Band Major and Clarinetist
Temasek Secondary Wind Ensemble
Hello everyone. My name is Renée Chong and I am currently a Secondary Four student in Temasek Secondary School. I am also the former Band Major of the Temasek Wind Ensemble. Before I delve into the story of my Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) journey, let me share more about myself, and my involvement in music.
Music has always been my passion. My main instrument is the piano and I started playing the clarinet shortly after the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). I have also participated in a number of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) exams, recitals, and competitions over the years.
However, I am a perfectionist. Despite all these accomplishments, they had never felt enough. I found myself always comparing my achievements to those of my more skilled friends, for instance, friends who had received their diplomas at nine with flying colors, others who had participated in overseas orchestras, and those who had received music scholarships to fancy colleges in England. Every time I got anything less than what I expected, I battled with intense guilt and anger as I felt as though I could have achieved higher, had I done just a little bit more.
Like most other band students across Singapore, my SYF journey was not the smoothest. In fact, it was akin to a dramatic roller coaster ride and our performance had not exactly met my expectations. Yet, it was the experience that taught me an important lesson: to embrace imperfection and appreciate the things that I have.
Here was how it all went.
My SYF journey started with a single recording. A friend from my Music Elective Program sent me a video of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Central Band playing our 2023 Set Piece, Tanah di Bawah Angin. The first four bars of the introduction sounded incredibly crisp and instantly caught my attention. I was in complete awe at how crystal clear each note was – the articulation and the consistency were incredible.
It was at that very moment when I told myself: I was going to do whatever it took to push my band to close to such a standard, and nothing was going to stop me.
Time flew by like an arrow. Fast-forward to March, and I was standing on the podium in front of my band members, fuming with anger. Even after so many weeks of practice, our fundamentals were still weak. Our conductor was disappointed, and so was I. As I berated them for their lackluster performance, they hung their heads low in shame.
“A distinction is what you guys want, right? Then all these problems should have been solved months ago! Have the teachers and I not provided you with enough resources already?!” I scolded.
Now that I think about it, I was not truly angry at them (yes yes, to my beloved band members reading this – please be assured that I was not personally mad at you). The intense stress of preparing for the SYF had reached its peak and I simply could not maintain a facade of calmness any longer. We had only 7 practices left and the prospect of us not reaching our goal was becoming clearer day by day.
Deep down inside, I was so envious of how other bands across Singapore had the privilege of getting tutors for each instrument. I was also disheartened that our previous conductor had to leave so suddenly, which caused a lot of stress for my executive committee team and I. (Don’t worry Mr Zat, if you are reading this, just know that we still love you). It felt as though luck was not on our side. Many nights, I would go to bed worrying about how our band would survive through this SYF journey, struggling to fall asleep as the introduction to Tanah rang incessantly in my head for the billionth time.
After that day, however, I could sense my band members putting in a lot more effort than before. They did their very best to conduct sectionals properly by working with each other more. Their discipline shone through their habit of bringing the necessary items for each band practice and taking down detailed notes during rehearsals.
I myself worked tirelessly around the clock, analyzing scores at 1.30am, drafting out extremely detailed plans for rehearsals whenever I had free time, and discussing with our conductor what I should do to push the band members harder. Although my head was ringing and my body was begging me to rest, I relentlessly kept going, telling myself that it would all be worth it in the end. Slowly, things did get better in all aspects.
Finally, the long awaited day of the SYF came. Standing in the hallway beside the tuning room, my band members and I could hear the Dunman Secondary School Band playing away in the hall.
While my band members whispered to one another how good this other band sounded, I could not help but ponder – what if we did not get our distinction? Dunman sounded great, but compared to theirs, ours were not as consistent in tone and speed. Moreover, we were short of two key players as they had caught COVID, which made me worried about the sound the band would produce.
Still, I took a deep breath, and told myself that I was simply overthinking it. Perhaps luck would be in the air that day and the judges would favor us. Under the brilliant golden lights of the Singapore Conference Hall, my band and I played through our pieces to the best of our ability, with gusto, but control too.
Generally, it sounded rather good. Unfortunately, my ears picked up multiple flaws. I was sure the rest of the band did too. Even our conductor shot a sharp glance at one of the sections halfway. Some of us came out of the room in tears, others a forced smile etched on their face, trying to comfort the others, “Hey, it wasn’t a bad performance, we did well! Cheer up!”
Me? I kept quiet. I had nothing to say to them – yet. At that moment, the results were all I cared about. I craved that distinction. I had given it my all and had put every ounce of my effort into this event.
And it just so happened that week that I passed out at school and was unconscious for over an hour.
That Friday afternoon, I waited fervently for the SYF results to be released while I was in the hospital, with several wires strung up all over my body. The moment the results link showed up after refreshing Google multiple times, I clicked it presto and scrolled down to the “T” alphabet schools.
And there, I saw it.
“TEMASEK SECONDARY SCHOOL – ACCOMPLISHMENT”
Although I had already been expecting this, the reality struck me hard. Really hard.
Tears immediately cascaded down my face. I tried to wipe them off, but they didn’t stop. I felt as though I had failed my band members, for we had worked so hard, and still did not get what we wanted. I was so angry at everything, but most of all, at myself, for having let them down.
Gradually, however, I stopped. Was it really all that bad?
Slowly, I remembered the laughter we shared during rehearsals – from the silly things some of us did or the funny out-of-pocket comments from our conductor. I recalled the days when my Drum Major and I, while on the way home, would sing the pieces heartily. Even the nights we stayed up attending zoom calls with our section mates discussing our pieces, although tedious, were extremely memorable. Not to forget that time when I had a whole queue of students waiting for me to iron their shirts before the big day (please learn to iron your own). This journey was something all of us were equally enthusiastic about regardless of how skilled we were at our instruments, and made us bond like never before.
It all made me realize just how much I had missed out. My obsession with that distinction pushed my limits way too far, eventually taking a dangerous toll on my health. I had forgotten to appreciate all the fun times we had in my blind pursuit for perfection.
The journey that SYF had entailed, although tumultuous, was indeed a fruitful one that made me realize that results are not everything. I can put in my 200%, but the outcome can be something I cannot control. More importantly, the mistakes I make along the way are what truly matter. In the end, my band members and I have learnt to be more resilient, to keep our heads high in the face of adversities, and pick ourselves up whenever we fall.
We had indeed put in our full effort for this amazing milestone, and came out stronger than ever.
And truly, I am very proud of that.