On 17 September of this year, 83 years after the Battle of Britain raged across the skies above the English Channel, Wing Commander (Wg Cdr) Piers Morrell OBE MVO brought down his baton for the final time as Principal Director of Music for the Royal Air Force.
The service at Westminster Abbey, commemorating those who fought and lost their lives during this crucial turning point in the Second World War, could not be a more fitting end to what has been an extraordinary career. Wg Cdr Morrell has taken part in occasions including, among others, the wedding of the now Prince and Princess of Wales, the Golden, Silver and Platinum Jubilee celebrations of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the State Funeral of the same Monarch, of Prince Philip and of the Queen Mother, The Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, and the Centenary Anniversary of the Royal Air Force.
Throughout August, Wg Cdr Morrell directed the combined bands of the Central Band of the RAF, the Band of the RAF Regiment and the RAF Salon Orchestra at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I asked him to reflect, whilst waiting in the ‘wings’ of the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, on his journey throughout Royal Air Force Music; from early trombone playing days to conducting the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Air Force in Westminster Abbey for the Coronation earlier this year. His reflections make fascinating and sometimes hilarious reading, and demonstrate without a doubt the selfless dedication, loyalty, and professionalism with which he has unfailingly served.
Influenced early on by his father, an accomplished classical pianist, and by a love of big band and jazz music, Wg Cdr Morrell initially dreamed of joining the RAF as a pilot. When it became apparent that his eyesight would not allow this, his trombone teacher mentioned that he ‘could always join as a musician’. Through an early career as a peripatetic music teacher following studies at Trinity College London these words stuck, and as soon as there was wind of a vacancy Piers was, in his words, ‘encouraging’ the Corporal (Cpl) in the London Armed Forces Careers Office to ring Headquarters Music Services (HQMS) to confirm the vacancy. I have known Piers since 2005 when I joined up as a young and inexperienced horn player, and I can imagine the ‘encouragement’! It is perhaps the first example of the tenacity and determination that has also overseen the move of the Central Band of the RAF and HQMS to RAF Northolt in 2010, the restructuring of RAF Music in 2015, and a stint in the Cabinet Office Taskforce during the Covid-19 pandemic for which he was recognised in the Vice Chief of Defence Staff Team Commendation. Luckily, the Cpl knew it was probably best to do as she was told, and, upon completion of Basic Recruit Training at RAF Halton, Piers was posted to the Band of the RAF Regiment at RAF Uxbridge in 1997. Adaptation to military life posed no challenges; from the age of eleven he had been a member of the local Air Cadet Squadron, gaining the rank of Flight Sergeant and achieving marksman qualifications and a solo glider pilot licence.
Having grown up as equal parts Air Cadet and trombonist, Piers seemed ideally placed to fully comprehend the life of a military musician; however, as anyone who has had anything to do with military musicians will know, it’s almost impossible to predict or to fully understand some of the weird and wonderful experiences our chosen profession embraces. Arriving at a radar complex on top of Mount Alice in the Falkland Islands in those early days as a trombonist, Piers and the rest of the brass quintet were given a safety brief: ‘Basically, don’t burn the place down!’ They soon realised this would be unlike other quintet performances in the relative safety of an Officer’s Mess.
“It frankly descended into very fun chaos. Somewhere there is a picture of Chief Technician Steve ‘Pops’ Penny leading the dancing with a resident of St Helena and one of the trumpet players wearing a toilet seat round his neck…between laughter and stomach cramps from barely being able to breathe from laughing I somehow managed to play for a few minutes at a time.”
Wing Commander Piers Morrell OBE MVO
Other memories are similarly vivid, if more sombre. Piers remembers playing at ‘The Last Run’ of the British Military Tattoo in 1999. Earl’s Court Arena had a unique and evocative smell – horses and military personnel living cheek by jowl. He said:
“[The occasion was] the end of an important part of the UK’s military history – something I had attended with my parents as a kid and with the Air Cadets. To be on parade next to the gun crews who had completed their last run was emotive and memorable. The hushed atmosphere as we went into the finale and the mesmerising silence as we finished still gets the hairs on the back of my neck.”
Piers became interested in commissioning as a Director of Music (DOM) early on and considers it to have been an exceptional privilege, allowing him to fulfil his interest in commissioning whilst keeping music at the heart of his career. Assuming that the next DOM position would open in 2008 Piers progressed quickly through training to enable him to apply – in May 2006 he received an unexpected phone call suggesting that if he still wanted to commission, he would be at Officer Selection in six weeks! Frantic preparation ensued and another call, taken seven weeks later over a bacon roll at RAF St Mawgan, meant he was soon calling his future wife, Gina, to tell her that he would be off to Cranwell in three weeks’ time. After a generally positive experience at Initial Officer Training (IOT), Flying Officer Morrell was posted again to the Band of the RAF Regiment – this time in front of the band – leading to inevitable occurrences of ‘hello mate, oh I mean Sir!’.
Commissioning within RAF Music means that you invariably end up becoming a boss to your former colleagues and I was interested to hear how Piers had negotiated this. He acknowledged that, whilst there is potential to feel imposter syndrome, the confidence that was built up during IOT mitigated this. Piers also mentioned that he gained self-discipline and mental strength from martial arts and some knowledge of Eastern philosophy. To me this is a true reflection of who he is; someone who understands the need for emotional resilience and who will arm themselves with the necessary tools to do their job with strength and equilibrium, qualities he has displayed in abundance throughout the more challenging aspects of his career.
Memorable moments as a DOM included conducting the Band of the RAF Regiment on Public Duties (the Changing of the Guard) at Buckingham Palace, where Piers relished the privilege and ‘theatre of being on parade’ on the forecourt and stepping in at the last minute to cover the then Principal Director of Music (PDM) at the Festival of Remembrance with 24 hours’ notice. This experience would stand him in good stead 11 years later, when as PDM he stepped in at the last minute to conduct the D-Day 75 commemorative events at Portsmouth, in front of seven world leaders and HM Queen Elizabeth II. Despite the high-profile and very public nature of these events, however, Piers has always determinedly stayed connected to the nuts and bolts of the job, aspiring to the utmost in musical excellence and, above all, inspiring and encouraging his personnel. Professional highlights for him have included gaining the trust of a band and building musical confidence to allow them to perform at the highest level or helping individuals to recognise and achieve their untapped potential. In his words:
“Witnessing an individual’s realisation of what they can achieve has been one of the best things about being a DOM.”
Piers had effectively prepared to become PDM since commissioning, knowing that the timeline would work out in this way. Once appointed in 2017, he quickly made his mark, ensuring every ensemble in RAF Music maintained a fair and enviable workload of high-profile engagements. It is a legacy that has enhanced standards, reputation and morale throughout RAF Music, and one of which he is rightly proud. A year into the job, the Royal Air Force celebrated its centenary with a year of public events. RAF Music, fronted by Piers, was on display throughout most of 2018; his calm professionalism set the standard for everyone to follow. The parade on 10 July was a true highlight, conducting a band of one hundred musicians on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, showcasing ‘in-house’ music by Sergeant Jono Read, that perfectly timed to the flypast – it was an incredible event and one that really captured the affection of the nation. Piers said:
“The concert tour across the UK was ‘a tremendous way to celebrate the communities from across the nations who have supported the RAF since its formation.”
After the joy of the RAF100 year, 2019 sounded ominous warnings and by March 2020, the country had gone into lockdown. During the pandemic, RAF Music played for the funeral of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Piers described the enormity of the event:
“It had to be re-written due to Covid. Seeing all the military formations formed up in the grounds of Windsor Castle waiting to step off was like looking at a battle scene from the 1800s. Once in position, a very strong feeling came over us all I believe, that as well as supporting the commemoration and celebration of the life of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, we were supporting a family in mourning. Seeing The Queen arrive at the rear of the procession in what is an enclosed space, brought an intense sense of intimacy to the event.”
Musicians had been recalled from Covid-related deployments to support the occasion, testament to the professionalism across RAF Music. Two years later, Wg Cdr Morrell led the Procession Band for the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, a ‘true honour’.
A more celebratory occasion followed in 2023, when the RAF Fanfare team performed in Westminster Abbey for The Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Piers conducted the team and was responsible to the Palace for all the fanfares that were performed. He said:
“[This was] the pinnacle of my career as PDM, as a military musician, and as a conductor. The Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Air Force did the hard work on the day but to be part of it, working with them, will stay with me always. It was the highest service to the Crown that I could be part of.”
The contribution made by RAF Music under the leadership of Wg Cdr Morrell did not go unrecognised; he was awarded an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2022 New Years Honours List. In 2023 both PDM Wg Cdr Morrell and the Senior Drum Major of RAF Music, Warrant Officer Paul Phelan, were awarded a Member of the Royal Victoria Order (MVO) by King Charles III. Both had been recognised in the Honours List on the Demise of Her Majesty the Queen for support to her funeral. Wg Cdr Morrell said:
“[It was] a complete surprise. To have it presented by His Majesty the King alongside all the RAF award nominees, was a highlight of my career. I was delighted that the Senior Drum Major was also recognised, a first for RAF Music. It was a personal highlight that we could share the award together.”
Wg Cdr Morrell is the third Principal Director of Music of the Royal Air Force to be awarded the MVO.
Wg Cdr Morrell is a person who has never stopped learning, and who has embraced every opportunity that has come his way. During his early time as a musician he represented the RAF at Inter-Services Martial Arts, and upon commissioning he turned his attention to leadership and management courses; gaining an MSc in Leadership and Management from the University of Portsmouth in 2016 and being awarded Chartered Manager Status with the Chartered Management Institute later that year. Further studies saw him qualify as a certified practitioner in programme management. He said:
“To set an example – as Flight Commanders we have to put our money where our mouth is; if we are recommending people to engage in self-development we should be as well."
His studies have also encompassed further research and achievement in conducting, including ‘many hours in front of Sky Arts’, and interests ranging from Formula 1 and cycling, to spiritualism and the evolution of human nature, quantum entanglement and space exploration! This thirst for learning expands to the evolution of music, and something Piers would love to see for RAF Music in future is a more immersive concert experience, using holograph projections to remove the space between audience and performers. He is equally as excited about international and charity events reappearing on the agenda after the disruption caused by Covid-19.
Throughout his career, Wg Cdr Morrell has remained true to both his childhood passions: music and the Royal Air Force. On military music, he offered the following thoughts:
“It remains a part of the fabric of the nation as witnessed with Op LONDON BRIDGE (the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and Op GOLDEN ORB (The Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla). RAF Music provides a unique Service and life provision to personnel; from your graduation parade where you formally join the Service through to a Last Post at your funeral. Military music provides a core morale component to those who serve, their families and their communities.”
Gina, Piers’ wife was an oboist in RAF Music; between them they have given 53 years’ service to military music. They are both immensely proud of this, and of Piers’ role as the Principal Director of Music throughout the last six and a half years.
My final question to Piers was about the military music he loves. He has captured three of the most essential pieces in the repertoire, and I wholeheartedly agree. The Evening Hymn and Sunset that he said “never fails to move the soul”; The Standard of St George – “Stirring bass lines, not the traditional march format and I like something that dares to be different”; Old Comrades – “The music itself really resonates with me. It holds a dear place in my heart because it has been used so many times for the Chelsea Pensioners and therefore has the association of respect for an individual’s service and the camaraderie of being in the Service. It does also represent that I am about to become an ‘Old Comrade’!’’
I know that all my colleagues across RAF Music and anyone who has had the good fortune to meet or work with Wg Cdr Morrell will agree that his legacy is one of the utmost dedication and loyalty to the Service and to his serving comrades, as well as to fairness, parity, respect, and lifelong learning. We all wish him the very best for his next chapter, in which he intends to regain control of his diary and life work balance. When asked for some parting wisdom, Wg Cdr Morrell, as always, was determined to acknowledge, motivate, and celebrate his personnel, and I so I will leave you with this final message of admiration and encouragement:
“Collectively and individually, you possess such potential across so many skillsets. Understand each other and work together with an open mind and heart, and you will keep achieving amazing success as you continue to move the organisation towards the sunrise.”
Wing Commander Piers Morrell OBE MVO
Written by Sergeant Ellen Driscoll