A Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts diploma graduate, Aaron Yong is presently pursuing his degree in Tuba Performance at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. Currently under the tutelage of renowned soloist and pedagogue Prof. Daniel Perantoni, Aaron has had the privilege of studying not only with Jacomo Bairos, former principal tubist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but also taken lessons and attended masterclasses by reputed brass artists such as Denis Wick, Oystein Baadsvik, Carol Jantsch, Steve Rosse, Jeff Nelson, Maciek Walicki and Timothy Buzbee, to name a few.
Aaron participates actively in both the wind and symphony orchestra scenes, having performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Macao Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonic Winds, and as principal tubist with the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) International Youth Wind Orchestra in 2007.
As a chamber musician, he has most notably performed with the Macao Brass Quintet among several other chamber groups. Aaron represented the IU Tuba Studio as a semi-finalist in the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference (ITEC) 2010 Mock Orchestral Audition Competition held in Tucson, Arizona. Aaron is also the proud recipient of the National Arts Council Arts Scholarship (Overseas) in 2009.
(This interview was conducted in November 2010)
- C Tuba: B&S Perantucci PT 6P. Mouthpiece: PT-50
- F Tuba: B&S Pre-PT 10. Mouthpiece: PT-65
Firstly, what first got you into music, and then specifically the tuba?
Although I started piano lessons at 7, that didn’t go on for very long. I was always more of a sports person, and I especially enjoy soccer, having represented my primary school team. It was only when my secondary school did not offer soccer as a ECA (that’s what you called it back then) that I decided to join the symphonic band. The performance they put up during orientation week really struck a chord with me, and that was how it all started.
I actually began on the trombone, and in my 2nd year, my band director told me to select someone from my section to be transferred to the tuba section as there was a shortage of players. It took me a long time to decide (as I couldn’t justify putting anyone through the pain of playing the tuba!), and my band director eventually asked ME to go instead. Looking back, that was probably the biggest blessing in disguise, ever. I doubt I’ll ever have the kind of opportunities I had with the tuba on the trombone.
What was your first impression of the tuba when you began learning it?
Let’s just say my first impression wasn’t the best. Having just switched over from trombone, the low notes were extremely hard to get, and the instrument was heavy and difficult to hold. Quoting from Chuck Dallenbach of the Canadian Brass: “You have to be old enough to carry the tuba, and young enough to still want to play it.” I was young enough, and enjoyed the challenges it presented.
What made consider pursuing your degree abroad?
Jacamo Bairos, my previous teacher and former principal tubist with the Singapore Symphony, was a huge, huge factor. He made me realize that I was young and that there was always much more to learn and see outside of the place one calls home. For that, I owe him a huge deal and will always be very grateful. Also, the support and encouragement I had from friends and family helped make the decision a lot less difficult than it might have actually been.
What were the challenges or difficulties you faced when moving on to the new different environment?
You have a rough idea of what you are getting into, but then again you never know for sure what to expect. Being a tiny fish in a massive pond, there was always a tinge of self doubt. There is also a big gap in terms of cultural differences, and last but not least, climate!
Can you describe your weekly schedule at the school?
Classes usually go from morning till about noon, and band and orchestra rehearsals happen in the afternoon. Depending on your schedule, you find time for a weekly lesson with your professor in between. Chamber groups and ad hoc rehearsals usually happen in the night when everyone has a little more flexibility in their schedules. When none of these is going on, I practise! And eat. And do some homework.
What is your current practice routine? Are there any pieces that you are currently working on?
For starters, I warm up with simple exercises that allow me to focus on getting a really relaxed blow. It can be anything from sustained tones to exercises from the Rochut or Bordogni etude books. Getting this portion of my practice right sets me up for the rest of the day really well.
Next, I’ll spend time targeting on other fundamentals of playing, such as range, technique, flexibility, etc, before hitting the band/orchestra excerpts as well as solo pieces. Do note that all these is done throughout different times of the day – it gives my muscles time to regenerate and my mind to refresh, and it fits in better with my schedule anyway.
I am currently working on Anthony Plog’s 3 Miniatures, Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, and Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto. I have performed these works in part or whole before, but revisiting them at a later stage proves to be equally, if not more, satisfying as you are working on them with a different perspective and probably a higher level of ability too. Besides, with the Vaughan Williams asked at pretty much every kind of tuba audition, polishing it constantly can never hurt.
What’s on your ipod? What music or CDs do you listen to? Are there anyone in particular?
Call me old-school, but Michael Learns to Rock has always been one of my favourites! I like listening to other pop songs and ballads on the move, and only listen to instrumental and orchestral music when I’m in a quiet environment (otherwise, you can’t hear a single thing!).
In your opinion, what is the significance of the tuba in an orchestra / wind band? Is it just a low bass-line instrument that plays the “ompha-ompha” notes?
The characteristic sound of the tuba calls for one to play the bass notes and act as a supporting rather than a leading role in a large ensemble setting. After all, that is what the instrument is primarily designed for. That however does not take any significance away from the part at all.
As a young student on the tuba though, you are not going to understand and appreciate music as much as your other peers on other instruments if that is all you are going to play, which is why it is important for the developing tubist to take up solo and chamber works to challenge themselves and learn the nuances of performing with music as the main goal, not playing the loudest or the lowest.
Having said that, many composers who write modern pieces have relooked at how the tuba can contribute to different sounds and textures, and have written a good amount of works that explore the possibilities of the tubas in other ways, Stravinsky being one example.
Many musicians are indecisive on the idea of continuing music as they fear it provides a poor career prospect. Do you have any comments?
I have heard this saying many a times: “If you want to be rich, don’t study music”. While this is not entirely inaccurate, one should always remember and understand the main reason behind choosing music as a career path. The reason may vary from person to person, but the dedicated musician with a solid goal and a creative set of skills will find ways to thrive under difficult circumstances.
Now, that is not to say we will all end up winning a position in the Chicago Symphony or the Berlin Philharmoniker, but the other possibilities out there are endless (chamber and solo performance, music education, arts management, instrumental building and repair, the list goes on..) and it is up to the individual to create their own opportunities.
For any prospective young musician who wants to take their profound love in music to higher grounds, would you recommend them to study music overseas?
I would definitely encourage experiencing music education abroad. It doesn’t even have to be a degree for the whole of four years or a PhD for twelve (some people prefer taking their time), but a month or so every now and then would expand your horizon and do you a world of good. Summer festivals and courses are a great way to do this, or you could simply contact a teacher and set up a lesson or two while on your holiday travels!
For those who wish to pursue it long term, but find it financially difficult, there are several organizations that provide financial aid or scholarships. The availability of funds might change from year to year, so do some research and keep a lookout well in advance before applications for schools begin.
Apart from doing music, what other activities do you enjoy?
I still enjoy soccer (although I play it mostly on my laptop these days), and catching up on movies and some tv serials. I also happen to have an immense talent of eating a lot without suffering the consequences too badly, so food is definitely something I enjoy as well.
What will you be doing after your degree?
I will most likely be back in Singapore to gain some work experience, and continue with my graduate studies back in the States.