Conductors to Watch: Jasen How

With an interest in music since young, Jasen How joined the band in Nan Hua Secondary School (now known as Nan Hua High School) where he played the Saxophone.

It was in Secondary Three that he volunteered to move sections when the band ran out of percussionists. He became under the tutelage of Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) Principal Percussionist Mr Ngoh Kheng Seng, and continued to train as a percussionist till today.

“I remember being extremely enthusiastic during my primary school music classes. However, there were little resources for me back then to learn music – it was more of a luxury than a necessity.”

During his Junior College years, Jasen continued to learn from his percussion tutor Mr Dennis Sim, and played under the baton of Ms Chan Peck Suan, who were both huge influences in his music education.

“They were true believers of fundamentals and were extremely dedicated to perfecting their craft. I became very motivated by their passion towards band music, and this in turned inspired me to emulate them.”

Jasen then decided to become a conductor and applied for the ‘Specialist Diploma in Band Directing’ at the National Institute of Education, under the guidance of A.P Ho Hwee Long.

During his studies, he was fortunate to have the guidance of Mr Goh Kim Seng and Mdm Tham Siew Haw, who gave him countless opportunities to assist them in teaching their schools.

Veteran conductor Mr Quek Boon Hui also played a key role in Jasen’s music journey and was a great mentor to him in many ways.

While it is not easy to measure the magnitude of their influences, Jasen feels that he has learned a lot from their pedagogy and beliefs.

“These opportunities, coupled with the lessons I had at NIE were crucial to my growth as a musician and a music educator, as I could put the things I’ve learned directly into practice.”

Jasen has since become the resident conductor of Juying Secondary School Symphonic Band and Guangyang Secondary School Symphonic Band.

He strongly believes that the redesigning of the lesson and rehearsal plans are crucial for a successful band program, and having a sound team of student leaders is also as important.

“In the current landscape where the students have a higher level of commitments, expecting full attendance for rehearsals can be challenging.”

“My student leaders ensure that the band members get all the logistics sorted prior to rehearsals, such as ensuring that their instruments are in playable conditions and their scores are provided in advance.”

Working very closely with his student leaders and using opportunities to train their leadership skills, he hopes that they will eventually take ownership of the band.

“It is my responsibility to set reachable goals for each rehearsal. I usually inform the band about the plan for the next rehearsal, so they know what to expect. I believe this saves time for everyone and in turn makes the rehearsals more productive.”

“I am extremely fortunate to have supportive school leaders and teachers who believe in the character development and leadership abilities of students, and are more concerned with their holistic growth than just artistic development. We believe that given ample time, music excellence will find its way into the students when they possess positive attitude and strong resilient characters.”

Given that everyone has a part to play in deciding how a rehearsal turns out for the band, Jasen ensures that he and his students perform their roles responsibly.

“I have to be honest here, I do not make my rehearsals fun for my students. I say this to them every once in awhile, that it is never in my hands to decide how a rehearsal turns out for each one of us, because this is not my rehearsal, but our rehearsal. We all have a part to play in shaping the outcome of the rehearsal.”

“Though my instructors and I are always ready to help them with their doubts and difficulties, it is their responsibility as musicians to do their part as best as they can so that we can have enjoyable sessions.”

“There are definitely the handful who fail to do their part for the team, but we will always ensure that everyone recognizes the situation and in turn, work towards a better rehearsal the next time.”

To encourage his students to try challenging music, Jasen often lets them listen to recordings of beautiful compositions and arrangements by wonderful composers.

“I find it very crucial to let young students listen to others perform and share their personal opinions on the music performance with one another. If they can provide a response to their listening experiences, they will gradually learn to give opinions to their own performances.”

“Occasionally, I will let my students listen to themselves play by recording their rehearsals and playing back for them. Of course most of the time, they are shocked by what they hear. These young musicians are often busy trying to get their notes right or focusing on their articulations and dynamics, leaving little attention to listen to what they are really playing in contrast with the rest of their peers. As a conductor, it can be difficult to explain in detail about their performance, so I think a recording speaks a million.”

“The lucky thing for me is that my students tend to laugh or cringe at their recording, which means they recognize that there is room for improvement.”

Apart from teaching his school bands, Jasen also teaches percussion in Mr Quek’s primary school bands – Maha Bodhi School (MBS) and Bendemeer Primary School. A role he held dearly since 2010, Jasen believes that are two major takeaways from his teaching experiences.

“Assisting Mr Quek was nothing like a boring job, but an extraordinary educational journey for myself. Through him, I was able to fine-tune my method of instruction, and also understand that excellence comes from constant hard work and a lot of patience! I developed a strong belief that there are no students in this world that cannot be taught; just teachers who have yet to find the way to teach.”

“I was able to see how the percussion students (ages 10 to 12) impressed everyone during the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation with Marching Season, a piece I will never imagine putting together with them. The beauty of teaching in primary school bands is that the kids will believe what you believe in. Nothing is too difficult for them, as long as you give them time.”

Through teaching, Jasen has become more tolerant towards everything in life, and especially with education.

“Quoting Dr Randy Pausch from The Last Lecture – We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. Every time I am faced with a challenging band or a difficult situation, I will try to make the best out of it. Not every child learns the same way, but one thing is for sure, if the student makes it a point to turn up for the rehearsal, it will be my responsibility to make the best of that attendance.”

“I have also become much more patient towards my students who are learning from the start, and even those who are busy with their academics. There is empathy for them, but definitely not at the expense of lowering my expectations. I still require them to aim higher and strive to better their best.”

Jasen’s greatest joy in teaching is that his students become properly cultured musicians who are self motivated and are able to be almost independent towards their music discipline.

“To my past students, I thank them for the opportunity to be a part of their lives. I hope in one way or another, they are capable of becoming a resilient individual and grow to become great people in their field of expertise.”

“To my present students, it’s time to practice!”

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