RCA band marches to drum of new commander

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Last Wednesday, the Royal Canadian Artillery Band closed yet another chapter in its historical change of command.

RCA Band musicians, including a new pipe and drum corps, paraded for the outgoing commander/musical director of the past two and a half years, Capt. David Shaw, and welcomed Capt. Eric Gagnon.

The unilingual Shaw is being groomed for more high-level leadership positions with the musical branch of the Canadian military, and is enrolled at Edmonton Garrison Language School for a 10-month French intensive.

Wednesday’s change of command ceremony differed slightly from the past in that the 34-piece band is undergoing an extensive facelift. The woodwinds are being slowly phased out and replaced by pipers, drummers, a keyboardist, guitarist and vocalist.

As part of the ceremonies, Shaw conducted the snappy, drum and piper infused Hard at the Jib followed by the jazzier Live and Let Die and Canada’s boisterous second national anthem — Hockey Night in Canada.

Col. Charles Lamarre, commander of 1 Area Support Group, then presented Shaw with a traditional parting gift, a chuck wagon-shaped branding iron and lauded the captain for not being a slacker. “On the contrary, we had to restrain him at times,” Lamarre said.

During Shaw’s tenure as CO, the RCA Band averaged about 250 gigs each year. They participated in many memorable national and international tours, concerts and high profile engagements in addition to promoting the military band at local events and schools.

Shaw cited a long list of musical highlights that ranged from the annual Christmas Carol fundraiser for the Make-a-Wish Foundation to a band tour to Myrtle Beach, S.C. to celebrate Canadian-American Days.

“It was a tourist haven and at least half our audience was Canadian. We played patriotic music, talked about the military’s closeness to the Americans. We played it up as flag wavers and got a positive reception from the Americans. They are super allies,” Shaw said.

Another major event was the band’s trip to Holland in 2009 to celebrate the country’s 65th anniversary liberation ceremonies. Part of the ceremonies at Nijmegen was a four-day international walk that attracted 45,000 civilians and 7,000 military personnel.

While the band played on the march route, Shaw attempted the 40-kilometre walk wearing combat gear and carrying a 45-kilogram pack.

“It’s an endurance event. I did the walk during the day and worked with the band at night. At the end I couldn’t walk. I had so many blisters. It was very challenging and I had little sleep,” explained Shaw, a devotee of health, fitness and extreme sports.

Once Shaw had passed the baton at the change of command ceremonies to Gagnon, the incoming CO conducted Fanfare to Freedom, a sparkling, punchy work that shifted mood and tempo and definitely set the tone for the band’s future.

A Chicoutimi native, Gagnon studied the French horn at Quebec Conservatory of Music and harboured dreams of becoming a classical orchestral musician. “But in the meantime I needed to put food on the table,” he said.

With three uncles in military bands, Gagnon followed family tradition and joined the Canadian Forces in 1988. Since then he has criss-crossed Canada several times including an eight-month posting at Griesbach in 1997 as one of nine musicians to kick-start the local RCA band.

His most recent posting was as deputy commanding officer of the Central Band in Ottawa. “I am happy to be back and I see some very good things happening for the future.”

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Anna Borowiecki

Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.