Each performance of Drill is timed perfectly and lasts 20 minutes. But with such a long standing tradition, writing about it takes two blog posts!
Whilst Drill was not unique to the School when it started out, it seems likely that no other schools have anything like it today. The closest might be Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore which has some movements that are similar. However, their Gym Drill is described on their own website as
The Middle and Upper School perform an all-school dance and school exercises which have been performed since 1904
There are elements that are more like cheerleading movements than the marching exercises performed at RMSG but as trainees under Madame Bergman-Osterburg came from, and disseminated to, all corners of the world, it is quite possible that the origins were once closely aligned.
This image, dated 1880, is the earliest photograph of Drill apparently being performed. One has to say ‘apparently’, as this may be a posed image, possibly including every girl in the School at the time, and there are no records anywhere of it being performed outdoors. Clearly, if this were a performance, someone would have had to have wheeled out two grand pianos for the accompanying music!
This brings us nicely onto the music. In the C19th and perhaps the earlier part of the C20th, the music was played by senior girls. By the later part of the C20th, that task fell to music teachers. The pianists required skill not just to read and play the music but, if necessary, to speed up or slow down tempo if the Drillers were a little too enthusiastic or tardy in performance. On one occasion, some Senior girls decided, out of mischief, to repeat some of the exercises more times than normal. Valerie Curtis, music teacher from 1958, later commented that she had thought the Drill was taking a little longer than usual but she just fitted the music to the movement being performed!
In 1980, it was decided to try recorded music. With some trepidation Miss Curtis was asked if she would mind being made redundant. The nervousness was uncalled for as Val was delighted to be freed from the task of turning up to every rehearsal on time and thumping out music on a keyboard!
This sample of Drill music is from 1933 although the book is dated 1916.
In 1982, Hooked on Classics – classical music given an up tempo treatment by Louis Clark – was storming the charts. The Drill was re-worked to this music which now includes the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, March of the Toreadors from Bizet’s Carmen, the Blue Danube Waltz, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Sousa’s The Liberty Bell, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and The Dam Busters. About 30 years later, the opportunity arose to tell Mr Clark how his musical treatment had been utilised.
“He was genuinely intrigued and delighted to know that his musical arrangements had helped to popularise Drill, giving pleasure to so many over such a long period of time.”
Drill is a special part of life at RMSG but that does not mean that it is a fixed entity which no-one dare change. It is said that former pupils watch the performances with eagle eyes, later declaring that it wasn’t as good as in their day but they would say that, wouldn’t they?
However it can, and does, change according to need.
This movement is no longer included although, as this image from the Great Hall shows, still was in the 1930s. In 1937, as a special, the staff performed a version of drill for the girls. The School magazine records the apparent astonishment of the watching pupils as, in slow motion, the staff touched their toes!
This is the wheel performed in the very earliest days at Rickmansworth (no portraits on the wall gives that away). It was not performed for Prize Day 1934 (then in May) as there had not been enough rehearsal time since the School had only arrived on site in April. However, it was performed when Queen Mary opened the School – on a wet, miserable, rainy summer day. Some of the spectators here appear to be dressed appropriately for British summer: raincoats and warm clothing!
With performances stretching back as far as at least 1876, there have been many notable spectators. In 1888, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) watched it. In 1946, his grandson, George VI watched it.
The King was in what has become known as the King’s Chair – one of the Caledonian chairs presented to the School in 1795. On the back of this chair is recorded a list of the illustrious royal bottoms that have sat upon it to watch Drill: Queen Mary in 1912 and again in 1934; the Princess Royal in 1927; George VI in 1946; Princess Marina in 1948.
With any well-established tradition, there have been those not normally part of a hard-working team who want to participate. In 1934, in celebration of the School being about to move to Rickmansworth, Drill was performed backwards with Drillers wearing masks on the backs of their heads. The teaching staff, as we have seen, have performed it for pupils. In the 1990s, the staff were again challenged, their numbers added to by parents, to a charity performance. Given the all too few rehearsals and fewer than 180 drillers to make the formations, their performance was given grudging praise in the comment “Hey, they’re not bad.”
Year Two pupils, in learning about the School’s history, had a go at some of the movements …
… and learned first-hand that it takes practice to be synchronised!
Drill has even been on the radio. Fighting Fit, broadcast on Radio 4 on 28th May 2005, heard presenter Fi Glover discovering that
“getting the rights and lefts going in sequence, the tippy toes turning, the arm movements in the right order and making sure it is all done in time with the music and in line with everyone else is jolly difficult.”
Rehearsal is vital to make sure each Driller knows where she should be at any given moment so let us give special praise to those Reserves who attend all the rehearsals, turn up immaculately attired for the performances and may not actually be in one. Their dedication is crucial as they might have to slot into any one of the 180 places making the performance seamless. As one of them said:
“… nothing prepares you for the moment when [you are told] ‘You’re East 71.’ You think, where the heck’s that? Am I an up or a down line in the arm things and am I a 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1?”
And sometimes things can go wrong. One former pupil recalled with horror the time her shoe fell off when the Princess Royal was watching. The lady in question winked in sympathy but the girl herself felt devastated. But full marks for quick thinking for the Driller who had forgotten her short white socks so painted her ankles with plimsoll whitener!
Drill performances are three in number: Prize Day and Remembrance Sunday are two. The other arose from what had been a full rehearsal on the Wednesday before Prize Day but, as it proved equally as popular with spectators as the other two performances, it became one in its own right.
On Remembrance Sunday, the set square and compass position is held whilst a speech is given (the speaker being implored to keep it brief to prevent girls from keeling over in a faint), Point is rewarded with a little gift and the girls prepare to end the performance. After removing the poppies they are wearing and laying them at their feet, marching on the spot begins and, at the sound of a whistle, the Drillers leave the Hall. Their poppies remain, a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by many in war.
[Additional information to create these posts was supplied by three former Heads of PE at the school to whom grateful thanks are extended.]