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The Salvation Army, Music and Me

*I will refer to The Salvation Army in this as 'TSA' or ‘the army'. My family left The Salvation Army when I was 15 – my experiences are from before 2014.

If I mention TSA to people over the age of 50, they know what I'm talking about. When they ask me about my musical background and I reply saying I grew up in TSA, they give me a knowing nod and that's all I need to say. If I say the same to someone under the age of 40 they stare blankly at me. When I was a teenager, I couldn't understand how people didn't know about the organisation that had dominated my life in every way. Leaving TSA left a hole in my life but it filled over time and I eventually forgot about the army and the impact it had on me. That lasted until I formed S!NGS Chorus.

Growing up, we went to the army four times a week. Tuesday night was Singing Company, Thursday was YP Band (brass band for young people – yes, I hated it), we went for a meeting on Sunday morning, came home, had a roast dinner and then went back again for a meeting on Sunday night. One of the upsides of leaving TSA was discovering that you could do things on a Sunday – life-changing. Looking back, I genuinely don’t know how my parents did it all whilst both working full-time. I remember my Dad saying to me, ‘when work is bad, the army is a relief. When the army is bad, work is a relief’ – that’s what a dominant force it was in our lives.

Going to the army meant I got access to top-quality music education for free, four times a week from the age of 5. I performed my first solo to a hall of 450 people at 5, I sang in my first choir in harmony at 6. I learnt how to read music and harmonise on cue. I received classical training but got to sing contemporary songs – what a blessing. It also meant I grew up in a family of musicians. Everyone in my extended family was in The Salvation Army, so everyone in my extended family was musical – literally everyone. People used to say ‘I bet everyone stands around the piano at Christmas in your house’. Seriously, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Christmas Day came at the end of an extensive performance schedule for members of TSA and my Dad and Grandad left on Christmas morning to go and play at Peterborough Hospital. Christmas Day was a break. Being in TSA meant being surrounded and taught by excellent musicians, every week. It meant singing three times a week, performing in concerts, performing in Queensgate shopping centre (when John Lewis was still open and people still visited), singing solos, rehearsing and committing to being where you said you would be. It really was the greatest training you could ask to receive.

-Performing at one of TSA's Christmas Concerts. Credit to Lisa Pev for the fringe

Then there were music schools. This is where my memories of the army and music become negative. TYC was national music school (one week long, for under 18s) and it was awful. I hated it, then cried when I came home because it was still better than school. Still, it was horrible. It was cliquey and hierarchical and all anyone cared about was whose Dad was in ISB (TSA’s leading brass band), who was going out with the person playing top cornet and which soprano could sing the highest. Vile. If only we all knew that in ten years time most of us wouldn’t be in TSA and the musically elite couple would eventually break up. The music was incredible and I will never be ungrateful for the training I received at TYC and the musical standards it implemented in me. I still use some of the things I learnt there and believe strongly that my style of conducting has come directly from that of Ira who led the choir and my auntie Julie. Despite this, TYC taught me one of the most important lessons in running a choir. No egos, no hierarchy. I don’t care who can sing high or who has had the best training. I care about how nice you are and how hard you work. Everything else is a bonus. I’ve always put that at the heart of S!NGS and it will stay that way as long as I’m lucky enough to stand in front of a group of people and conduct.

-A picture from regional music school (EMASS, not TYC) in 2012 - the best of times. Have blocked out faces because everyone in this picture is young!

To be honest, the army taught me that nothing was more important than music. It was the mechanism for hierarchy, the thing to be proudest of, the one thing that really mattered. It’s the thing that was hardest to leave behind and that ethos directly fuels my ambition; I don’t think it will ever leave me. I grew up singing with other young people who could sing, read music and harmonise on cue; with people who just knew how to bring music to life. I miss that so much. Whilst TYC was awful, regional music school (EMASS) makes up the majority of my happiest memories from being a teenager and being without the opportunity to make music with other people my age who had the same training as me is an area of emptiness in my life. I would love nothing more than getting back together with the people I went there with for a whirlwind concert. Music school reunions aren’t a thing. Maybe they should be. My childhood best friend got married the other year (also an SA and TYC alumni) and the singing at the wedding was unlike anything you’d have heard before. We always joked that army weddings had the best singing – it’s not a lie.

I have purposely avoided talking about more of the pitfalls of TSA – it’s not important and not why I’m writing this post. I’m also not sure who actually cares. I certainly don’t. All I know is that it gave me the thing I love most in the world and that’s something I will forever be grateful for. Membership is declining for so many reasons and I know to some people there are other reasons that’s sad, but for me it comes down to one thing: my life wouldn’t look anything like the way it does if it wasn’t for the training I received in the army and nothing has come to replace it in that sense. I’m so, so sorry for the young people missing out on that.

One thing remains to be said: whatever the future holds for TSA, and it looks challenging, its musical legacy will live on, if only because it will be obvious anytime anyone who was a product of a Salvation Army music school opens their mouth to sing.

Do you have memories of TSA? Please feel free to share them.

Here's some of my favourite music from TSA, if you're interested:

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