Band in the time of a pandemic

Siobhan Rose Lee

Bassoonist
Dunman High School Symphonic Band

Life is simple when you’ve just left Primary 6; your new best friend is the kid sitting next to you, your favourite subject is the one you’re best in, and your first pick of a CCA is the one that played Despacito on stage.

You think you’re going to live forever, and you’re going to be playing the saxophone while doing so. But, unfortunately, as we all realise by the third week of Secondary 1, you are not Primary 6, you’re not going to live forever, and you didn’t get assigned the saxophone. Or maybe that was just my experience.

So that was what I first learned in Secondary 1: that life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. The second thing I learned was what exactly this “bassoon” thing in my “case” was. The rest is a blur; all I know that is by the end of Term 3, I was able to play Careless Whisper just like the saxophones, so it didn’t really matter. The most difficult part of band aside from the musical portion was inviting all my friends to band concerts, because all my friends were from band.

But I’m a long way from Secondary 1 now; I’ve just finished up SYF as the senior batch, bringing home the millionth distinction for the new juniors to ogle over. Typically this period would now be spent preparing for the next concert, but the pandemic has locked us all into an odd sort of purgatory where we’re just twiddling our thumbs waiting for release, though that’s nothing new.

When the pandemic measures were implemented, we were of course upset that the concert we’d previously been preparing for wasn’t going to happen, and that loss is still echoed whenever someone plays a line or two from Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights.

Still, in our teenage view of the world where everything is either immortal or irrelevant, I suppose the majority of us clocked COVID-19 as something that would be gone by the time SYF came around.  While our teachers did warn us of the likelihood that SYF 2021 would be severely different from previous iterations, we continued merrily enjoying Home-Based Learning while awkwardly maneuvering sectionals online.

With regard to our “feelings”, there wasn’t any eloquent way of wording the muted grief that stems from losing months’ worth of work to something so irritatingly out of your control. It feels tasteless and privileged to complain about not being able to enjoy an audience while others are struggling with unemployment or other infinitely graver situations, and there is no impressive in-your-face disaster that excuses any outpour of sorrow for not being able to play on stage.

There was nothing to grieve, only this strange hollow feeling like an empty concert hall. A band-shaped hole in our band-shaped hearts, if you will.

It goes without saying that basically a year without any face-to-face band sessions would have a tremendous impact on the state of our playing and culture. Band, by its nature, is heavily dependent on cooperation and coordination, which distance and the unavoidable ping of online communication weaken. Indeed, when we were finally able to play together in small groups of five, the effect on our musicality was evident.

Our first full ensemble was in January, just three to four months before we were supposed to have SYF. Our rhythm was off, our intonation was cringe-inducing, and our choice piece for SYF sounded more like a cascading trainwreck than a musical performance. The idea that we would somehow manage to squeeze something magnificent out of that disaster was mind-boggling. It seemed akin to performing a modern-day miracle.

Thankfully, our conductors Mr Tan Yao Cong and Mr Desmond Ng are the world’s greatest magicians in this regard. They tirelessly worked to whip our band into shape, while also breathing life back into the band with their jokes and greatly interesting methods of getting our sound right. We had to do what felt like billions of scales and intonation exercises.

For a band of usually around 80 players to have to adapt to 29, volume was an important adjustment. Exaggerated movements and clever comments from our lovely conductors could excite a laugh from even the most taciturn players, and bring out a grand sound from the most timid.

That is not to say our players didn’t put in their best effort either. Everyone took the feedback to heart, good-naturedly returned for countless hours of extra practice, and played their soul out until the very end.

Months till SYF turned into weeks, and weeks till SYF turned into days, and days till SYF turned into hours where we were all nervously fiddling with our attire, rolling too-long sleeves up and frantically searching how to tie a proper-looking tie.

I was, of course, nervous. Right up ‘til we were on stage, sitting straight under the spotlight, eyes trained on Mr Tan for his cue. Then the raise of a baton, a collective intake of breath, and a resonant tuning B-flat oscillated my worries away. Those seven or so minutes on stage were more than a run; they were the release of months’ worth of dedication and spirit.

We weren’t concerned with the invisible audience, nor were we calculating our estimated score. We were just a band of secondary school students, enjoying the way we sounded in a proper concert hall. It was sublime, to say the least.

Now I am recounting this experience as someone about to graduate from the band. Undoubtedly, I will miss it here. These past four years have been a great impact on my life; I’ve found friends that I am immensely grateful for, guided juniors I’m immensely proud of, and met seniors I’d be a different person without. Although the pandemic has deprived me of one or two concerts, I have never regretted joining band.

What I think I will miss the most are those post-concert nights, where it’s past midnight before a school day and you’re still on that performance high, walking to the MRT with a bunch of equally buzzed friends.

You’ve just bled your heart out on stage for yourself and three hundred people and you don’t regret anything. There’s still a score in your soul for a repertoire you’ve spent months practicing and hours performing. It feels like there are a million stars above you and your future extends into the endless night sky.

You’re going to live forever.

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