Is There Ever Time To Relax?

Comment

Is There Ever Time To Relax?

Happy Diwali to all friends! Isn't it awesome to have a public holiday right smack in the middle of the week? This is great because when I started writing down these thoughts hoping to help and inspire readers, whether musician or not, I have been going on about so many different things that I haven't spoken anything about this - down time aka relaxation. 

So, is there really time for relaxation?

There has always been a correlation between musicians and athletes because both groups pretty much employ same techniques and strategies used to practice and train. And because it is also physically demanding (especially for athletes), it gets easier and more dangerous to develop injuries if there is no time for the body to heal. So, down time is extremely important. It is the time you take to care for your mental/psychological well-being, spreading the workload so as to not get burnt out too quickly. And while the mind recuperates, it also gives the body a chance to rest and recover. It's very similar to sleeping, where the body recovers and repairs itself through the night to prepare itself to be taxed again the next day. Of course, work is important and great, especially if we really like it! Like how I like to write these blog posts, and also how I absolutely love practicing and working a sweat. But doing only that for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week etc, is just going to be too taxing on any body.

In 2013, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I took an epic road trip around half (kinda) of America - 16 States, 18 cities, almost 6000 miles, and 2 months to be exact, but not before stopping in a small town in Lawrence, Kansas. There, I took a month to study with, undeniably one of the greatest marimba players currently, Ji Hye Jung, who was, at that time, teaching in Kansas University. During our month-long stay, it wasn't all honeymoon and relaxation - Ji Hye was strict and lessons were always intense! But she also offered periods of down time in between the days we had lessons, from outings to having a BBQ and hanging out at her place and her cat. In a lesson, she shared that one of the ways she relaxes was to visit museums as it took her mind off things. This was especially so when she was studying at Peabody, and the Walters Art Museum was just across the road. Not only was it convenient, it was good for the wallet because it was free!

My wife and I made new friends and hung out at various places around Lawrence and often drove to Kansas City (which is confusing because it's in Missouri!). It was a great time and we had a favourite japanese restaurant we went to all the time, we watched a movie for $3.75 (can't remember the exact price but it was really cheap because there were deals before nightfall), walked downtown, learned how to make sushi with friends, watched shows on netflix together, and even drove out to Missouri for some epic ribs! I can't remember the name but it was at a petrol station (gas station). But while it may seem all fun and games, I really made sure to focus when I was practicing, especially since I had just changed my 4-mallet grip to Stevens. And while I practice, my wife will be de-cluttering her laptop, or researching on places to visit in the area and for our road trip, or even helping me do score study! It truly is the best when you have such an amazing, devoted, and encouraging spouse.

Even after my concert in August, I had a couple of days of down time to relax, collect my thoughts on the concert (at the same time, thinking about how to improve it = job hazard) and more importantly to spend time with family. Thinking back to my student days, there were always times where I would take a leisure-ish walk outside school, on the way to lunch, or just getting a coffee break. 

Down time is important, so I would love to hear how you spend your down time, whether it's listening to music or cooking, it will be interesting and might be useful to share different ideas of relaxation! As always, thank you for reading. In the meantime, be safe and well. 

Joachim

Comment

Yo-Yo Ma's Advice

Comment

Yo-Yo Ma's Advice

Let's cut to the chase - read this!

 

This entry won't be long because Yo-Yo Ma's advice really hits the point, at least for my set of beliefs and ideologies - that music is for music, to grow the community, for the neighbourly-ness. If we use music as a transactional process, then we miss the point of it all. Yes, we need to feed ourselves and our families, but the monetary aspect of performing music is prioritised further down that chain of command.

To me, it really is like religion. Don't worry I won't touch this and besides, I'm not the kind who will shove religion down someone else's throat. But I do believe that God works in His way and that everything will come/happen in due time.

True story: I was thrown into percussion in secondary school because of my piano background. Prior to that, I was playing the flute in primary school and wanted to continue it into secondary school. Of course I was disappointed that it didn't work out but who knew that I would be having so much fun learning and playing percussion! Look where it brought me today! Call it fate or destiny but to me, it really is God's blessing and we usually only realise it on hindsight.

I am a firm believer that if we stay true to ourselves and to the music, everything else that is secondary (and further down the chain) will come in its due time. As I said, I'm not out to force my beliefs on you, so please take it with a pinch of salt if they don't align with yours. But whicever it is, I would love to hear from you so please comment below! It's always interesting to hear various stories and beliefs. In the meantime, thanks again for reading and I hope you guys stay safe and well out there!

Joachim

Comment

The Adam Rapa Project

Comment

The Adam Rapa Project

The last gig I had that required me to be behind a kit was in October last year, for YST's Performers(') Present Symposium. I had 2 gigs - the first one was playing in a big band style with the Boston Brass + YST brass faculty + YST brass students. The next one (just 2 days later) was with my musical brothers, Lorong Boys, for our jam-packed-no-space-to-sit-down-gotta-stand concert! It was a great experience working with so many different people and just plainly, a lot of fun! So when I got an email from Mr. Brett Stemple - Head of Brass in YST, for yet another opportunity, I knew I couldn't turn it down!

Now, because I don't frequently get to sit down and use all my limbs simultaneously, I knew I had to put in the extra effort into practicing to make my limbs obey my mind.. at the very least. This concert was going to feature guest artist Adam Rapa, and he is a full-on jazz trumpeter and screamer! This guy could hit notes so high and with so much volume and power it can shatter glass and break ear drums. It's amazing how he's not deaf yet. But what I thought was even more amazing, was the fact that he could do it as and when he wanted, and made it look so effortless!

It reminded me of a time when I was talking to Garret Arney (arx duo) about marimba playing. We talked about Three Moves by Paul Lansky and how difficult it is to play it. I can't remember if it was him or if he got this story from someone else, but basically, the player played a movement for an audition (I believe) and when he was done, the professor said "Man, that was hard!" and rightfully so! And it got the player thinking - why was that hard to play? How do I make it look easy? And since then, it got me thinking too: no matter how hard the music is, it is important to make it look easy - and Adam Rapa totally had it!

I won't lie: it was stressful right from the start. As I said, I don't play drumset often, and the last time I worked extensively on it was during my army days in SAF Bands, where I refined technical and tempo flaws through the help of colleagues and friends there. If it was straight-ahead jazz, I would have been all right, but things don't always go the way you want them to - there were many tempo + meter changes as well as odd-meters in the music, including a drum solo section but in 9!

For me, the rehearsals were the best part of this whole journey and project, which I'll get to it in a while. There's high levels of stress but I learnt a great deal through the week, not only about the music, but about myself - how I play certain passages and/or phrases, how a jazz trumpeter talks about groove and having an amazing sense of pulse and rhythm, how to link this all back to percussion and to my playing, and ultimately, how a drummer fits into the band. I've always said that the music comes first, and I guess as a drummer (or maybe just me when I'm behind the drums), we (naturally) tend to want to play "more", or just to showcase what we can do - flashy licks and technical displays. Remember that solo in 9 I talked about? Every recording I listened to did not have that solo section, and there wasn't much of a rhythm section in the videos too. So not only did Adam want the solo in 9, I had no idea how the entire passage sounded like. And man... that first time was a total train wreck (yes, pun intended because it was a piece about the Orient Express lol)!

Of course, it was back to the drawing board after that and I could only use the (extremely) late nights to get some practicing in. Yes, you can count 9 in a number of ways, but this was grouped 3+2+2+2 and doing solos in 9 wasn't a thing for me until then. But it didn't take long for me to figure out that I can combine a double paradiddle with 3 paradiddles to form 9 in the same grouping, and use that to solo! All I needed to do was to get it orchestrated and my solo will be good to go! After all, it's just going to be 4 measures long...

WRONG!

Literally, the next rehearsal, Adam extended it to 8 measures, included another repeat of 4 measures as well as 3 measures leading to his solo run for that section. If your math was right, you would had 19 measures in total! If your math was wrong, don't worry about it.. unless you actually do math for a living. AND, he also did not want a groove-based solo, so my double-paradiddle-plus-3-paraddidles stint went out the window in an instant. By now, my stress knob had already sky-rocketed. Adam also had clear rhythmic ideas he wanted in the drums - distinctive beats and patterns, certain types of grooves and rhythms he wanted to happen on the hihats, and lots of cymbal sounds - A LOT!

But even though everything did not seem to be going well, that whole journey and process was extremely beneficial to me! Being in a rehearsal space with a jazz musician was completely different from my natural/used-to habitat in an orchestra. By responding to his needs, I learnt a great deal about his musical needs and ideas, as well as the roles each player has in the larger ensemble. I said earlier that drummers love to be flashy and are basically show-offs behind the kit and will tend to overplay - and that was exactly what I was doing with my solo! I wasn't treating it as a time frame to develop a musical idea - I was treating it as a restricted and confined space to just use drumming vocabulary verbatim, without any thought into the "why". Needless to say, it was back to practicing and finding different ideas to build up the solo. Eventually, I came up with something way simpler, not only for the counting but the playing as well, and I can only hope that the audience enjoyed it during its execution in the concert. As the saying goes, "Simpler is better", and while I thought I understood it, I definitely I have a better grasp of it now.

I know it's been a bit of a long post, but I feel this also ties in with one of my earlier entries on wanting to be more versatile. Like I said, I don't do many gigs behind the kit, but every time I do, I try my best to meet the needs and demands of the band leader, and my takeaway from the Adam Rapa project is to be more of a team player, especially when my role is to lay down a solid groove than to show off how many double/triple/single-paradiddles I can do. 

If you ever had an experience where you learnt a lot from rehearsals, I'd like to hear your story so do drop a comment below! Meanwhile, stay safe and be well! Thanks for reading!

Joachim

Comment

5 Tips for the Musician

Comment

5 Tips for the Musician

I've been having the privilege and honour to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for a while now (especially since returning home in June last year) and other orchestras and groups in the country such the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (MFO) and the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO). Though I am relatively new to MFO and SLO, I had a serious brush with the SSO (in my previous post) which could have cost me my freelancing engagements with them! So, as promised for this post, I am going to share how not to screw up, whether you'll be playing in an orchestra or in a big band, and to maintain a good relationship with the group your are playing with.

 

  • Get The Parts Early

Unless you get a call the night before (which actually happened to me in February this year for SSO's Charles Dutoit concert that live-streamed Stravinsky's Firebird Suite), you will have plenty of time before the first rehearsal to get your part! Find out the librarian's contact and get in touch, asking for the music to your parts in the concert. If the organisation allows, you can ask for PDF copies - I usually ask for them not only because it saves trees, but also because plain and simply, it is more convenient than making a trip down to their office just to collect it physically. Once you've obtained it, it's time to do our homework!

 

  • Know The Music

After getting your part, or even if you do not have it yet, start listening to the music! Grab your earphones and your music, and start listening to your favourite recordings whilst reading along with the full score (and your part, if you can actually split your eyes and focus). If you are doing a pop/jazz gig, do the same! Unless you own a set of really good speakers and can blast them without disturbing your neighbours, I highly suggest using earphones because you can block out external sound as well as listen to the music wholly without distractions. Keep a ear out for specific instances, like hits in the tune or anything else from time signature changes to tempo changes and so on. For classical music, watch out especially for these changes, seeing and hearing how different orchestras do it so that you don't get a shock in your first rehearsal. The whole idea of this is to not only know when you play, but who you play with. It is to know what role your notes have in relation to the entire group and to find a suitable sound colour to either blend or not, depending on the piece and your preference (but also your leader's). For classical musicians, I'm sure you know of IMSLP, where your can get your full scores there and even your parts, if they in public domain. If not, you might have to use your resources to find the full scores in public libraries. A personal experience: when we performed Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, there was no full score, and I was pretty sure the librarian will not have a PDF of a 10-movement symphony that spans 90 minutes. Granted, I did not ask because in the event if they did not have it, I would have felt extremely bad for troubling the librarian into scanning the full score! So to find a solution, I asked a friend, who was still in school, to borrow the full score for me just so that I was able to look through it and be prepared. For pop or jazz gigs, you can always transcribe the tunes as a roadmap. The more you know what's happening in the piece, the more familiar and therefore, prepared you become. And I daresay, this is the most crucial and important part in your preparation!

 

  • Be Prepared

Now that you've gotten the parts and have studied the music and score, it's time to put all those into practice! Head to your practice room and go over your part, both with and without a recording. Even though most of the homework should be done by now, you definitely do not want to be sight reading! If you are on mallets, try practicing to the point where you can play without looking at the notes so that you can look at the conductor. I know - it's impossible to hit all the correct notes without looking down, but conductors appreciate and need eye contact! I was on glockenspiel for the Harry Potter concert with the MFO, and it required me to be looking up constantly! The rapid tempo fluctuations in movie music is more demanding from a symphony and I had to work doubly hard for that performance due to many exposed parts. Being prepared also consists of writing in cues - from brass entries to the timpani roll, from a harp gliss to a flute solo. The more cues you write, the more safety nets you have when things go awry, or especially when you get lost!

 

  • Be Early

Punctuality is important wherever you go and is one of the first few things managements take note off. Strive to arrive an hour before the start of the rehearsal, especially if you are a percussionist. And even if you aren't, you can use the time to warm up, play in the hall for a bit (or the studio depending on the gig you have) to get used to the space and sound produced so that you can make adjustments during the rehearsal. Arriving way earlier ahead of time gives you buffer time for emergencies as well - forgetting to bring sticks/mallets/triangles/tambourines or anything small. It also gives you ample time to set up your stuff - sticks and mallets on stick trays, music on the stand, tuning of drums (if need be, especially if you are on bass drum), and also just to help your colleagues set up their stuff. As the famous saying in the Singapore Armed Forces go, "if you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late".

 

  • Ask Questions

Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially if it's your first time! For percussionists, it is important to know where the equipment and gear are, so that you know how and where to put them back after the rehearsal. I was on chimes when we recorded Scriabin's 4th and 5th symphonies a while ago, and the part indicated a "low C" and was written in the bass clef! So I clarified with my principal and associate if I needed to use something else that the orchestra has. Even though they had another set that went to a low F, we decided that the current set of chimes will suffice for the concert and recordings. As mentioned earlier, you need to know the type of sound you are looking for. In my case, I made sure that the section was comfortable with the chimes that I was going to be playing on. That being said, do not keep asking about how you sound or how your playing is! You have been chosen and are there for a reason - they trust you enough to make your decisions, and you play well. You should already sound good by then too! If you are genuinely concerned, maybe ask once but not to the point of annoying your colleagues - they might end up thinking you are incompetent and cannot make musical decisions on your own. And that is something you definitely do not want. There is a fine line between asking someone a question and annoying someone with a question, so trust yourself and your instinct!

 

There you go, my 5 tips to not get you fired! I believe that the more prepared you are, the more confident you feel, and that translates to better performances and sounding better! But remember, it is always for the music and for the music to sound good - serve the music's purpose first. Everything else is secondary.

Hope you had a great time reading my tips! Do share yours if you have any to add. In the meantime, stay safe and be well.

Joachim

P.S. Shoutout again to Pantheon Percussion, supported by Percussion Works (P.Works), for welcoming me into the family and for being their first classical artiste! We released an artiste video as I have shared on Facebook. Just to continue the sharing, I employed the above tips before we went into the recording studio as well - making sure I have my part written down and memorised, practicing the material till it was good, and even making a click track to ensure consistency in recordings. As mentioned, the tips aren't specific and exclusive to the type of gig you are doing. Do check them out and the awesome work they've been doing for the local drumming and percussion community! 

Comment

Second Chances

Comment

Second Chances

As kids, we are always given chance after chance when we fail. I was a serious troublemaker (especially in my teens) and always had brushes with the discipline masters. And despite all the wrong-doings and disappointments I have caused, I was always forgiven by the school and the teachers. But somehow when we age, those second chances seem to diminish and become non-existent. Why is that so?

There is a multitude of reasons, but off the top of my head, things like "maturity" and "responsibility" pop up. We are expected to have learnt how to do things properly, to be responsible for our actions and of course to be civilised. Not that those are bad, but in learning, when do we ever get things right on the first try?

I have been fortunate enough to have multiple second chances, especially in my musical journey. I mentioned before that I was really ignorant and did not know what it meant to study music and to become, what we call, professional.

So being 21 and ignorant, I was late for my very first lesson. It didn't take me long to learn to be early, but I was given my "second chance" and thankfully managed to graduate! When I first went to Peabody as part of the joint-degree programme, I had zero expectations and was just going there because I thought, "it's gonna be cool to study overseas". Needless to say, I was mind-blown!! My "second chance" came in year 3, when I completed the joint-degree year at Peabody, and I made sure to squeeze every last opportunity to make full use of my time there.

But the biggest "second chance" I got was actually with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. I was still a freshman that time, and was asked to play as an extra with the orchestra. Honestly, the details are not as vivid, but you can be sure I was doing things that will get me fired on the first day of the job. I arrived literally minutes before the rehearsal (as a percussionist, you don't ever do this!) and to make things worse, my stuff was already set up - that's like getting your boss to do your work for you! On top of that, I was not prepared for the rehearsal and was helplessly lost the whole time there. That was my debut with the SSO and I don't think the section or the management were too happy with it.

Along the years since then, I grew up and matured, had plenty of "second chances" and really started to take things seriously. After all, if I don't work hard for my career now, then I can count on not having one in the future. It's a miracle I got my "second chance" with the SSO in July last year, when we returned from the States. This time round, I took ownership of my part and was 1000% prepared. That is why I always consider it a privilege, playing with them every time (because you never know when your last will be) and why I work hard to play my best all the time too.

As I mentioned earlier, second chances diminish when we get older. But we are all human and as humans, we make mistakes. Some more frequently than others, but that is the whole journey of the learning cycle. We make mistakes and learn from them and hopefully, do not commit those errors again. My idealistic hope is that things change and employers are able to give "second chances" to their employees, to see their potential rather than failure, and to help them when in need instead of abandoning them. If I did not get my "second chance", I will definitely be in a different situation now, and I don't think I'll be too thrilled about it.

What about you? I would love to hear what your "second chance" was and your experience behind it. And in my next post, I'll be sharing some tips on how to not get fired! Till then, stay safe and be well! Thanks for reading!

Joachim

P. S. I only felt this way this morning, but in the larger scheme of the Universe called Life, every day is like a "second chance" to love more, to care more and to be a better person. It's not too late to start anything or to mend broken bridges, and I hope we can find the courage and determination to do what we set out to achieve. 

Comment