Singapore-born bass trombonist Mirza Alkhairid currently studies at the Juilliard School, where he is in the midst of completing his undergraduate studies with John Rojak, bass trombonist of the American Brass Quintet. Mirza has performed with many top-notch ensembles in different parts of the world.
Mirza picked up the tenor trombone at age 13, later switching to the bass trombone at age 18. He then took lessons with David Wong, the ex-bass trombonist of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. From that age until today, Mirza has been very active in the Singaporean music scene, performing with several ensembles around Singapore, including the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Winds, The Philharmonic Orchestra, and most recently the Singapore Lyric Opera, in which he performed for their gala concert in the summer of 2022.
A firm believer in music education, Mirza jumps at any opportunity given to educate the future generation of musicians. He is currently the low brass mentor for the Juilliard Pre College Symphony and Orchestra, in which he plays bass trombone in both orchestras while providing musical guidance to the students.
Mirza’s passion and dedication has been recognized by several organizations who are generously supporting his education. These organizations include the Trailblazer Fund, and Yayasan Mendaki.
Outside of music, Mirza enjoys video games and movies.
What made you decide to pursue music studies? Were there any significant figures that inspired you in your journey so far?
It was the joy of playing in an orchestra that inspired me to pursue a career in music. I was very fortunate to have played with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO) from 2018-2021. In that time, my love for music really blossomed. Performing some of my favourite repertoire like Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Holst’s Planets with such an incredible ensemble had a huge impact on my growth as a musician. It was during this period where I became sure that I wanted to pursue music as a career, with the goal of winning an orchestral bass trombone job in a professional orchestra.
I have been very fortunate to have crossed paths with several amazing teachers who have shaped me to be the musician I am today; those include Mr David Wong, Mr Ohtae Kwon and my current teacher at Juilliard, Mr John Rojak. Besides these teachers, I do have to thank all the colleagues I have worked with in all the ensembles I have played in. They have been nothing but supportive and have always inspired me to improve.
How does preparing for an audition or performance look like for you? What guides you throughout your preparations?
Whether it’s for an audition or a performance, I think the first and most important step is to listen. I would look for many different recordings, not just 1 or 2, in order to familiarise myself with the piece or excerpt that I would be playing, and to form my own interpretation of it. Then, I would do slow practice with a metronome and a drone, to make sure I play in time and in tune, whilst getting all the details right. While doing this, I would always record my playing and listen back to track my progress with whatever I’m preparing. I would slowly ramp up the tempo to whatever the goal tempo is, making sure I play with all the necessary details. I am a big advocate for practicing something not just until I get it right, but until I cannot get it wrong.
In your music journey as a trombonist, what do you think was the toughest obstacle you had faced, and how did you overcome it?
I think the toughest obstacle I’ve faced up till now was balancing my time when I was in JC and doing SNYO at the same time. It was during the A levels period where I had to juggle studying for a major national exam and also staying in good playing shape for the rigorous SNYO rehearsals. Overcoming that, to me, was all a matter of mindset and how I took it. I never saw practicing as a chore, it was always an escape for me. Rehearsals were a time where I would gather with fellow musicians and friends that love music as much as I do.
What is it about Juilliard that interests you? Were there any certain figures or teachers that made you decide to apply for the school?
The first reason why I applied to Juilliard is the faculty. My professor, John Rojak, has long been my bass trombone idol. Getting the opportunity to study with him for my undergraduate studies is absolutely wonderful. I also get to work with Joseph Alessi during Trombone Choir and the low brass class, which has been beneficial to my growth as a musician.
Secondly, the students are also a big part of why I applied here. Having students of such a high calibre has been a huge source of inspiration for me to work harder to perfect my craft.
Lastly, I love the location of the school. It is a 5 minute walk from the NY Phil, the Met, and the NYC Ballet. Having these orchestras so accessible can only serve to enrich my educational experience.
What is it about the bass trombone that interests you; why the specialization in the bass trombone?
I have always loved the sound of the bass trombone. I think it is incredibly unique and one of a kind. The bass trombone is, in my opinion, one of the most timbrely flexible instruments. We play many different roles in the orchestra, from the soft and supple to the incredibly loud and bombastic, with the power to cut through the entire orchestra single handedly.
As to why I chose to specialize in the bass trombone, honestly it wasn’t my own choice to switch over in the first place. In my JC band, I entered as a tenor trombone player. We needed someone to switch over to play bass trombone for SYF, and since the low register came so naturally to me I was assigned to play the bass trombone part and hence switched over. Since then, I haven’t looked back at all. I fell in love with how warm and silky the sound was, which inspired me to practice harder and improve, and here I am now!
What is life like as a sophomore at Juilliard? What huge differences do you find between music education in Singapore and the United States? How did you adapt?
Life as a sophomore in Juilliard is incredibly busy. I have huge amounts of coursework to balance with our numerous playing opportunities, so I am always kept on my toes at all times.
My days normally start when I wake up at 8.30am. I would try my best to get a good warmup in before my first class to start my day off right. My classes normally go from 10.30 till about 6 in the afternoon. I would try my best to squeeze as much productive practice in between classes and rehearsals.
I never had a formal music education in Singapore, since I went to JC after secondary school, not expecting to do music for a living until the later parts of JC. I think the biggest challenge for me was to jump from a rigorous, but purely academic life in JC to doing music-related things all day here at Juilliard. Adapting to this was not much of a problem. I really love what I do, so I never feel as though any of the rehearsals and classes I have are a chore. I enjoy every single minute I have in school, despite the intensity of everything.
What are some of your plans after graduating from Juilliard?
I think it is the hope of every music student to be employed after graduating from school. My dream is to win a bass trombone audition in a full-time orchestra. Besides that, I would also love to start my own teaching studio. Like I mentioned earlier, I have had many wonderful teachers that have imparted their knowledge and made me the musician I am today, so I believe it is only right for me to do the same for the future generation of musicians.
Besides practicing to improve your playing, what else do you believe is important in order to move forward as a musician?
I think one thing that people don’t talk enough about is how to be a good member of a section. Practicing will definitely improve one’s individual skill, but in a good section that alone is not enough. A good section player has to listen and adapt to what the other members of the section are doing, for things ranging from intonation to style. I think a good way to work on this is to play with as many different groups of people as possible. The more we play with different groups, the better our ears are trained to listen and adapt to whatever the group does.
What is the most memorable experience in your music journey so far?
I think the most memorable experience I’ve had in my music journey so far is one of the concerts I’ve recently played in the Juilliard Orchestra, when we did Mahler’s first symphony, conducted by Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Mahler has always been one of my favourite composers, so finally being able to perform one of his works with such an amazing group, and being led by one of the modern Mahler masters is like a dream come true. The energy of the orchestra, and the pure adrenaline when playing such amazingly written music continues to fuel me and inspire me to work hard so that I can do this for a living.
What are your hopes for the local band scene?
My biggest hope for the local band scene is for the members to continue to enjoy the music they play, and to provide a warm and welcoming environment for musicians of all skill levels, from hobbyists to professionals. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing trombone was with my friends from the Philharmonic Youth Winds. They have been instrumental in my growth as a musician and I cherish my memories with them very fondly. I really do hope that all musicians get to experience the same thing I did, to find a welcoming community in the local band scene.
Any advice for young aspiring musicians or budding trombonists?
The first thing would be to record yourself more often. Your ears will never be able to pick up 100% of the details while practicing. Recording yourself allows you to listen back to the details and keep yourself honest with practice. In my opinion, another benefit of recording and listening back is that it makes practicing a lot more efficient. Reviewing a recording allows you to make choices on things to focus on, so the practice will be a lot more targeted. This is especially important for a music student who might not have as much free time to practice.
The second thing would be to not be afraid to fail. I think a lot of people are so afraid of failure that they don’t try at all, and I think that is possibly the worst thing a growing musician can do. Even if I fail and fall flat on my face when doing something, there is always something to be learnt from the process, so that I can do better in the future. I think it is extremely important to push the limits of what we can do daily, and that is the quickest way to improve.