On 9th June, we had the opportunity to speak with Stu Warmington from the British Drum Company about his time serving in The Royal Marines. In this interview, Stu shares his journey to joining the Marines, the different roles he had, and some of his biggest highlights.
The second half of this blog will be posted on 3rd July. Make sure to keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us a little more about your experience in military and marching bands, Stu. A great place to start would be to briefly introduce yourself to our readers?
Okay. My name’s Stu Warmington. I’m the head of the Marching Division at the British Drum Company. I just finished my career in the Royal Marines, where I spent the last 22 years, in the Royal Marines Band Service.
Would you mind letting us know a little bit about how you actually got into music, and Royal Marines, in the first place?
It was ingrained into me from a very young age. My father was a Drum Major in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and both my grandfathers were in the Merchant Navy. One of them served on the Arctic Convoys, so the military side of it and the discipline, was always there from the start. Then like most drummers, I picked up some wooden spatulas and some pots and pans when I was about four – I soon realised from a very early age that I was more suited to just one drum!
Obviously, with my father being a Drum Major in the Fusiliers, he made it his mission to pass on the knowledge. I can remember my father putting a record on and saying; “Do you know, what foot they’re on now?” I can remember him explaining that; “Well, on the start of a phrase, it’s going to be a left foot”. This was when I was around 6 years old. I was literally brainwashed from such a young age – you’ve no idea. Here’s an example, when most people would be walking to school with their Walkman’s on and listening to the Top 20 chart hits, I had military music on and I was pretty much marching to school with a good 30-inch pace (obviously in step with the music now I knew how to work it out).
I think for my 7th or 8th birthday, I bought a briefcase with my birthday money and filled it with all my military tapes and had them all in alphabetical order. My dad also used to teach youth bands in his spare time. Over the years he taught Air, Army & Sea Cadets as well as Girls & Boys Brigades and I just tagged along with him. So, yeah, you could say it was inevitable I would join a military band when I was older. However, when I saw the Royal Marines Corps of Drums with their white helmets and slick stickwork [Stu demonstrated some air stick-work over Skype!] I knew that was the job for me.
I joined the Marine Cadets at 13 but got bored fairly quickly as they didn’t have a band but then I joined the Territorial Army at 15 as a junior drummer where I would spend the next 6 years due to the Royal Marines Band Service redundancies. My time in the Fusiliers was great. I was making good money, traveling the world and all while playing drums. It took six years before the Royal Marines Band Service started recruiting again, which is a long time so in September 1997 I joined the Royal Marines Band Service where I would spend the next 22 years, until I retired last September.
Wow, that’s recent, I didn’t realise you’d left the Royal Marines so recently…
Yeah, it was just in September. Normally before you leave, you get terminal leave where you can take your last month to sort yourself out ready for the civilian world. I had missed the last 3 years of my service due to Crohn’s Disease where I wasn’t able to work at all. If I’m being honest I felt I’d been cheated out of my last 3 years so, after my last operation and getting fully fit, I went back to finish the last 6 months of my service. My first gig back after three years was the big D-Day commemoration on national TV with HM Queen.
I know! That was really good, so that worked really well. And then, because I didn’t want my terminal leave, I worked up to the very last possible minute; midnight on the 7th of September, which was a Saturday night and the final night of the Belfast International Tattoo, was my last show…to the point where I couldn’t go back to camp because after midnight I wasn’t insured by the MOD! I also had to make my own way back, pay for my hotel and my own flight back as I wasn’t covered, but I just wanted to carry on performing with the Royal Marines and finish on a good gig.
That’s amazing. And what a way to end your time with the Royal Marines…
Tattoos have always been my favourite type of engagement as you get to meet many new people and get to play alongside some great bands from other countries and the Belfast International Tattoo was no different. It was a great gig to go out on.
Oh really? Amazing. Stu, would you mind telling us a little bit about what your role was when you were in the Marines or which roles you had throughout your time with them?
I started off at the School of Music where I did 18 months of music training before I passed out to one of the bands. There are 5 bands dotted around the UK; Commando Training Centre Royal Marines in Lympstone, HM Raleigh in Plymouth, MOD Caledonia Scotland & 2 bands in the Portsmouth area which are HMS Collingwood in Fareham and the Royal Band which is based at HMS Nelson. There was a band based at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth but that closed and moved to HMS Collingwood. Over the 22 years, I’d served in all the bands including the Dartmouth Band, and I was there when it closed. I got drafted there and managed to get my name on the locker for three months before they said “Right. We’re closing it.” so I literally got there, did a couple of gigs, and left.
My main role was a Corporal Bugler within the Corps of Drums, which is a great role. You’re not in charge of it, so there’s no pressure. The Sergeant basically takes control of the Corps of Drums, so he gets all the pressure, and the Corporals get to go out and do all the gigs – they get the good parts! There’s no paperwork, they just enjoy performing.
I did the Drum Majors course, and I was Assistant Drum Major for about six years, and then had to make the choice whether to carry on following that route and stop in an office, or hand back the additional qualification and carry on performing. So, I decided to hand it back in so I could carry on performing for the rest of my career. The Drum Majors don’t really get chance to go on parade very often compared to the Corps of Drums as we get to perform at concerts, Mess Beatings, Herald Fanfare Trumpet engagements and we also have the honour of performing Last Post & Reveille for our fallen comrades.
I didn’t want to sit in an office and not really perform again – it’s nice when they get out, but it’s not a daily thing. That simply wasn’t for me, I couldn’t do that, so I handed the appointment of Assistant Drum Major back and stopped as a Corporal Bugler. I didn’t want promotion either for the same reason as that would also have me in an office most of the time and less time performing, so once I got to Corporal I just decided to stop where I was, turned down the promotion, carried on gigging and loved it. It was one of the best things I ever did. Throughout my years in the Band Service I had often heard people say that Corporal was the best rank…you know what? They were right!
That’s amazing. And as a bugler, had you had any experience playing brass instruments before?
Yeah, so when I was in the TA, I played the bugle it was pretty much the same job. I used to play the bugle, so I went out and performed many Last Post, Reveilles and Sunset ceremonies in the TA. With regards to drumming, it was the same, we did stick-work and played with a band. When I joined up I had a good knowledge of the fundamentals but after 18 Months of training it was so much better plus I’d also been taught the Herald Fanfare Trumpet during that time.
Just the three then! So you said you’d been in the TA for six years, and then went and did your 18 months training – did you know the majority of that already then? That’s amazing. And as a bugler, had you had any experience playing brass instruments before?
The first 15 weeks basic training was in Portsmouth but it’s now been moved to the Commando Training Centre, the majority of this is to turn you from a civilian to a member of HM Royal Marines. There is a lot of drill and inspections and quite a bit of field work. That was great for me because I had more experience than most from my time in the TA. I’d often worked with the Sniper section, Assault Pioneers and the Signal section, so for these people who’ve never done anything like this before it was a shock to the system.
If I’m being completely honest I just coasted along, I quite enjoyed it and didn’t find it too hard. There were parts that were taught differently to what I was used to in the past but you adapt very quickly. They take you down and build you back up to how they want you.
So what is the Royal Marines School of Music like?
The School of Music for the Royal Marines is in the old Naval detention quarters in Portsmouth. It’s basically a jail and they’ve not really changed it at all – you can still see the ropes between the landings that stopped people jumping over. It’s amazing what they’ve done. They’ve sound-proofed every cell and every person has one of these to themselves. It sounds insane, but it is perfect because everybody’s got their own “private practice studio”. You go in there, you put your pictures up and make it all nice as that’s where you’ll spend a lot of your time. There are other buildings for group lessons such as music theory and aural. There’s a parade square and a huge concert hall for wind band and musical combo rehearsals.
It would be really interesting to hear about like what a typical day for you was like in the Marines, if there was such a thing?
You rehearse for the forthcoming gigs. For the Corps of Drums this could range from Parades, Concerts, Mess Beatings, Sunset Ceremonies, Funeral Requests, Trumpet Engagements or Pass Out Parades. So, you’d go in, you’d look at the board, then depending on what rehearsals you had, and whether it was new bits of music you need to learn you’re basically just rehearsing for gigs.
It’s not very often now where you get chance to practice and hone your craft because the bands are that busy, there’s no time. I remember watching a documentary on the Royal Marines Band Service just after I joined up and I remember them saying; “we’re not getting time to practice”, and 20 years later, it’s exactly the same,
Like I said before, you look at the board and there’s a monthly planner up there, so you work out who’s doing what and because of that, you might be rehearsing for a gig in three weeks’ time, because that’s the only time everybody else is together in the same room! So, you could rehearse that, and then rehearse another 8 gigs in between, then you’ll go back to that other one and you’ll think; “Oh my God, we did this three weeks ago…I can’t remember what it was!”, but that’s how it is. Most bands keep a march pack for a term and then they’ll switch it around just to try and help everybody out. Generally, they’ll have a couple of beat retreats up their sleeve. You remember what the music and movements go with which so if you do end up going to another place twice, you can put on a different display and not necessarily put on the same one again.
Some Drum Majors just like to change it every time they go out, which is obviously more rehearsals, but it all depends on the gig and the event. With the Corps of Drums, you’ve got to rehearse yourselves because you go out doing Mess Beatings (for those that don’t know it’s what we call drum displays) We also work with the band a lot so have to find time to rehearse with the them as well. As we’re not performing with the band on every gig they’ve got to try and find time to fit us into their concert schedule too! So there’s a bit of moving around trying to get all your ducks in a row, so to speak.
Normally you’ll do your work with the band in the morning for the concert rehearsals and then have lunch. Then in the afternoon, we’ll get together and go through the bits we need to do – Mess Beating rehearsals, Last Post rehearsals, Fanfare rehearsals, just whatever we’ve got on. It’s different each day, you’ve just got to take it bit by bit.
You’re a long time working aren’t you, it makes a difference if you’re doing something that you’re passionate about…
Yeah, I think that’s the difference, especially the buglers, they join up because that’s what they want to do. Not because there’s been a recruitment stand come around and said; “do you want to earn this much money?” It’s quite a niche sort of skill they’ve got and not really transferable when you leave. They normally come from some sort of youth or cadet marching band background. It’s all about the passion for the Buglers, whereas the band, some of it is (a passion), some of it’s just a job, some of it’s just a stepping stone to get a degree and then go elsewhere.
Well, I think a real testament to that is you saying that you had turned down promotions because it would have taken you away from what you wanted to do. I think that says it all really…
Yeah, and I honestly believe I’ve made the right decision because if I’d carried on getting promotion and not performing it wouldn’t have put me in touch with some amazing people I’ve met from all over the world, so it was definitely the right decision.
On that note, tough question, and I know it’s probably really hard to pick one, but do you have a particular favourite moment from your time with the Royal Marines?
I’ve got two, so I’ll tell you them both
The Royal Marines were formed in 1664 so in 2014 they celebrated their 350th Anniversary of the birth of the Corps. The Commandos were doing all these different events to promote physical strength, tests and endurance and the Band Service didn’t really have anything planned so I thought, well, we need to do something about that! The Buglers were there at the birth of the Corps. The Buglers are the oldest branch in the Royal Marines and a fact they are very proud of. So, for us not to do anything, it just didn’t seem right. I don’t know where I got the idea from, but I was just googling Guinness World Records…
Oh, I was planning on asking you about this later!
I came across the world’s longest group drum roll and the current record was 28 hours, 19 minutes and 3 seconds and I just thought ”you know what? We could easily beat that”
I had some contacts from The Sun Newspaper having performed privately for their “The Sun Millies Awards”. I managed to get the open top Sun bus converted for this event. We parked it in the Tower of London, got all the permission required to pull off an event of this magnitude. We had Tom Hardy and Harrison Ford launch the event. So, it was just a group of buglers with a drum on an open top bus. We had a gazebo up to give us some sort of protection from the sun during the day as we thought, because it was in May it may tend to get a bit sunny; turned out to be some of the worst weather we’ve ever had! We got absolutely soaked and the wind was dragging the rain in from every direction.
We had guys just doing 15 minutes each, which sounds quite easy, but it gets to a point where you can only make so many mistakes to still beat the record. This took 12 months to set up – it was a lot of planning because you had to get permission to get in the Tower of London to begin with but the hardest part was making sure everybody was available due to the gigs already in the planner. Some came down from Scotland, did their bit, and then went back up to Scotland. There was a lot going on, we also had displays throughout the day to get the public involved and get them interested in our event.
We completely smashed the record – we ended up with 64 hours, 27 minutes and 59 seconds. It’s still standing today. It’s not very often the Corps of Drums get together to do something that isn’t in a Massed Bands format, so this was quite a unique thing. There’s a little bit of pressure – some of the drummers found it really odd to have that solid pressure for just 15 minutes of playing. When they’re in the house, they could play a drumroll for hours and hours, but because it’s 15 minutes of “if you make a mistaken now, the whole thing’s scuppered!” then that’s quite a lot of pressure!
How many were there in total?
I think we had two teams of 20 throughout the event. During the week we had one drummer doing the drum roll and one next to him, who’s getting ready to jump on. If he felt he was going to get cramp, he could just quickly take over. There was a team down below, doing the displays throughout the day, and then one off, sort of resting and recuperating, and we just swapped them over.
We said 64 hours because the Royal Marines were formed in 1664 – so we basically doubled the old record and added a little bit just for safe measure!
Well, it’s going to take someone quite a lot to beat that, isn’t it…
It’s getting the people. We could have gone on for days and days. Once you got into it, it was quite a nice cycle, but we had other gigs on. We finished that on the Saturday and I’d not been asleep for any of that time, because I’d organised it, and was one of the team leaders, so I was awake for that entire time! Don’t ask me why, but I’d booked a gig for one of my civilian Corps of Drums; we had somebody’s wedding on that Saturday night straight after the record attempt. We turned up to perform and we must’ve looked like a bunch of zombies having not slept for over 64 hours.
And how about your second highlight in the Royal Marines?
It has to be when we performed at the Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony in 2015. It was without doubt the best gig I’ve ever done. The crowd was electric. It was watched by over 2 billion people across the world. There was a track written by Steve Sidwell, who’s quite an amazing composer. It was a 20-minute track which we had to memorise, but there’s no stick work which meant there are no routines for us to remember, which would have made it easier. It’s all closed drumming and was written in 5/4 which isn’t too much of a problem, but we had a lot of movements to perform and steps to manoeuvre, so we had to count in 4/4 and play in 5/4 with the click track in our ear also in 5/4.
That was pretty demanding because as soon as you had manoeuvred the steps, you then have try and pick back up your 5/4. All our movements are generally done in fours so that was quite hard, but it was amazing to see the finished performance. I can’t tell you how good of a gig it was, even just marching to the start-up point. The crowd was going electric when they saw us. I’ll never forget that – it was incredible. Even just watching the actual opening ceremony on YouTube still gives me the same goose-bumps I had on the night.
…this blog will be continued on 3rd July – keep an eye on the BBICO News Page!
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