The Positive Impact of Wind Band Music

The Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation for Wind Bands has always been the hype of the Singapore band scene. It is a parade of Singapore school bands; a showcase of the talents and efforts put in by the conductor and students.

‘Efforts put in’ is an understatement – many toiled and sweat for over 6 months of preparations for the 10 minutes of performance. Students sacrifice their free time and holiday time; parents suffer together with their child’s passions; teachers stay up late to open band room; schools put in money to provide accessories and repairs for this presentation; and conductors busy themselves over one bar of music for the 50th time.

Without any doubts, the question behind all these drama is – is it worth it?

Maybe not. If Music making is about those 10 minutes, it cannot be worthwhile. Anyone who attempts to find the meaning of life in the SYF Arts Presentation will always end up in frustrations and disappointments.

To quote some of my students, “my parents don’t really care if I get distinction or not.” The award no matter how good it is, can never justify the amount of time and effort put in. What makes band activity meaningful and worthwhile is the process of music making itself.

Through the rigour of music making, students do not solely receive musical knowledge, but also understanding. Such understanding does not merely pertain to musical knowledge itself, but also exist as a form of wisdom in life. It expands the horizons of a soul, become enlightened to what he already knows. He becomes a person more connected to the community and mankind.

There are so much aspects of understanding one can receive, but let us look at three general ones in this article.

Band Activities promotes Esprit De Corps

According to Dr Penny Tan research [1], the School Band Program was a brainchild of our late PM Lee. Through marching bands, espirit de corps and a sense of national identity could be instilled into the students. Indeed, band activity teaches a far deeper concept of unity than just marching to the beat. Playing in the band is almost a model of a complex community network.

Take for example: the concept of balance itself is already an issue of individuality versus group effort; both are equally pertinent to the final aesthetic value of the art. If one student decides to indulge in his own playing a bit more, he may stick out and create “bad taste music”. Conversely, if everyone plays softly and no one wants to take a lead, the music becomes terribly dull and meaningless.

Even though such decisions are mainly made by the conductor, a large part is improvisatory. Musicians must react actively to their playing all the time, and the playing is never the same twice. Musicians must take ownership and make appropriate decisions right away. Such decision making and initiation is a fundamental social skill for life.

Hence students are learning the concept of role playing in community through band rehearsals. Take another example – Flute boy quarreled with clarinet girl. But in order to play a beautiful section of music together, they need to work and listen to each other. Usually, they can get the work done by just working on their own parts. But now they need to deal with their difficult feelings and work together to produce the best music.

It is no wonder from my experience that students who graduate out of band are committed and versatile team players in society. They learn punctuality and commitment to a group. They listen better and respond more appropriately to each other. They are independent when they need to lead and compassionate when they need to help. They are fun to talk to and normally less anthropophobic (fear of people).

Band Activities teaches a new language

Like any other languages, music is difficult to learn. But what makes it doubly difficult is the fact it is audio and time-based. Students must use their ear and brain to a high degree of focus to process what they are hearing. Not only that, they must remember what they hear. Normally, written words that are forgotten can be re-read when they miss out some particular information, but sounds ‘disappear’ with time.

The intensive listening goes like this: There is usually a large variety of sounds in band. Student must learn to hear the details of the music played by his friends, namely what note it is, how long it is, etc. He must also be timbre sensitive, able to subconsciously tell the difference between a trumpet and a trombone. He learns to pay attention to the different dynamics played. He learns to discern the different ways people start their notes. He listens to the tempo of the band which can be very different from his inner bodily pulses.

After listening to all these details, he then tries to play his instrument and fit in with what he hears. All these processes take place within seconds. He repeats this process throughout the three hour long rehearsal.

It is no wonder that an untrained student does badly with merely a few hours a week of band practice. An old research says an average elite musician goes through 10000 hours of practice [2]. Of course it takes lots of effort on the student side to learn this special language.

But the effort is well spent: before he knows it, he starts to hum the band melody while walking out of the school; he can easily tell the different sounds between different instruments; he could even tell what is good sound and bad sound of the same instrument. The hearing skill does not stop there. He can begin to tell the emotional temperature of daily conversations; he can remember verbal instructions better than others; his ability to focus on sounds is sharper than others, even some adults. He can listen to a concert without falling asleep and can pick up more details than an average listener. He becomes an advanced listener, well-versed at this language.

That is the tip of the iceberg. The student then proceeds to learn musical styles. By crafting subtle nuances in his playing, he differentiates musical arts among different periods of history, such as Baroque, Classical, Romantic, etc. A small swell in the note can wrongly deliver the message of the composition. Few students reach this level of playing sensitivity but if they do, that’s when they become connected to History. The knowledge they learn from museums will start making sense through the music they are playing. He gains the understanding of History which was previously a fact and now becomes more humane.

Music making is glorious

No one joins the band because he merely wants to be a communicative human or an expert listener. The sophisticated yet fundamental reason is that he enjoys it. Music making with everybody is a joyful matter. It is glorious and awesome, and the thing with all glories in life is the human desire to participate in it.

There are lots of examples from the El Sistema and The Landfillharmonic on how music brought meaning to slums in South America and their involvement in music transported them from drugs to concert halls. During World War II, it was the replaying of Shostakovich’s Symphony that kept the hungry people alive.  These are not distant stories.

In Singapore, as band activities are accessible for all students whether or not they have musical back ground, it has become a powerful driving force for students to avoid involvement in gang activities and games addiction. The satisfaction in playing music together outweighs the rest.

I find it appropriate to misquote C.S Lewis’s concept of ‘beauty’ in my context of band music: “you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more – something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which we can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” [3]

It’s not enough to own music; we want to be owned by music. That is why being a band member, being a part of this glorious activity is and will be worthwhile.

[1] Tan Peng Leng, Penny, “The Historical Study of Symphonic Bands and Related Ensembles in Singapore”, pp 14.

[2] BBC News Magazine, “Can 10000 hours of practice make you an expert?”

[3] C.S Lewis, “The Weight of glory”, pp 8