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4BR Interview
Air Specialist (Class 1) Alan Thomas

Former City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Alan Thomas tells 4BR why swapping a civilian musical life for one in the RAF was one of the best decisions he has made.


Swapping roles: Alan Thomas is now enjoying life in the RAF Music Services

For 22 years Alan Thomas was a professional musician. A civilian professional musician that is.

The vast majority of that time was spent enjoying life as Principal Trumpet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well as two spells as Principal Trumpet of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. 

He had come a long way since his formative years playing in Hangleton Youth Brass Band, as well as his brass banding on the contest stage with the Staffordshire Band whilst studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. 

New challenge

However, three years ago he decided to take on a new challenge – and joined the Royal Air Force Music Services.

He had asked himself several career questions, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19, but it was one in return that made his mind.

“It really was a monumental change in my musical life,”  he says reflecting back. “However, it was also one of the best decisions I have ever made as a musician.

What confirmed it though was where I was thinking about questions of basic training, marching, auditions and even if I had to go to war, they simply asked why did I wanted to join the RAF?  It was all about the music making.” 

What confirmed it though was where I was thinking about questions of basic training, marching, auditions and even if I had to go to war, they simply asked why did I wanted to join the RAF?  It was all about the music making.” 

There was of course the need to make sure he was fit enough to meet the basic training requirements, but as he has kept himself in pretty good shape over the years, that wasn’t a problem – and neither was reaching the required high level audition standard.

“I was still relieved to get through though,”  he says honestly, “because now I’m enjoying the fantastic new career that I wanted.” 


Alan is now performing at iconic events 

Different engagements

Since joining RAF Music that has seen Alan perform in front of huge live as well as virtual audiences for celebrations such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee and the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. 

In addition, there have been the more regular iconic State events beamed across the globe, such as Changing of the Guard, the State Opening of Parliament, and the Lord Mayor of London’s Show. 

“The type of different engagements is astounding,”  he adds, “and I have to pinch myself and concentrate after you get to see so many royals, VIPs and celebrities close up. It’s amazing what a smart uniform does for selfie opportunities!”

“The type of different engagements is astounding,” he adds, “and I have to pinch myself and concentrate after you get to see so many royals, VIPs and celebrities close up. It’s amazing what a smart uniform does for selfie opportunities!”

On the hoof

As well as the ceremonial events there are plenty of what Alan calls ‘on the hoof’ engagement too – marches and concerts on trips and tours both big and small.

“The variety is amazing,”  he says. “The marches provide the spectacle, but its great to play in brass ensembles at smaller venues, be part of a big band, jazz group or fanfare team. RAF Musicians often have the honour of sounding ‘The Last Post’  at funerals and even at Wembley (beow) and Premier League football stadiums, such as Stamford Bridge and Villa Park.”

Day to day, week to week

As for the day to day, week to week work – it’s that variety that maintains the interest and the need to keep developing as a player.

“It’s safe to say, no working week is the same. The beauty is that it allows for so many skill sets to come together. 

It’s safe to say, no working week is the same. The beauty is that it allows for so many skill sets to come together. 

I might hold my own in a symphonic or brass quintet setting, but when you have former members of Black Dyke and Grimethorpe in your section, when something gets a bit technical, I’m more than happy to step aside. 

And when it comes to jazz and big band, there are countless more highly skilled than me. It’s all a case of teamwork and no room for any egos!” 


Iconic venues...

Good stead

In his orchestral career Alan worked under numerous renowned conductors and alongside world class performers, and it has held in in good stead.   

“The overall standard of performance is exceptionally high. RAF Music is largely made up of music graduates, although this is not a requirement. It is ability and potential that counts – first assessed at audition. Grade 8 level is a guide, but you can aim as high as you wish.” 

 It is ability and potential that counts – first assessed at audition. Grade 8 level is a guide, but you can aim as high as you wish.”

In recalling his own audition, he said. “That initial question of why I wanted to join was key. From then on it was a very friendly and supportive, similar to a Grade 8 exam, followed by an informal chat and a session of playing in one of the ensembles. 

As well as this, I was required to have a brief medical, short fitness test and an RAF interview, but nothing scary!” 

Basic training

Prior to joining one of the three RAF ‘bands’ Alan had to complete 10 weeks of Basic Training, although if you are relatively fit, he says it holds no terrors.

“Being a bit an outdoorsy person this was really enjoyable! I also gained a lot of new skills such as first aid, handling a rifle, adventure training, and even how to iron a shirt and polish my shoes!” 

“Being a bit an outdoorsy person this was really enjoyable! I also gained a lot of new skills such as first aid, handling a rifle, adventure training, and even how to iron a shirt and polish my shoes!” 

He adds: “During the whole experience I learned a lot about myself and working well with others. If you’re a dedicated musician, especially used to the discipline of brass bands, it's simply a case of applying this to a different area for 10 weeks. Graduating in full uniform supported by an RAF band is a proud moment.” 

After graduating Alan was posted straight into a band, with further ‘on the job’ training to pick up the how things work in performing alongside new colleagues – as well as being given a full set of instruments, accessories, and that famous blue uniform. 

“That was it really,”  he says with a smile, “as well as a starting rate of pay of £31,460 comparable to that of a tutti player in a UK Symphony Orchestra. The added perks also come with affordable housing close to work, subsidised meals, gym, free medical and dental, as well as opportunities for adventure training and even gaming!” 

Busy schedule

RAF Musicians are able to commit to brass bands as well as their day jobs with several of Alan's colleagues enjoying playing in concerts and even contests.

That though may have to wait a bit longer as he now joins them with RAF Music in looking forward to a busy forthcoming season with trips to Thailand, Canada, Norway and Cyprus. 

22 years a civilian and now three years and counting as an RAF musician.

“Looking back now,”  he says, “finding out more about a career in the RAF Music Services was one of the best musical decisions I have ever made – and one I would recommend other players look into as well. If I completed this at the age of 42, anyone can!” 

Iwan Fox


To find out more about a career in RAF Music visit: 
https://recruitment.raf.mod.uk/roles/roles-finder/force-protection/musician

Or email Andy Keegan on: RAFMS-Recruitment@mod.gov.uk

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