by Sarwar Alam
“THE Army is one of the biggest employers for musicians,” says Staff Sergeant Wen Gregson.
Yes, you read that right. The British Army is a prominent career destination for musicians. For those not in the know, this will come as a shock.
But Gregson was aware of this, thanks to her time as a student in the US. She knew her passion of becoming a musician could be fulfilled through the military, although not necessarily in the UK.
“I gained a bachelor of arts and master of arts degree in music from Indiana University of Pennsylvania,” says Gregson. “My teacher was in the United States Air Force Band in Washington DC.
“So I was aware that the military is a big employer for musicians seeking a professional performance career.”
The music industry is notoriously difficult to break into and carve out a long, successful career. When Gregson was offered the chance to join the British Army as a professional musician, she jumped at the chance.
She says: “I was recruited directly by the director of music of the Royal Signals Band, which was based in Dorset. He happened to be a very good friend of my conducting professor at the university and he was coming over to visit.
“I was about to finish my master’s degree and was looking for employment. I found out from him that I could join as a Commonwealth soldier based on my citizenship. There weren’t many jobs for professional musicians, so I joined up, without actually knowing
anything about the Army.”
Gregson was born in Hong Kong and holds a Singapore passport, hence her qualification as a Commonwealth soldier. She spent six years in America studying for her bachelor and masters degrees.
But when the opportunity came up to join the Army, she must have had some fears about stepping into the unknown?
“Not really, though I wasn’t really aware of what the Army was about,” she says. “I knew that I had to do basic training and I knew that it was gonna be challenging. But I came here with an open mind and was prepared to put in the hard work. I knew there was a
job at the end, so I was focused.
“I was just a university student and not very prepared for the Army. So it was physically as well as mentally challenging. I had to put in a lot of hard work, just like everyone else in phase 1 training, and I eventually got through it. I was very proud that I did.
“I put 120 per cent into training because I was really focused on getting through it and this experience has had a huge impact on my personality and my character. It developed me as a person. It helped me to recognise I’m more capable than I think I am, and that’s a valuable life lesson. Remember, I was just a music student, I was not geared towards going into the military, but I did it and I think the benefit I gained from that is tremendous.”
Gregson’s decision – as a 24-year-old Asian woman who had never previously lived in the UK – to join the British Army must have come as a big shock to her family?
“My parents were surprised,” she admits. “They really didn’t know what to expect. However, I was very determined, because I wanted to fulfil my wish to become a professional musician and it was one of the very few avenues available. They respected my choice, so I think they were ok about it.”
Gregson’s first posting was in the Royal Signals band in Dorset, where she spent nine years doing what she had always dreamed of, performing around the world as a professional musician.
“We did a lot of events. I travelled everywhere with the band. We went all over Europe, to Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Canada, all over the UK, from the south of England to Scotland, doing various functions, for the military and for the public. I did a lot of concert work, parades, studio recordings, and many charity functions, such as at the Royal British Legion.
“I also had the opportunity to go to places like Ethiopia and to assist in their musical development, which was amazing. It was very much an exchange of knowledge and having the rare opportunity to experience their culture. It was tremendous – I would never have had those opportunities if I was not in the military.”
Gregson spent two years as an instructor for Army musicians under training at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall. She taught a wide range of students, from 19-year-olds to those in their 40s.
“We attract all types of people, from those who have just finished college to those who are older and want a career change. This means that Army musicians tend to have a wide range of life and professional experiences. So it was a very interesting role.
“I think it’s important to be able to empower our people, especially at the start of their career, to have the necessary grounding they need to achieve their potential in the Army.”
The 41-year-old spent time as part of the band for the Welsh Guards in London, where she wore the traditional scarlet uniform and bearskin to perform in ceremonial occasions such as changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as well as the Queen’s Birthday Parade and state visits.
She is currently in an administrative role, tasked with organising the engagement of all the Army bands at Regional Command. Gregson took this position because she wanted “the experience of doing something completely different than my previous roles in the band”.
But she sees herself going back to performing in the future.
“I still practice every day, first thing in the morning. I am still involved in a saxophone quartet with three other colleagues, based in London. I have to keep up with my own practice to keep my seat. I do not play in a band at the moment because it is not really part of my current role. But eventually I will, and I expect myself to fit back in.”
Looking back on her career and all the things she has achieved, Gregson is thankful for what the Army has done for her.
“The music industry is very competitive. It is very difficult to get into, very difficult to establish a career. However, with the right mentality and with an open mind, the Army is a great career for people who choose to get into the music industry, you are performing all the time. That is very rare in the outside world. The people you see who are performing all the time in the music profession, they are a small percentage.”
She adds that being a person from the BAME community, she hopes her story inspires other from a similar ethnicity to join the Army.
“Your ethnicity does not define you,” she says. “Underneath the colour of your skin, you are the same. That’s my experience in the Army and I have worked with mostly white colleagues. I’ve always loved it.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunities been provided for me by the Army in the last 17 years and I think it will be fair to say the Army provides the same opportunities for everyone else.”