This article is part 2 of the series: ‘Cultures Across Countries’.
Since moving from Thailand, I came to Canada in 2010 to pursue the doctorate degree in saxophone performance and minor in conducting. When I became the director of Wind Orchestra and instructor of saxophone at the University of Lethbridge Canada, I was lucky enough to get a lot of podium time with the university ensemble, and to try out a lot of things that I learnt from Thailand and Malaysia.
The band situation here is slightly different. Our music programmes are built into the school curriculum in almost every government funded public school, where full time band or choir directors are hired to run them. By having music as a regular subject, the band or choir classes get annual funding to organize retreats or to attend festivals.
While the school might not have all the instruments, students can easily rent a beginner level instrument from music stores for as low as $30-40 USD a month. It is great that almost every student is involved with some sort of music activity, which is really helpful to build up the relationship for future music patrons. But at the same time, we might also get some students who have zero interest and enthusiasm towards the music activities.
My background with bands in Malaysia and Thailand has definitely helped in my directing career. Up till this day, I still remember the routine and practices we did for tone building, warm-ups, and most importantly, team-building activities. While the method book that I am using now is slightly different than a lot of Japanese band methods back in Asia, it still serves the same idea.
I strongly believe that through a rigorous and systematic way of training, any band can achieve a certain level of competency. It is almost the same like learning an instrument where scales and technique practice is a must. Nothing is hard if we set a proper plan and adequate timeframe to work on it.
I also find it easier to run a band if we are to promote the idea of a community within the group and do some team bonding social events. I like the idea of having the senior members teaching and helping the junior members in a lot of band practice in Malaysia and Thailand. It is a great example of passing down the responsibility, which we are letting the students to experience it firsthand and grow from there.
At the University of Lethbridge, I am fortunate to inherit a tradition: that the wind orchestra has a student executive team and a section leaders group that help run the band. Sharing my thoughts and visions by the beginning of every school term, they are then encouraged to plan and lead certain activity to achieve the goal. I find this very similar to what we have back home. A band director could be strict to what he/she wants, but at the same time it should be done in a very friendly and respectful environment.
I think motivation has to do with the ability of creating something fun as a group. Having fun for me, is something that we need to do as a group, through the process of sharing and coordinating. You will never feel isolated, lonely or boring by doing things as a group.
Of course, it is always the lifelong friendship that comes after. Imagine a group of people play in a perfect synchronize rhythmic pattern, adjust and tune to each other, and constantly doing breathe in and out together; I don’t think there is any other activity out there that call for the same attention like this! And after spending countless hours doing that in the practice venue, even a wink with your stand-partners or friends during the performance means so much. It is almost like we are all connected, through the band. Some of my students from Asia and Canada are already teaching music or directing band, and that’s almost the first thing they will remember.
As band geeks, we always talk about the pieces we play, and we will always get different responses. Imagine talking about the “Disney Medley”, and having the Malaysian and Thai band members only thinking about the version by the late Naohiro Iwai, whereas a Canadian will only know about that version by John Moss! But then, everybody will tell you how much they love performing the Sousa marches and “October” by Eric Whitacre!
It is always fun to create a community atmosphere within the ensemble, and to constantly encourage the members to try and explore their own ideas. I do not think a conductor should post as the unchallenged authority, although it is necessary to guide the musicians towards a better result.
While I was halfway through the degree, I did a presentation of Asian band literature with the university group at a regional conference, featuring works by Kitti Kuremanee, Satoshi Yagisawa, Kelly Tang and Yasuhide Ito. I had an interesting conversation afterwards with my supervisor and some colleagues that most of the Asian repertoire tend to have many themes and many climates within a piece. This brought me back to the thought of how we actually explain and interpret a piece.
The complexity of some of the band works, not necessary only the Asian literature, requires the musicians to carry out every single instrumental part. As a conductor, we need to help the musicians to identify their parts, and after that encourage them to take the lead to bring out the lines. Having the conductor micro managing every single dynamic and tone balance is indirectly killing the artistic development of the musicians.
At Lethbridge, I will say I have learned most about the repertoire selection. Lethbridge, or most of the Canadian ensembles, love their roots, performing repertoire that are composed by Canadian composers. Students or even members of the audience will actually come to you after the concert to express their interest in the Canadian works, and always ask for more of it. This is something that we should do more often in Malaysia and Thailand, encouraging more local composers to compose for the band medium, and actually perform their works.
On a whole, the band programs in all three countries had made me a better conductor, a better musician and a better person.
I see myself as a young conductor; someone that still needs to gain more experience. Standing in front of groups from different countries helps me to realize that we are all so different, in terms of the idea of common sense and culture, but at the same time so similar when it comes to playing an instrument, such as the concept of good and balance tone and the way we interact with each other in a band setting.
I do find that having a solid conducting technique will help a lot, because it simply eliminates the use of words to describe things. I l have learnt a lot from the musicians and students I conducted, not only about music, but also about the interaction with people. As a musician myself, I do not want myself to be conducted by a mediocre conductor, nor do I want to be facing a great conductor that has a bad temper.
An active performer and educator, Chee Meng Low is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Lethbridge Canada, where he conducts the University of Lethbridge Wind Orchestra, teaches saxophone performance, conducting and musicianship skills. He is also involved with the Edmonton Saxophone Quartet, U of L Faculty Wind Sextet, Symphonic Winds of NSO Malaysia, and has performed as a soloist, chamber musician and guest conduct in North America, Europe and Asia.
During 2007-2010, Chee Meng served as the Assistant Communications and Planning Manager for the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, developing the education & outreach programs, as well as implementing the daily operations of the orchestra. In addition to that, he also served as one of the saxophone instructors for the College of Music, Mahidol University, coaching private lessons, saxophone quartet and saxophone ensemble and serving the College as assistant to the Deputy Director for Academic and Research Affairs.
A recipient of the University of Alberta FS Chia Doctoral Scholarship, Chee Meng holds a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Alberta Canada, under the guidance of William H. Street (saxophone) and Dennis Prime (conducting). While working on his degree, Chee Meng taught Band Technique and Aural Skills courses at the University of Alberta and served as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the saxophone ensemble, symphonic wind ensemble, and concert band.
Chee Meng was a member of the International Committee, World Saxophone Congress (2006-2009), regional representative of the Asia Pacific Band Directors’ Association (2007-2010), and current member of the North American Saxophone Alliance and Alberta Band Association.