Born and raised in Los Angeles, Samuel Armstrong (Sam) began his studies at age 12 with Byron Peebles and James Miller of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2008, he continued his education as a student of Joseph Alessi at The Juilliard School, receiving the Jerome L. Greene Fellowship. While in New York, Sam had the opportunity to collaborate with composers John Adams, Elliot Carter, David Fulmer and Steve Reich as well as to record works by Jonathan Dawe and John Zorn. Upon graduating in 2013, Sam was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, receiving the Ruth and Morris Williams Jr. Scholarship while studying with Blair Bollinger, Nitzan Haroz and Matthew Vaughn.
Prior to joining the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2016, Sam was appointed Co-Principal of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A passionate educator, Sam was a guest artist at the first-ever Alessi Seminar Asia in 2018 and again in 2019. He has led masterclasses in Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and most recently performed as soloist with the Million Wind Philharmonic at the 2022 Thailand International Trombone Festival. Sam is a faculty member at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore.
When did you come to Singapore and why did you choose Singapore as part of your career as a trombonist?
I arrived in Singapore in 2015. Prior to this I was appointed Co-Principal with the Malaysia Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). The initial connection to SE Asia came once I was asked to sub with MPO during my last year at the Curtis Institute of Music. My seniors from Juilliard and Curtis were already in Malaysia and I learned about the audition from them. I immediately fell in love with making music in Malaysia and Singapore.
My favourite activity soon became hunting for new food! I’ve been a foodie my whole life and so living in Singapore has been an endless discovery! Nowadays, my hobby is making local food at home from scratch. My favourite dish to make is Hokkien Mee! It’s labour intensive but highly rewarding, just like being a musician.
How did you prepare for your audition into the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO)? Share with us your audition tips too.
The most important part of my preparation was having a consistent practice routine. I used to lock myself in the instrument storage room at the Victoria Concert Hall for hours as I went through long tones, fundamentals and etudes in the morning proceeding to mock auditions after lunch. I would record these for myself and occasionally play for others.
The best way to prepare for an audition is playing it as many times as you can for your teachers and peers. Practice being nervous by putting yourself in such a mock audition setting. This way you eliminate as many surprises as possible by experiencing the audition at any time of day and under different circumstances. The most successful audition-winners I know are those who did at least 10 mock auditions before the big day. When you’re not practicing, listen to the repertoire as much as possible. It’s very evident when a student has not listened to the piece thoroughly and doesn’t understand their excerpts in context.
Tell us more about your typical day or week preparing for a SSO concert.
These days the most important part of my preparation is listening. There is so much you can do to prepare for rehearsal by just listening to the work with your score. In order to be as efficient as possible, I conduct and listen to my part while on the train or taking the bus. I do this well before actually playing my instrument. Often SSO programs pieces which I have performed many times before. But we never stop learning and excellence means knowing everyone else’s part just as well as yours. The joy of performing great works is hearing something new each time we come back to it. Other than that I preserve a daily routine of at least two hours covering long tones in all dynamics and methodically playing scales. We never graduate basic!
Trombonists are in demand from classical and also other big genres like jazz. How often do you do gigs of other genres and how do you describe the importance of this versatility?
Versatility is so important! It’s one of the best things about playing the trombone. I have played with the Jazz Association of Singapore Big Band (which is always a blast!) and with other mixed-genre groups such as composer Likie Low’s EDM music for brass + Chinese traditional orchestra (follow @likielow on Instagram for more on that)! Being part of a brass quintet also allows us to venture into practically any genre – from renaissance, classical, jazz, pop, or atonal contemporary works – it’s one of the most artistically rewarding settings to perform in. If you’re struggling to learn “jazz style” or “swing feel,” I suggest playing Christmas songs by ear! So many Christmas favourites are written in a typical swing style, which when you play them by heart require no explanation…the same is true once you begin playing transcriptions of great jazz artists.
Miles Davis said, “It took me years to learn how to play like myself.” and I believe that imitation is the key to developing your own voice.
Could you share some of the obstacles you encountered when you were studying and then, as a full-fledged professional? How have you overcome them and how has it impacted you?
Student life was full of obstacles. Whether emotional, financial, musical – these are challenges I think every student can relate to. In order to overcome the emotional hurdles, I try to remain objective toward my playing and not attach my identity or self-worth to the trombone. Life is full of Ups and Downs. It’s very important to remember that nothing is permanent and if we’re having a bad week due to classwork or personal relationships, we must not be so hard on ourselves. Accept that a life in music spans decades not weeks. School is a safe time to fail and learning from failure is such a critical part of maturing. The obstacles I face now in my professional life are much the same as while studying. Similar to the way we never graduate basic, I’m still learning from the lessons I recorded in school and to master the art of time management.
You have been teaching in Singapore for quite awhile, what do you think are some issues that students face in trombone playing?
One of the most common issues I notice students struggling with is just holding the instrument comfortably. Tension is the archenemy of good trombone playing! Whether it’s clenching your grip, slouching in your chair, excessive mouthpiece pressure, keeping shoulders down and neutral, or taking adequate breaks during practice sessions: posture and good breath support are crucial to improvement and longevity as a brass player. The trombone is the heaviest instrument one holds. It’s important to remember this. I didn’t play a large bore trombone with an f-attachment until I was 14 years old (I started when I was 10). I think it’s important to begin young ones on small horns but unfortunately every school I have visited only has large bore horns available to Secondary one students. This makes sense as those horns carry more value over time and most suitable for concert bands, but hopefully we can provide better instruction with regards to posture if beginners are going to start on such big horns.
I often tell my students that whatever I’m playing, my goal is to feel so relax I could almost fall asleep doing it. Meanwhile I imagine my air being as active as an Olympic swimmer’s. Secondly, I think the most important thing for students is exposure to great trombone playing. My wish is for everyone who picks up the trombone to listen to great trombone playing. Recordings are so readily available! I try to encourage students to search and listen to such players as Joseph Alessi, Abie Conant, James Markey, Megumi Kanda, James Markey, Marshall Gilkes, J. J. Johnson, Urbie Green, Peter Steiner, Ian Bousfield, Alain Trudel, Christian Lindberg, The Vienna Trombone Quartet, German Brass etc etc etc… listen as much as possible, every day!
The sound begins in our mind and we need to listen to as many examples as we can to keep reminding us what beautiful playing is.
What trombone and mouthpiece brand/series are you using? Throw us some advice for someone who is intending to buy a trombone or mouthpiece!
I am an Edwards Instrument Co. performing artist and I use the T-350 HB model tenor trombone. I think this horn is absolutely beautiful and it suits all my needs. As a student, budget is of course the most important part of choosing an instrument. Do not hesitate to buy a second-hand horn. Scratches and even dents have little to no effect on the play-ability of a horn. Consult your teacher, trust yourself and ensure the slide is in optimal working condition when buying a horn. Often the ugliest, most beat-up horns play the best. Let your ear guide your decision.
What was your most memorable experience related to music, and how has it impacted you? (Could be a funny moment or experience)
My most memorable experience was being accepted to The Juilliard School of Music by Joseph Alessi. This was my dream since I was 12 years old. When I finally had the chance to meet Joe for a lesson and play my audition, I felt like I could achieve anything. I knew this was what I wanted to dedicate my life to and nothing could stop me. Even if I never won an audition or made a career in music, I would tell myself, ‘at least I’m committing to my dream and I will never regret trying.’
You’ve been in the music industry for quite some time, do you have any advice or words you’d like to share with those newly entering the industry?
Your professional career starts NOW. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Secondary School, JC or University… your teachers and peers value responsible behaviour. Being reliable and taking good initiative will do much more for your future than how high or loud you can play. Believe me, when band directors call for recommendations, I don’t refer students who cancel or make excuses last-minute because they don’t feel like going to rehearsal. Reliability and organization are everything.
Other than that, do not try to map out your future. Just focus on planning your next practice session. Worrying about things out of our control won’t help. Try to be 5% better today than you were yesterday and the right people will notice. Allow time and embrace the fact that it may take 20 years to make a truly great sound.
To end off, what are some of your future projects or musical endeavours?
Right now I’m practicing to be a better musician today than I was yesterday and to prepare for my work each week with the SSO. I’m lucky to live a life in music and share it with so many gifted students. Teaching has become a passion since moving to Singapore and I consider it the greatest blessing in my life.
Lastly, I hope to offer a recital to the public in the next year or two as I challenge myself in both solo and chamber repertoire.
Portrait Credits to @allenmeekphotography
Asyahari (Hari) is a seasoned corporate professional within the government and private sector. With an interest in youth education, he leads a group of volunteers in organising character development activities for youths-at-risk. He also teaches wind and brass bands in schools. Hari regularly performs in community bands as a trombonist and is a tenor voice with the Singapore Lyric Opera Adult Chorus.