A reality check

This month has been stressful for those involved in the Band SYF. As a band instructor, I have been thinking over about the value of SYF and the preparations for it – how does this whole journey help students to grow in band art and understand music more?

I hope this article can provide all who are in their preparations for SYF some clarity and enjoyment while reading it.

1) Students enjoy playing mistakes

Surprisingly, many instructors (me included) and band students inevitably believe this myth somewhere along the SYF preparations. As such, the instructor/section leader will end up shouting and lashing out uncontrollably at the student who played wrongly, as though the student had planned to play a wrong note.

Fact 1: Students ACTUALLY want to play as perfect as they can most of the time.

Fact 2: Try this: Have fun by intentionally conducting different tempo for different bars and mess them up.
a) They won’t follow you, or
b) They won’t laugh when they mess up,

Because they want to be as perfect as they can be.

2) Repeating the same passage 100 times will improve the playing

Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanence. Right practice will make what is important permanent. Stop playing everything over and over again. Can you just work on what is wrong, and play the right way 100 times please?

3) Playing through the set piece “Sunny Island” 10 times a day will ensure a better SYF performance

SYF presentation is frightening for one reason: you can only play your piece once. The challenge is rehearsing in a way that students can play it once through well. The second to the tenth time repetitions are usually mindless…

Fact: Rehearsing awkward transitions and tricky areas might be more effective.

4) Playing in tune as a band equates to students listening better

Here are common methods we may use to improve the intonation of bands these days:
a) Turn the tuner on all the time.
b) Play softly always and don’t be heard.
c) Cut players who are obviously out of tune.

Unfortunately, these methods though effective in producing results, do not teach players how to listen.

Listening skills take a long time to develop.
For simplicity, I’ll like to quote Dr Eric Watson who had helpful suggestions with regard to listening:
a) Listen to yourself carefully (correct notes/rhythm, good tone and tuning)
b) Listen to the ones beside you or playing same parts as you (articulation, blend and dynamics)
c) Listen to the whole band (identifying musical roles and balance).

5) Practicing long hours improve your playing

No pain no gain. But wrong pain wrong gain – Long practices tend to produce mistakes, weariness and boredom.

Fact 1: Frequent practice is more effective than long practice. This requires much discipline but yield better results: dedicate 15-45 mins everyday to work on your playing. If you want intense practice, increase to 5 times a day.

Fact 2: Mental practice is also practicing. Have you ever wondered why professionals can sight-read new pieces to high accuracy in a short time? Do consider singing ‘sunny island’.

6) Interpretation, Style and Expression of music are unimportant in SYF

This is controversial. From my observation, even though interpretation, style and expression are in SYF’s grading rubrics, it is statistically possible to attain distinction in SYF by ignoring these three elements and ensure all other technical aspects (articulation/dynamics/notes/rhythms, etc.) are well crafted.

Some disillusioned musicians have walked this path for the sake of distinction, and it has only ended with many agonies. For example, band musicians end up hating music and will never join band again; conductors shut their soul to the beauty of music and treat band activity as a circus-training championship.

We should never consider omitting the three music elements because:

Fact 1: Composers never wrote music to get perfect delivery. On the contrary, good composers enjoy different interpretation of their pieces. If they wanted a perfect rendition, they would have used a software audio.

Fact 2: Emotions and stylistic playing has been a cradle of musical expression since Baroque era (16th century). Contemporary band music of lower grades is more so written for aesthetic pleasure.

Fact 3: SYF is not only graded based on the rubrics, but also on overall impression. Good interpretation, style and expression leave a positive memory in the jury’s mind.

Fact 4: Nobody joins a band in order to play without mistakes. Band is fun because playing music expressively is awesome.

7) Band playing is all about interpretation, style and expression

No, it isn’t. Please stop reducing band art into self-emoting karaoke sessions. Below are some facts why we should never forget technical aspects of band playing.

Fact 1: Western music is a lot about organized sounds and discipline. Articulation, dynamics, rhythms, tempo, intonation and balance have been greatly discussed since the Baroque period and even more so for military and brass band art in the 19-20th century.

Fact 2: Composers/Arrangers/Editors can devote their whole lives learning how to notate details with greater poetry and accuracy. For example, Jonathan Del Mar spent over a decade to coming up with a clearer publication of Beethoven symphonies, with some detailed clarification to differentiate between staccato and wedges (shorter staccatos).

Fact 3: Professional musicians spend a long time on technicalities to get good art. I recall watching Juanjo Mena working for a long time on a single bar of Rite of Spring with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra just to get the right articulation and dynamics.

Fact 4: SYF is about the artistic growth of students. Director of Arts Education Valerie Wilson told the Straits Times: “Through the 50 years, the spirit and essence of SYF has remained anchored on inspiring our youth to grow and push new creative boundaries through the arts.” If band music is solely about expressing what one feels, there will be no growth. There will be not even artistic boundaries to talk about.

8) SYF is a fine measure of the band’s improvement over the 2 years

Some students have a misconception that a band has improved if it gets an accomplishment 2 years ago and a distinction this year. We must know:

Fact 1: SYF judging is always relative. The human ear is unable to quantify what 75% sounds like exactly. So the bands’ order of appearance does matter to quite an extent.

Fact 2: The standards of SYF set pieces and choice pieces vary over the years.

Fact 3: The size and make up of the band can be considerably different between the two different SYFs. For example, the lack of tubists/percussionists in the SYF year can pose challenges in choosing suitable pieces and creating a good soundscape.

9) SYF is a fine measure of the students’ passion

Absolutely not. Below are the reasons:

Fact 1: There are late-bloomers. They may sound terrible when young, but become proficient in their instruments much later in their lives.

Fact 2: Individual problems in big bands are less noticeable. For example, you can be a dispassionate clarinetist and contribute some right, in-tune notes and get distinction.

Fact 3: Students’ passion and hard work is limited by space, time and resource. In other words, a band that has a spacious, state-of-the-art band room, 6 hours (or more) of rehearsal time a week with equipped instructors will play better than a band lacking in these elements.

(Some Japanese bands have performed well without a good band room and equipped instructors. That is doable, often because they have lots of time. They have band practices 7 days a week.)

10) SYF result is a fine measure of the band program

This is difficult. For the principals in many schools, SYF results are the only way to assess the conductor’s standard and his/her use of funding for the band program. However, this one result is not adequate in assessing the band program.

Fact 1: There are certain important and intangible aspects of a band program that are non-assessable such as:

1. The syllabus of the band program. Are students well exposed to different types of band music?

2. The overall musical development of the students. Are they becoming more skilled performers? Do they understand band music better?

3. The character/social development of the students. Are they more mature musicians and humans– i.e., punctual in rehearsals, apt in cooperating with others, patient with their own and others shortcomings, competent in organizing concerts?

4. Their passion towards the band art. Do they love band? Are they proud to be a band member? Will they continue to go for band concerts and play in bands?

I think playing music in a band is about learning great pieces of music and performing them. The SYF results may be important but it is not everything. The process of learning and growing in this season of SYF preparation is what makes this whole experience valuable!

To quote one of my band teacher-in-charge: “SYF is all about your attitude towards band. If you treat band frivolously, even if you were to clinch a distinction, I will not celebrate with you. Conversely, if you put in hard work and grow as a musician, whatever the results may be, that will be celebratory.”

Seow Yibin

Written By Seow Yibin

Yibin Seow is a Singaporean-born oboist and conductor, and currently conducts the Junior National Junior College Symphonic Band. His previous appointments include the conductor of the Junior Royal Northern College of Music, Principal Guest Conductor of North Cheshire Wind Orchestra, UK and Conductor of Musikgesellschaft Harmonie Büsserach, Switzerland. He was awarded the Brierley/Kershaw Conducting Prize by Royal Northern College of Music. Yibin studied the Oboe at the YST Conservatory of Music, Singapore, before furthering his studies with Emanuel Abbühl. Following that, he studied Wind Band Conducting with Felix Hauswirth and Orchestral Conducting with Clark Rundell and Mark Heron.