Clarence Tan is the Principal Euphonium player of the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band. He studied Euphonium under Samantha Chong from 1996-2003 before switching to Double Bass, while studying at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) under Xu Li. Clarence is currently the Artistic Director for AudioImage Wind Ensemble, and Music Director for CHIJ (Toa Payoh) Secondary School Concert Band. Clarence graduated with a Diploma in Music from NAFA, and also holds a double-Bachelors Degree in Marketing and Management from the Curtin University of Technology, WA.
(This interview was conducted in August 2010)
What made you want to learn the double bass?
It never occurred to me that someday I will be playing the double bass. I guess its when one reaches a crossroad in life that you have to have that decision.
As many in the band scene would know I started on the euphonium and still performing with the SAF Central Band. I studied with Chong Shoo Mei for some years but when it was time to further my studies in performance practice, there was no local institution that offer euphonium as principal studies.
The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory was not set up yet, and NAFA only offers vocal, piano and violin studies at that time. An overseas education was out of the question as I was still pursuing a bachelors degree in marketing and management then.
I recalled sharing my dilemma with a close friend in the band and he suggested to learn another instrument, the double bass, so that I could also play in an orchestra or other set-ups. It was an intriguing idea that I immediately went to study with a bass teacher. I agree it was an act of impulse.
The bass is by no means an easy instrument to play and to master. It was not easy to earn a new instrument when one is 25 and have to compete with beginning bassists much younger and agile on the fingers.
Most of the time I was demoralized. I had to juggle between learning the bass and continuing my busy schedule with the SAF Central Band and my studies. It was with great determination I made up my mind to study the bass. I enrolled into a musical institution and went to NAFA.
What is it like playing a double bass in an orchestra and a band?
As the orchestra and the band differ in acoustical timbre and balance, the roles the bass play in both ensemble are therefore different. While the bass truly supports the bass line of the orchestra by playing together as a section, the bass on the other hand colors the timbre of the band by playing as a soloist.
It is always fun playing in the orchestra with difficult passages to manage (especially Beethoven) and a section to play with. My bass teacher, Xu Li, once said all bassists live to practice Beethoven, so you can imagine how challenging the parts are. In contrast, the bass parts in the band are generally less challenging; sometimes there is no need for one either.
Most band composers writes for the market and since most bassists in bands tend to be beginners, they simply write simple parts. However there are composers whom are more experimental in exploiting the potential of the bass tone colours and applying them to their band compositions.
Now these compositions are more fun to play with as it can make the bassist perform tricks such as the sul ponticello (playing near the bridge), bartok pizz (lifting the string and slap it onto the fingerboard) or col legno (playing on the wood of the bow).
What are the differences between the German and French bow? In your opinion, which bow would be more suitable to play which types of music?
The conspicuous difference in both bows is its general variations.
The French (overhand) bow is similar in shape and compliments the bows of the other members of the violin family. The German bow being the older of the two designs is descended from the old viol family.
In comparison, the German Bow is broader and generally shorter. It is held with the right hand grasping at the frog of the bow in a loose fist, or as how I instruct my students “hold it like a Chinese tea-cup”.
Both bows could be used for all types of music, depending of the preference of the musician. In general, the French bow is used for virtuosic and delicate passages while the German bow excels in executing well controlled staccatos and spiccatos.
However, by design, the German bow can allow a young bassist to produce a larger sound with lesser effort than with a French bow, hence more suitable for wind bands.
It should not be misunderstood that the bow is the primary determinant of good sound. While it is indeed true a good bow does draw a better sound, the set-up of the bass will also affect the quality of sound produced.
Many basses sound bad due to improper placement of the bridge, wrong height for the bridge or simply wrong strings for the wrong bass.
Do you have any word of advices for budding double bass players?
If I can do it at 25, you can do even more.
The bass is a cool instrument and is not difficult to learn. Just make sure you get the correct books and a good teacher. It does not pay to play with bad techniques.
Till today I’m still thankful to all my teachers for making who I am today, especially Shoo Mei and Xu Li, both having seen me mature as a musician.
A conductor is more than a time-beater. How much do you agree with this statement and why?
Sir Simon Rattle once said “Being a conductor is kind of a hybrid profession because most fundamentally, it is being someone who is a coach, a trainer, an editor, a director.”
How true his statement is.
A conductor indeed wears different hats at various levels!
The ensemble we conduct is a collective group of individuals on different instruments. This meant every individual has a different musical idea and playing style.
Hence as conductors we help to collect and organize these ideas and styles available and put them in an orderly fashion as instructed in the music. This is as far as the term “Time-beater” goes.
However, it is the conductor’s responsibility to effectively communicate the composers’ intentions and messages to the audience in the most intellectual way, therefore a conductor possessing multiple skills, such as effective verbal and non-verbal communication skills, can engage his/her musicians to communicate the music to the audience through them.
In this, the conductor then becomes an artist, painting music on empty canvas, breathing life to every stroke he/she executes.
What’s your conducting style, if any?
I’m still a student in conducting. Although I’ve been attending both orchestral and band master-classes, I’ve yet found a style unique to myself.
However, it was through these master-classes that I’ve experimented with various techniques to enable me communize intimately with my musicians. My conducting teachers are Zechariah Goh and currently Wang Ya Hui. Both have been instrumental in helping me build my unique style.
What was the most challenging piece you have done with your bands and why?
Amongst the programs I have conducted, the most challenging and impressionable of all would have to be ‘Wind Blew Over Cherry Blossom’ by Bernard Lee.
It was the first time I premiered a local commission and the music was not as predictable as the other works the band was doing then.
The music is based on a set of colourful and textural variations based on a traditional Japanese folksong, Sakura. The dissonace in the opening 8 bars were unbearable when we first rehearsed. It was mostly due to the band’s bad intonation then and the band then consist of many young players. It seems the music was written too difficult for them. It took the band two intensive months to work on the music before it could be performed.
In past concerts with Orchid Park, you have done more orchestral transcribed works than band compositions, why so?
One of the reasons for performing orchestral works with OPWO is the lack of serious and substantial wind music at a high school level. Most serious music are often written for university or professional bands, hence not accessible. Only recently OPWO performed the last movement of Ticheli’s Second Symphony.
Apart from its technical difficulties, the texture and colour of the music is also difficult to construct. It is a fantastic work and it was with great perseverance that the orchestra was able to perform the music.
OPWO prides herself for having a lower string section (consisting of cello and bass) and not many wind band composers write challenging materials for them. The transcriptions help to train the lower string section on their techniques and also keep them interested in class.
Being a bassist myself, I understand the boredom of just playing crochets all the way. With these music they may participate effectively in the music-making process, and not be labeled as “the pretty vases at that corner”.
Playing transcriptions also provide my wind players opportunities to play orchestral excepts. However there are many arrangements and transcriptions in the market, and its up to the director’s good taste to select the appropriate transcriptions for his/her ensemble.
You have taken CHIJ TP Band to another gold during SYF 2009 under your baton, what do you have to say about your first achievement with the band?
I would not claim that the credit is all mine. The band was already good when I took over from their previous director, Mr. Leonard Tan. All I did was to continue what he has left behind. The greatest challenge then was to convince the musicians my musical directions and shape the music.
The Teachers-in-Charge of the ensemble, Mr Chan Yew Choong and Mr Alvin Tang have been understanding and supportive and have helped in making the transition from Leonard to me smoother.
The challenge now after the SYF is to bring the ensemble to yet another artistic performing level.
Do you have any words of encouragement for your previous and current students?
Life is just beginning for you.
I hoped my students, past and present, have taken away my gift of music and would learn to appreciate the finer things later in life.
But for now STUDY HARD! And to all my students,
Thank You for the music.