During the years of nation building in the 1960s, our late Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew felt strongly that Singapore needed military music to maintain the national spirit and to present an elaborate display during national events. He recognised the relevant social values such as group discipline, esprit de corps and most importantly, a sense of national identity that bands inculcated.
Hence, the government began to place more emphasis on this activity, thus leading to the start of the Singapore School Band Movement.
The 1970s were a golden era for the movement, with over 90 semi-military bands and 180 bugle and fife bands with an average of 100 members per band. Over 20 bands participated in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Outdoor Display Band Competitions, held at the Kallang National Stadium.
Over the years, however, the number of marching bands has fallen sharply to just eight bands in the late 90s.
Several factors contributed to the declining number of marching bands in Singapore:
- Shift in preference for indoor performances
- Greater emphasis on improving musicality over spending time on foot drills and formation marching
- Lack of qualified marching band instructors willing to take up marching band coaching
- Lack of understanding of how a good marching band curriculum works
- Lack of experience in running a marching show band
- Rigour of marching show bands
Even with the best efforts of bands to preserve the art by evolving from the traditional British military marching style to the extravagant and entertaining American Drum Corps International (DCI) displays with visual choreography featuring colour guards, the marching band scene has yet to return to its glory days.
Today, only five of such marching bands remain.
Formed in 2001, the West Spring Secondary School Band is the youngest secondary school marching show band in Singapore.
Unlike other long-standing marching/military secondary school bands from Bowen, Bukit Panjang Government High, Deyi and Tanjong Katong, West Spring Marching Band (WSMB) only began its participation at the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Central Judging for Display Bands in 2004 (now renamed as the Arts Presentation for Marching Bands).
As a young band, there was a period of uncertainty as the band searched for a suitable band system to adopt. Despite the initial struggles, participating in the SYF Arts Presentation was extremely important as it afforded the students with rich experiences and exposure to grow as a unit. It was not until 2009 that the band transited from the British Military style to the American Drum Corps International (DCI) standard of music and band show.
It was also then that the West Spring Marching Band began to embark on biannual international and cultural exchanges with some of Southeast Asia’s best bands – Sultanah Asma Girl’s School Marching Band, and Keat Hwa Secondary School Band, both recipients of the prestige Sudler Shield Awards in 2011 and 2016 respectively.
Through 3 – 5 years of remodeling the band system, adapting best practices and developing the band culture that suits Singapore’s context and youths, West Spring made steady and improved performances over the years and progressed from four silver awards to one gold award, finally establishing itself with three Certificates of Distinctions with an Outstanding Visual Performance Award in the SYF Arts Presentations.
Despite having a more robust band system today, producing a top-notch marching band show is no easy feat.
“We begin our brainstorming sessions almost immediately after the end of a marching band show season. Our music arrangers and formation choreographers will analyse the strengths and areas of improvements of our students, and form plans to feature sections with good strength or potential. Every show that we create is tailored to showcase our students’ strengths,” said Ms Annie Lee, teacher in charge of WSMB.
“Our current show is divided into four movements, which arrives at different stages of the show preparation. For example, movement 1 was sent to us in August 2019 and it was the longest in time duration (3 minutes and 30 seconds), which is about ⅓ of the entire show. Our students were given two months to memorise the music, and were expected to complete the practice of formations with music by November.”
“The last movement, usually 1 minute and 30 seconds, will only be sent to us in February, leaving us 2 months to complete the show. In the meantime, the band will also work on body movements and create gimmicks necessary to add fun elements into the show production.”
The show designs are choreographed by a team of instructors led by foreign specialist Mr Tang Chia Hoe, who hails from Malaysia, and is also a part of a 12 member advisory council in the World Association of Marching Show Bands (WAMSB). He has been teaching and training marching bands since 1991, and his bands have been involved in international competitions in Italy, Thailand, China, and Malaysia. He has also been invited to serve as adjudicator for World Championships of Marching Band Shows around the world.
Mr Tang is the one who designs the formations. The shapes of the formation are formed according to the theme and flow of the show.
“Students memorise the formations through repeating movements on the school field in counts of 8 to 16 (which translate to 2 to 4 bars of music). When they have memorised a segment, they will move on to the next, and repeat. Once the students are able to march, they will incorporate music into the show, and repeat the same segment. All these are to be done on repeat mode, engaging their body muscle memory until they are able to play and march for that entire movement.”
With sheer dedication, passion and hard work, the preparation for each SYF show is only complete when members work together harmoniously, and commit themselves to produce excellent performances.
Studies have shown that marching bands actually promote multiple-skills training. One needs to work every part and muscle of their body during a show performance. They need to know how to march, have their music completely memorized, count bars, move positions, play their music, and remember what to do before and after the show (e.g. body posture, dramatised acts and stylised movements), all at the same time.
Apart from growing critical thinking and multi-tasking skills, a good marching band programme also promotes aesthetics development and physical coordination.
It allows students to convey artistic expressions such as music and choreography through marching, dance and drama on a large performing arena, in front of a live audience.
It focuses on the importance of physical conditioning in strength, endurance, balance and flexibility, which are vital in the successful execution of choreography and playing of instruments.
It instills discipline in its members as they are required to be punctual and maintain costumes, props and instruments responsibly.
By fusing performing arts, sports and uniform group elements, Marching Bands are truly the Sport of the Arts.
[This is a two-part series following the journey of West Spring Marching Band in its SYF preparation.]