Striking the right note - Professional bands bring the navy to Canadians

Crowsnest - Spring 2014 / April 24, 2014

By Darlene Blakeley

As the frigate slips her lines and heads to sea for a long foreign deployment, the triumphant sound of band music echoes throughout the dockyard. Amid the smiles and tears of those saying goodbye to loved ones, the brassy notes uplift spirits and bring a festive aura to the departure.

This is one of the traditional tasks of a naval band, but there is so much more. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) bands, made up of professional musicians in naval uniforms, have many diverse and intricate ceremonial duties that cross the broad spectrum of naval life and also bring the navy to Canadians through various events across the country.

The two Regular Force bands, the Stadacona Band in Halifax and the Naden Band in Esquimalt, B.C., have long and rich histories of military music that stretch back for decades. This year both bands will celebrate 74 years of service to the RCN.

As well, the National Band of the Naval Reserve, active in the summer, is composed of musicians from Naval Reserve Divisions Montcalm (Québec City), York (Toronto), Star (Hamilton), Tecumseh (Calgary) and Chippawa (Winnipeg).

Both the Stadacona Band and the Naden Band play nearly 200 engagements each year including mess dinners, street parades, Guards of Honour, receptions, educational concerts, festivals and fundraising events for charitable organizations. Along with the full concert band, each has an assortment of other performers such as brass quintets, jazz combos, soloists and parade bands.

“Our presence at events helps to create a sense of pageantry, instill a sense of national pride and reinforce the strong reputation of our military,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Tutton, a trombonist in the Stadacona Band. “Furthermore, the bands are often present during port visits when our ships visit local and international ports, and also when ships from other navies dock in Canada. Such a presence helps to establish a warm and instant connection with those who are present, as music is an international language that supersedes borders and formalities.”

Halifax has a rich history of military music beginning with bands that supported the garrison and fleet dating back to the founding of the city in 1749. The Stadacona Band was formed in 1940 when the city was fully engaged in preparing convoys for passage across the Atlantic during the Second World War. Over the years it has become a proud ambassador of the RCN, displaying for Canadians the pride and traditions of the service.

The beauty of the navy band explains PO2 Tutton, is that it is completely mobile and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. “We bring the RCN to Canadians by being in their towns, playing in their schools, or marching down their streets,” he says. “The band is completely mobile and incredibly versatile. Put a jazz quartet on board a ship and they can perform at every port; load the band on a bus and they have the ability to reach every Canadian in each city or town they travel through; send them on a parade with their boots polished and they become integrated into that community. No other medium is available to the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and specifically the RCN, to leave such an impact on any Canadian, no matter where they live.”

On the West Coast, the Naden Band was also formed in 1940 and kept up both civilian and military morale with concerts, dances and hundreds of radio broadcasts, as well as playing for base ceremonies, monthly church parades and public parades through the streets Victoria and Vancouver. The band also assisted the government in raising money for the war effort through countless war bond drives in Western Canada.

In the decades following the Second World War, the Naden Band continued to represent the CAF throughout British Columbia and Canada, receiving acclaim for its performances at events such as the Pacific National Exhibition and the Grey Cup, the Kelowna Regatta, Edmonton’s Klondike Days and the Calgary Stampede. In travels abroad, the Naden Band became an ambassador for Canada with performances as varied as Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan; accompanying HMCS Provider and the Second Canadian Destroyer Squadron in a 1972 tour of Fiji, New Zealand and Australia; and participating in an historic visit to Vladivostok, Russia in 1991.

The Naden Band continues to aid CAF recruiting offices in their efforts to reach young Canadians through concerts and presentations at schools. The band demonstrates support for local communities with its active role in fundraising for non-profit organizations such as the Salvation Army Christmas Toy Drive, the Military Family Resource Centre and the United Way.

According to its music director, Lieutenant (Navy) Matthew Clark, the Naden Band’s mission is to “capitalize on the power, emotion and inspiration of music to instill Canadians with a sense of pride in the navy, the CAF, the Department of National Defence and the nation.”

He also notes that bands represent the history and heritage of the RCN to both civilians and members of the navy, past and present. “From the early days of sail when sailors would sing shanties to help with coordination of hauling lines and hoisting sails, it also served as an aural method of passing along history and folklore within the navy itself. Singing also passed the time and distracted those from the mundane routine of ship life.”

Those joining RCN bands today are highly trained and experienced professional musicians from across the country. It is a rare occasion when a musician joins the CAF without a Bachelor of Music degree, and most have a Master’s of Music. Some of the schools represented are famous institutions such as the Julliard School of Music, the Eastman School, New York University, McGill University, the University of Miami and the University of Toronto.

Outside the academic spectrum, RCN musicians have extensive performing experience in all mediums. “Many musicians entering the CAF have toured with world-class artists, performed with major symphony orchestras across North America, and worked as jazz/commercial musicians on cruise ships and in recording studios,” PO2 Tutton says. “As far as choosing the right musicians, there is a rigorous and thorough audition process that must be passed before a new musician joins a band. The auditions are very competitive.”

Navy musicians take great pride in their work, enjoying the positive response from listeners, adds Lt(N) Clark. One piece of music that always seems to evoke a special reaction is the official march of the RCN, Heart of Oak. “I have had many people talk to me about their memories of going to sea on extended missions, waving goodbye and hearing the Naden Band play Heart of Oak on the jetty. They also mention how proud they were to hear the band again upon their return home.”

There’s no doubt that music that brings people together, and the talent the Stadacona and Naden Bands have to showcase the navy while providing an enjoyable experience for civilians and sailors alike is unique. “The ability to entertain and also tug on the very heart strings of the Canadian public will always solicit a very human and positive response to the CAF and navy,” says Lt(N) Clark.