st Class (Retired) Andy Reljic. PO1 Reljic, who himself enjoyed a 42-year musical career, was PO2 Savich’s bassoon instructor for two years at the CAF School of Music. The two men formed a lifelong friendship with PO1 Reljic still marvelling at PO2 Savich’s warm and friendly personality to this day.

“He has embraced his career with a playful, wide-eyed and unparalleled enthusiasm that is the essence of Mike,” said PO 1 Reljic. “Generous to a fault, he is the kind of person that will always be there for you, and whatever job you give him to do he will take it on with pride.”

But it wasn’t just his musical skill that had PO1 Reljic and other band mates marvelling, it was his attention to detail and hard work ethic in the business side of the band that was also remarkable. PO1 Reljic credits PO2 Savich with being the “de-facto historian” of the Naden Band, tirelessly documenting its history for both its 60th anniversary in 2000 and its 70th anniversary celebration.

“When we were putting together our 70th anniversary, we had piles of boxes of photos with no captions, information or dates,” PO 1 Reljic recalls. “Mike just looked at me with this big Cheshire grin and said ‘I love doing this stuff’. He has been such a big part of the band celebrating its history.”

PO1 Reljic was among 90 former band mates who attended a special retirement dinner for PO2 Savich at the Chiefs’ and Petty Officers’ Mess in January. As testament to how well the guest of honour is liked, Capt Clark, now Commanding Officer of the RCAF Band, travelled from Winnipeg to celebrate the occasion.

The accolades for PO2 Savich also reverberated higher up the chain of command as two days later the Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, Rear-Admiral Art McDonald, made a surprise visit to the band’s headquarters. He dropped in on a practice session to show his appreciation to PO2 Savich for his long and distinguished service to the CAF by presenting him a Bravo Zulu Certificate and Commander’s Coin.

A unique experience

RAdm McDonald also asked PO2 Savich if there was anything “unique” he would like to do as a member of the CAF before retiring.

“It immediately struck me: what could be a more unique navy experience than to visit a submarine, figuring it would be a tour,” PO2 Savich explains. “RAdm McDonald replied that he would see what he could do, and you can imagine my surprise when a month later I was told to prepare for a three-night sail in HMCS Chicoutimi.”

He explains that when he was younger, he found the Apollo missions fascinating, and figured that by now people would be travelling into space on a regular basis. “Since that hasn't happened,” he says, “the closest thing to space would be to travel under the sea, and somehow I got that opportunity. It was fantastic. To witness the crew in action and see them carry out their duties made me appreciate both their skill and their incredible teamwork. It reminded me in a way, of performing in an ensemble, listening to the other instruments and playing in harmony. As thrilling as the sail was however, I still wouldn't trade four decades of playing music with some of Canada’s finest musicians for anything.”

As he leaves the CAF behind, PO2 Savich says he is looking forward to spending “more quality time” with his wife Virginia and his four children Kendra, Grant, Mallory and Dean.

His retirement won’t end his lifelong love affair with music though; he is now exploring possible roles with local cadet and community bands.

“I would like to become involved with the cadet program locally, as I was given such a terrific 41-year career in the CAF directly due to my initial beginning with Sea Cadets,” he says.

He has also been assisting his son Dean as groundskeepers at the Veteran's Cemetery, God's Acre, in Esquimalt, where he performed in many Candlelight Ceremonies as a musician with the Naden Band.

“I’ve also been invited to play with some ensembles in Victoria and will have some maintenance to do in our recently purchased 1967 home in nearby Colwood, B.C. My wife and I will celebrate our 35th anniversary in September and we are fortunate to have all four of our children nearby. I am now a retired member of the Naden Band and am looking forward to their annual heritage days and 80th reunion in 2020.”

With files from Darlene Blakeley