Farewell to Major Phil Shannon

22nd June 2022

We prepare to say a fond farewell to Royal Hospital favourite Major Phil Shannon MBE

After 11 years at the Royal Hospital, we are very sad to say goodbye to Major Phil Shannon, who will be leaving at the end of the month. We caught up with him to find out more about how he ended up working at The Royal Hospital, what it has meant to him and what his plans are for the future.  

“At 15 I left home to join the Army”

I came from a very close family in Northern Ireland. We were all musical – my father was a scientist who also played the violin and my mother sometimes played the church organ. Both my brother and sister could play a variety of musical instruments.

At the age of 14 in 1971, I thought, “What am I going to do as a career in Northern Ireland?” I loved music, but I didn’t want to teach or work in a record shop, so the only outlet was to join the Army. 

A former bandmaster who taught in the Armagh County Youth Orchestra, which I attended on Saturday mornings, inspired me to consider a career as an Army musician. He had recently retired from the Band of the Parachute Regiment and captivated me by tales of playing for The Queen and living and working abroad. So I decided to come over to England for an audition. After passing, I joined the Junior Musician's Troop, Royal Artillery at the age of 15. It was the best thing I could have done!

Phil Shannon, Aged 15

Phil Shannon, Aged 15

Sergeant Major Barry Carben, who looked after me in those days, was a remarkable musician and an inspirational leader.  During the day he ran the ‘boys troop,’ conducted the band and orchestra, and taught most of the woodwind instrumentalists. Then in the evenings he played in the West End production of Fiddler on the Roof at the London Palladium. After all these years we are still in touch and meet to go walking each summer on the Norfolk Broads.

As military musicians, part of our job was to be the shop window for the Army, so we were often involved in recruiting. We also gave many concerts, performing at county shows, not to mention in some of London's finest hotels, concert halls and livery companies. Music is such a creative art and touches the soul like no other medium.  That’s why I tried to bring this element to my job here. I have seen what a positive influence it can have on people’s wellbeing.   

“I met many Royal guests as the Director of Music within the Household Division”

I had been with the Band of the Prince of Wales Division for four years when the previous Director of Music of the Welsh Guards died suddenly and I was appointed Director of Music of the Welsh Guards. They parachuted me into the Household Division at short notice. My first engagement was Trooping the Colour. During this, sections of the band march sideways and backwards, so one needs a lot of concentration to avoid getting lost among the 200 musicians!

The Guards bands provide music for all the state and ceremonial occasions, such as state visits, garden parties and diplomatic receptions.  I regularly performed for overseas kings, queens and presidents, but also behind closed doors for private dinners and receptions for Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.  We were very much on the inside, experiencing events people would not normally witness. 

At the end of each state banquet, Her Majesty would introduce me to the main guests. The Duke of Edinburgh would follow, and then the other members of the Royal family, the Prime Minister and the cabinet greeted me in turn.  I remember meeting President Putin a few years ago and being struck by his steely gaze and rather dour personality.  I also met the former Chinese president when he entertained The Queen in the Chinese embassy. I think it was probably the first time a Western orchestra had performed within the building and it proved to be a rather memorable occasion.

As the bandmaster of the Royal Regiment of Wales I was based in Hong Kong from 1990-93, well before the handover. The Governor, Lord Wilson, would often invite the band and choir to perform for many of his functions at Government House. I was very privileged to work at this level, which prepared me for my future service in the Household Division.

“The Queen was tapping both feet in time to the music”

It is well known that The Queen enjoys a variety of music. She doesn’t say very much, or give a great deal of direction, but when I was Director of Music of the Irish Guards, she commented favourably on a special selection of Irish music I had arranged for the regiment's Presentation of New Colours. At one point I noticed that she was not just tapping one foot – both her feet were in perfect time to the music! It showed she was really enjoying the parade.

I always found The Queen to be discreet and totally professional. On one occasion I talked to her about the Queen Mother's funeral. As she chatted, I thought, “Is this really happening to me?" Here was I, coming from the small town of Dungannon, talking one-to-one with the monarch! During my time in the Guards, I also made regular appearances on television, especially Songs of Praise, the FA cup, Ascot, and similar national events.

“We travelled right across America playing 57 cities”

I always enjoyed presenting concerts during my time in the Army. Just before I retired as the Director of Music Irish Guards, we carried out a coast-to-coast tour of America taking in 57 cities in just under three months. The band had been contracted by Colombia Artists to perform a programme featuring the music of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales with the Pipes and Drums of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. We travelled 22,500 miles mainly by bus, playing to many thousands. It sounds glamorous to perform in cities like New York, Las Vegas and Chicago, but it was totally exhausting!

As the Director of Music, I managed everything concerning the musicians, including discipline and welfare, which suited me for my job here.  I also needed to think on my feet. However, the musicians were always professional and wanted to give their very best for me, the regiment, and the Nation.  Regimental pride within the Army is of paramount importance and I am pleased to say that it is also alive and well here at The Royal Hospital!

“My job here has always been about the Pensioners’ welfare”

I used to visit The Royal Hospital quite a bit before I was appointed as a Company Captain, as I was based for seven years in Chelsea Barracks, just across the Chelsea Bridge Road. I knew all about our particular ceremonies before I took part in them as a member of staff.

I first played for Founder’s Day as a student bandmaster in 1982, with The Queen in attendance. In those days, I was one of the fanfare trumpeters on the roof of the colonnade. Many years later I then graduated to conducting the music as the Director of Music. As a Company Captain, one sees the parade from a completely different perspective.

Major Phil Shannon

Major Phil Shannon

“Music is a healing balm”

My involvement in music was not in the job description. However, for the past 25 years there has been an active Chelsea Pensioner band on site. It was originally run by my ex-boss at The Royal Military School of Music, Colonel Duncan Beat - who now lives at the Royal Cambridge Home in East Molesey. The Royal Hospital had a close connection with the home for many years, and our band has played at Christmas, Easter and for their summer garden parties.

Music is a vital ingredient in life at The Royal Hospital. I have always encouraged Chelsea Pensioners to play for each other – whether that’s at a café concert or in the Infirmary. And of course, I play myself – not only the violin in the band, but also to backing tracks in Campbell and Jones wards each Friday.  When the weather is warmer, I tend to play on the balcony, so that everyone in the infirmary can hear it from their windows.

Music truly is a healing balm. People are often able to go back in their minds and relive the past – perhaps the first time they danced to a particular song with their wife. It is rather special to witness how it touches those with dementia.  One feels a sense of achievement knowing that one is contributing to their wellbeing.

“There have been so many highlights here”

The best thing about this job is the close contact with the Chelsea Pensioners. One often becomes a confidant of people old enough to be one's parents. The Pensioners have shared many personal feelings with me over the years and have got worries off their chests. Everyone here has their own story. They don’t want to be talked down to – they want someone to take a genuine interest in them and listen actively.

I have enjoyed so many wonderful occasions out and about with the Chelsea Pensioners – St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, trips to Dublin, Guernsey, the Belfast Tattoo, and many more. But it has been equally important to sit in the Chelsea Pensioners' berths just talking with them. It was also a privilege to accompany Colin Thackery when he won Britain’s Got Talent. We spent many hours rehearsing the songs that would eventually propel him to become the oldest winner of the show, closely followed by the Royal Variety Performance.

The most challenging part of the job has been the long hours, particularly during the pandemic. Before the vaccinations were developed, no one knew what lay ahead. Along with the medical and housekeeping staff and porters, we risked our lives each day to ensure that the Pensioners were cared for in the safest possible environment. I regularly visited all the wards dressed in full PPE to make sure there was something musical happening, especially as no outside entertainers were allowed in at the time.  Some of the people I played for sadly died from the virus. One particular Pensioner knew she was dying. As she had always loved my violin, I used to go in quietly and play to her. It is not easy losing people one gets to know so well.

“It’s time for a new chapter now”

Our Christian faith is very important to my wife Elizabeth and I, and after 11 years at The Royal Hospital it is time for a new chapter. There are many needs outside our gates, so we feel it is time to become more involved in our church in Richmond. It has been such a pleasure to work closely with our Chaplain Steven Brookes, and we have enjoyed worshipping with the Wren Chapel congregation. During Covid, when local clergy were unable to help out, Steven permitted me take a few services, which was very trusting of him! The Royal Hospital has always treated people holistically.  As well as looking after the physical and emotional needs, we also deal with the spiritual. My experience has been, that as people grow older, they tend to think more deeply about spiritual matters and the brevity of life.

For me, my role as Company Captain has never been just a job. It’s a vocation, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here. In the future, I hope to still contribute to The Royal Hospital from afar and look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength.

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