From Cruise Ships to the Army (feat. Steve Davison)

Whilst between contracts, I saw the Brisbane Army Big Band perform in Toowoomba. It was my first time seeing the ensemble and I was impressed with the musicianship and general entertainment value. Whilst talking to various members after the show, I was told about Steve, given he had worked with Royal Caribbean for many years prior to working with The Australian Army Band. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about his experiences in the Army Band and how he found the transition. This interview explores the challenges of being in the Australian Army Band, whilst demonstrating the value of choosing that as a career path as a full-time performing musician.

Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?

I am currently employed as a full time musician with the Australian Army Band. In additional to working full time I freelance as a trombone player around Canberra, as well as running my own big band, combo, playing in a couple of party bands, and I run my own business Back Deck Entertainment. My business provides entertainment to corporate events, weddings, parties and festivals.

What made you interested in working with The Australian Army Band?

I have always seen music in Defence as an option since high school. I originally looked at joining the Royal Australian Navy Band before starting my degree, as they were offering to pay for HECS providing I served a minimum of three years after my degree. At the time it was a big commitment, so I didn’t go for it, but after working on cruise ships for a number of years, the idea of a stable income on land got me interested again and I looked into the Australian Army Band Corps.

How did you find the transition from The Cruise Industry to working in the Australian Army Band?

I found the transition musically was seamless – the musical expectations are on par, you are professional musician and expected to perform as such. The other parts of military life were a bit harder in the initial stages, though I feel I am suited to the lifestyle. For example, timeliness, preparedness, a sense of mateship and a willingness to get the job done no matter the circumstances, are all qualities that I try to uphold in my personal life as well as my military career.

Would you recommend a fellow musician to follow suit if they were looking for land performance work post their cruise ship experiences?

Absolutely! It is a brilliant and rewarding career in a highly sought after, professional organisation in Australia. It is one of the few full time performance jobs left in our country and the fact that you perform, practice, maintain your physical fitness and work towards long term goals makes it a great long term career choice.

What are the key skills you need as a musician in the Australian Army Band?

There are three key areas to consider when joining, in my opinion – your musical ability, your physical fitness and your attitude. Much like any other professional music performance job, you are expected to sight read to a very high standard, be technically proficient on your instrument and be able to play a range of styles – you will be performing everything from symphonic wind band music, to chamber music, to marching band, to big band, and as part of a rock band. Much like the cruise industry, if you can understand all styles of music and adapt immediately you will be fine. Physical fitness is something you can work on daily, however you will need to be at a certain standard to join – I’ll go into that below. My final key skill area is attitude, and I say it’s a skill because not everyone has the ability to control your feelings when the going gets tough. For example, you might be standing on parade in Wagga Wagga at 7am in the middle of winter, it’s minus 7c and drizzling. Your positive attitude and mental fortitude will see you through those tough times. You also need to be humble and listen to the mountains of advice from years of experience around you.

What should a musician realistically expect as a full time musician in the Australian Army Band?

You should expect to work hard, but be rewarded both musically and through the important work that you do. The Australian Army Band helps to improve the image of the Australian Army through community and military

engagement, as such we often get to perform for many significant events that touch the lives of people, either on deployment, as veterans, or the general public. On a day to basis, be prepared to do all duties required of a full time music organisation. You might be involved in logistics, finance, PR, transport, health and safety, arranging/copying, lugging road cases, or any other myriad of tasks that work together to keep us performing. You will also have time to practice, maintain your physical fitness, perform and rehearse. It’s busy but it is worth it.

How long are you expected to serve once you are working with the Australian Army Band?

The initial minimum period of service for full time musicians is currently four years. Most ‘bandies’ do many more.

Are you required to do/pass any fitness training?

Yes, from the day you do your pre-fitness assessment with Defence Force Recruiting, until the time you leave the Army, you will be expected to pass fitness tests and maintain your fitness. As a full time musician you will be expected to pass a Basic Fitness Assessment every 6 months and the requirements for this assessment are based on your age.

Do you learn how to use firearms as a musician in the Australian Army Band?

Yes, you will be trained the same as every other recruit who goes through Kapooka. By the end of recruit training you will be qualified to live fire the EF88 Austeyr rifle and the F89 Minimi machine gun, and you will have a full understanding of how your weapons work, how to strip, assemble and maintain them.

Can you best outline what your audition process was like? What would you suggest to someone wishing to be fully prepared for an upcoming application?

My audition process took place over a couple of days. I initially made contact with the Australian Army Band Brisbane (AABB) and was directed to provide a basic video audition of my playing as a pre-screen before visiting the Band in person. Once I was cleared through this I was invited to sit in with the Band for a day of rehearsals, playing mostly big band charts. I was then given an audition date, where I had to sit a basic theoretical and aural examination, sit in with a rehearsal, sight read a number of charts and perform a one hour recital. The entire process was graded in person by the Officer Commanding Music Director of AABB and the Subject Matter Expert (SME), and the entire process was filmed and sent for approval by the Commanding Officer of the Australian Army Band Corps. Once I had successfully completed this process, I could then apply as normal through Defence Force Recruiting and be given an enlistment date. My advice for anyone preparing to audition is to fully understand the requirements and ask questions if you don’t understand. You will also need to perform to an exceptional standard and show your flexibility musically and personally. It will be a long audition day, much longer than an orchestra audition, but it’s designed that way so the band can get a feel for your personality as well.

Can you describe someone who would best fit a full time position at the Australian Army Band, and include what traits are best left to other occupations?

You have to be punctual, professional and prepared to work hard. Everyone has varying musical abilities with certain strengths and weaknesses, you don’t have to be the best at everything, but you do have to want to be part of the team and work towards the common goal of making excellent music. Traits to be left behind – being a loner or not wanting to be part of the team (both musically and personally), not accepting help, not listening to constructive criticism or working to improve. Basically, take the Army’s principles of Courage, Initiative, Respect and Teamwork and you will fit right in!

What have been your biggest relevant challenges since working at the Australian Army Band?

Finding the time to remain at the top of my game musically – we work long hours, rehearse often and perform even more, but sometimes that means personal practice might be limited on certain days. It’s important to know what to practice and when, to remain totally flexible.

If you get posted to a new city, how does the housing work?

All housing is organised through Defence Housing Australia. If you are married they will allow you to rent a married quarter which is often a nice house in the suburbs. If you are single you have the option of Member’s Choice accommodation or Living In. Member’s Choice is often a suitable apartment nearby and Living In is living on base in the long term accommodation. You can also own your own property and receive certain financial benefits and assistance through Defence that only become available after you have served four years (full time).

Can you please outline the key differences to being a performing musician in the music industry, cruise industry and at the Australian Army Band?

They are all pretty much the same thing but in the cruise industry sight reading and the ability to play different styles is the most important aspect; in the music industry in general I think always performing at your best and being personable, professional and maintaining good relationships is most important; and playing with the Australian Army Band, technical proficiency, mental endurance, team work and working toward the common goal are all important. That’s not to say that in any of those performing situations all of those points are not very important.

If you could only practice three things, what would they be and why?

Long tones, flexibility and soft playing. As a brass player if you can do that consistently, you can probably get away with everything else if you have a good ear.

What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?

Two things – my physical fitness and giving up smoking. I smoked 30 cigarettes a day and the limit of my physical exercise was a walking around. I worked hard to change my own personal fitness culture when I joined the Army, as well as quitting smoking, and my strength and mental clarity has improved tenfold. I now crave physical activity when I don’t get it, enjoy playing team sports and the three things to practice above are much easier.

How have your interests within music changed over your career? For example, has practicing become less of a priority and performing original music is more of a focus point? Maybe you’re less interested in music given it has been a lifelong commitment for you?

My interests have definitely changed over the years, I have a greater understanding of the music industry and an understanding that you don’t get anywhere by just pounding on one door or putting all your eggs in one basket. I take my hat off to the jazz guys who can shed bebop licks for days and work as a full time freelancers doing that, but it’s unrealistic. I believe to make it these days you need to understand how money moves in the business and try to be in as many places, musically and professionally, as you can. As such, my interest in music these days is with creating music that people want and building business that supports local musicians, venues and clients. A sense of community and family within music is more important now, as when I was younger just being a performing musician was the goal.

Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?

I sure did, ever since I started my degree at the Queensland Con I have practiced/rehearsed/performed/studied/worked 8 hours + a day. I can’t stop, I can’t be still and not work or practice, it goes against my grain – which is probably why I have no time and never rest! Haha.

Do you/did you spend much time transcribing other musicians?

I used to spend hours at a time transcribing when I worked on ships. I would spend entire days at sea with headphones on just writing. It’s an incredibly valuable skill that transfers to all aspects of music and I would encourage anyone to do it. I don’t get as much time as I would like these days to transcribe, but I try to when I can.

If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?

That’s a really tough question. I firmly believe working in a variety of bands and musical situations is key to being a well rounded musician, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the one that provides the most for me. So, the band keeps a roof over my family’s head and keeps us warm in winter is the Australian Army Band – it’s a great organisation with the opportunity to live, work and perform all over Australia and the world.

If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?

If I had to give up playing, I would work in the business side of music full time. As a booking agent/management.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?

Working on our home, staying fit and flying. I love to fly!

If you could study with any musician who would it be?

Nils Landgren at the moment. I dig his playing and love his tone, I would love to pick his brain.

Any other comments or insights you wish to share?

Listen to everything, all the time! Listen to music, listen to your musical colleagues, listen to your clients, listen to your partner, listen to the world, and you will go far.

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