Darence Leng was first introduced to wind instruments upon joining his school band in Mei Chin Secondary. He has performed with many ensembles, including the St. Andrews & Catholic Junior College Bands, Church orchestras and the Singapore Wind Symphony (known then as National Theatre Symphonic Band).
As a conductor, Darence Leng is currently the Band Director of the Hwa Chong Family Band – Hwa Chong Junior College Symphonic Band and Hwa Chong Institution (High School) Band, as well as the Balestier Hill Secondary School Band. He also actively performs with the Philharmonic Winds.
(This interview was conducted in September 2011)
Band was not your first choice in secondary school. What ignited your interest in music and the flute?
I wasn’t really participating in any activity (called ‘ECA’ for ‘Extra Curricular Activity’ back then) when I was in Secondary One. I admit to being a laid back lazy boy who preferred to laze around at home. But when I started term in Secondary Two, our school principal announced that all students who were not already in a uniform group or sports club had to join one, or they would be assigned one by the school. Petrified, I immediately evaluated my choices. Sports? Highly unlikely – running around in the sun wasn’t my cup of tea. Besides, I was a scrawny puny kid who couldn’t throw a ball more than 2 metres. All that was left were the uniformed groups, which I recall vividly to have been doing nothing other than foot-drill for hours every day. It didn’t matter if you joined the Red Cross or NCC, it was all the same, foot-drill foot-drill foot-drill in the sun.
That left only one choice; the school band. It was an inviting choice because I remembered they held practices in the AIR-CONDITIONED AVA room. They were the only uniformed group that remained in the shade. My choice was clear: I enrolled in the band and went for my first session, pleased that I had made a very wise choice.
It was at that first session that we were introduced to our band instructor Mr Lam Seng Kye. He welcomed all thirty plus of us new students to the band and enthusiastically told us that we were lucky to join the band because the school had decided that the band would be taking part in the coming SYF display band event. So there we were, foot-drills everyday in the sun, whilst my friends in NCC watched from the shade of the school corridor.
That said, being in the band gave me a sense of accomplishment that most students would never have had experienced. I grew to enjoy being in the band. As most students from bands will readily testify, practicing together with a large team gave us a sense of pride and satisfaction. The success of the team depended on the effort and dedication of everyone. When everyone contributed, the end result was exceptional. I was hooked for life.
People usually stereotype the flute as an instrument for ladies. What do you have to say about that?
So do I. Haha 🙂 I often tell the new recruits that flutes are only for petite girls, to persuade students to try the less popular instruments. This serves a more practical purpose in the distribution of students to sections. But frankly, gender doesn’t play a role in how well a flute player will be. I have seen both boys and girls do equally well on the flute.
In your opinion, what has made your flute playing improve over the years? Was it the many opportunities to perform or because of certain influences and teachers?
Well, we didn’t have many opportunities to learn from a qualified flute tutor back when I was a student. Many different experiences contributed to my development. At the beginning, a great deal of influence came from my school band, and the exchanges we had. We learnt by observing what other students did. A big part of my development also came from playing in church ensembles, where I met skilled musicians who were very helpful. The church held large scale performances a few times a year, and that gave me many opportunities to perform in their musical productions.
Then when I was an undergrad in NUS, I joined the symphonic band (no surprise), and we were fortunate to have flute tutors from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra who came to teach us weekly. These tutoring sessions played a critical part in my progress, because for the first time in my life, someone could tell me what I was doing wrong, and could point out exactly what I needed to change, be it my hand position or embouchure.
Later in life, as I joined other community bands, I met and played with many better flutists. I learned from their examples, their tone, their technique, and tried to imitate them.
You can say that most of my development came through trying to mimic better players.
Describe your equipment. What plays an important role to the overall tone of the flute; the instrument or the player?
I play the Miyazawa PA-401R which I got from Band World in 1998. It still plays very well and has never needed any major repairs. I believe that achieving a good tone on the flute requires both the instrument and the flautist to be good.
Do you have a different approach when playing the piccolo? What are some of solos you have performed with it?
I’m not a frequent piccolo player at all. Ironically, out of necessity, I’ve performed more solos on bamboo and other ethnic flutes, including pan flutes, than I have on piccolo. None are the same. I have found that I need to use different embouchure for each type of “flute” to get a good tone from them, including the piccolo. The pan flute is special because notes are sounded by individual tubes, and each tube is a different size, so the embouchure has to be slightly different for each note. Inevitably, I have to put in a lot of practice on these instruments before I would perform on them, a notable example being my recent deputizing on the Singapore production of The Lion King, which features nine ethnic flutes in addition to the standard concert flute and piccolo.
What are some pieces that you have enjoyed working on?
The six Bach Sonatas and Brandenburg 5, and the two Mozart concertos particularly. Trevor Wye’s six volume Practice Book series is essential in all aspects of developing proficiency, technique and musicianship.
What musicians or ensembles should an aspiring flute player listen to?
I grew up listening to Rampal, Galway, and Adrian Brett, who is presently playing in the London production of The Lion King. Not for any particular reason other than that was what my father kept buying for me on cassette tapes. Yes, cassette tapes, and I would play them until the tapes would stretch out of shape and the music disintegrated to “wow and flutter”. We didn’t have CDs or MP3 players then, just the cassette tapes that we played on our Walkman. I also listened to flute concertos and recordings of woodwind quintets.
I don’t have a specific list of recordings that I recommend. There are many recordings of good flautists available. Listening to any is better than none at all. I would advice aspiring musicians to listen to good performers often, and try to imitate their sound and style as a start.
What constitutes a good performance in your eyes? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
The most important aspect of any performance is that the performer must enjoy the performance, and perform with passion. If the performer doesn’t enjoy the performance, neither will the audience. A great performance isn’t one that is without mistakes. I’ve always enjoyed performances which were less than perfect, but performed with passion and enthusiasm.
As a performer, I feel I play best when I am not worried about making mistakes. Too often we go on stage pre-occupied with thoughts about playing perfectly, to hit all the right notes, etc. Our brain gets too busy thinking about perfection, that we put aside the true message of the music. Yes, it is important to work out the technical details to best of your ability. But when it comes time to walk on stage, no amount of worry will make it better. Take whatever you have prepared, no matter how imperfect, and tell the message as you or the composer intended.
Before we conclude, what advices do you have for young flute players?
Keep an open mind. Don’t be too critical or judgmental of what you hear. There’s something to learn from every performer. If you learn one good thing from ten different musicians each, you’ll become better at ten things.
Take every opportunity to perform with a good group. That way you learn from the examples of the good.
Most important of all, be committed to the groups you join. Be responsible and dedicated. That way, the people in the good groups will respect you, and your name will be at the top of their list when opportunities arise to perform in better productions, possibly with established artists.