Javen Chong Jia Rui

Head Librarian and Trombonist
Queenstown Concert Band

“I was told that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” a wise man once remarked. The timing of these steps surprised me. It is true that I played in the Queenstown Secondary School Concert Band (QuestBand) for these four arduous years. My time in Questband was difficult and unsteady at first, but it concluded with passion and a sense of accomplishment. I vividly recall when I first began out not knowing how to play even one instrument! But in a flash, I’ve finished SYF 2023 and graduated with my band as a Secondary 4 student. Hello, my name is Javen, and I am from Queenstown Secondary School. I was both the head librarian and a trombonist.

I felt disoriented and anxious when I first began this protracted quest. My first year of secondary school coincided with my initial participation in a performing arts CCA (co-curricular activity). I had a background in music before joining the band because I had been studying the piano for the previous 8 years. I assumed it would be easy for me because I already knew some of the fundamentals of music. I believed all I needed to learn was the practical part, which was how to play the instrument. Unsurprisingly, I failed because of my ignorance and complacency, which prevented me from giving it my all.

I spent the time choosing the instruments by myself, wandering around and testing out everything from brass instruments to woodwinds. I still hadn’t decided on an instrument as our band practice was nearing to an end. Ultimately, I was instructed to immediately try out a mouthpiece I had never heard of before—an F horn mouthpiece. The following band practice I attended; I was playing in the F horn section.

It has been a fulfilling time for me in the F horn section from Secondary 1 to the middle of Secondary 2 (I’ll explain why). There, I’ve met many wonderful seniors and fellow Secondary 1 juniors, and we’ve laughed and joked together during band or in our section’s WhatsApp group chat. (Thank you, QuestBand F horn section 2020–2021) It was truly an event I’ll never forget. But for me, that journey was somewhat of a roller coaster. As previously mentioned, I was complacent and didn’t care much about the theory courses the instructor was teaching because of my initial hubris. I was always content to daydream or talk to the other juniors. This would ultimately have an impact on my F horn playing, directly and indirectly. Other mistakes I made that I regret and wish I could go back, and fix are that I would always try to skip band practices by, for example, going home in secret, claiming to be “sick,” or just keeping on going to the “toilet” during practices. As a result, I couldn’t practice my instrument enough at that time.

Because I hadn’t had much practice and didn’t know how to play the scales we were given, I was clearly lost when I finally joined the main band for a session. I still wasn’t able to get it, despite my seniors’ best efforts. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, suddenly emerged, and SMM (Safe Management Measures) restrictions were implemented, even during the Circuit Breaker period. It was evident that both the instructors, teachers, and students found this to be a novel and challenging experience. I was a member of the COVID era kids at the time, and I was in Secondary 1 with my fellow Secondary 1 students. In our subsequent band practices, we encountered numerous difficulties, including going to band sessions with only 4 other people (excluding myself), having our sessions on Zoom, and not practicing for a very long time.

The circuit breaker period suddenly came out of nowhere, affecting all Singaporeans, including us band members. Do you know that as a result, the band members were unable to practice for a whole two months? And dangerously I was still having troubles playing the F horn, it had really caused our playing standards to decline. As I recalled, I had made a little progress every day, but not enough, and it was now time to start getting ready for SYF 2021. Only five people were permitted to mask off and play, so we had a very limited amount of time to practice (3–4 hours) before the other band members arrived. However, I believe it was a more favorable arrangement than holding Zoom sessions since some of us didn’t have strong internet connections or the right equipment to connect to Zoom before the Personal Learning Device (PLD) was implemented.

It was incredibly difficult for me to practice for the first several months because I was still unable to play and didn’t even have a good grasp of the B flat major scales. Due to COVID-19 limitations at the time, our band had to be divided into two bands, and I was assigned to Band B of QuestBand. I was under a lot of stress since I was having trouble performing over the last three months leading up to SYF when we suddenly had to alter songs because certain members of Band B found them to be too tough. I couldn’t, not even with the assistance of my fantastic senior, therefore I made the decision to drop out of SYF 2021. Several weeks following SYF 2021, I was quite ashamed that I didn’t go SYF when I saw my bandmates there, and I began to believe that I would never make a competent band member. I was tremendously inspired to improve by this concept, and this is when things started to go better for me.

I was put with the 2021 Secondary 1 band members when I left the SYF band. It makes me incredibly thrilled to play with them now for SYF 2023 after watching them develop from day one. Anyway, I made the decision to really concentrate on improving my F horn playing in those few months, and with the help of both teaching my juniors and learning independently or with the instructor’s assistance at the time, I was able to do so. However, despite our band practice sessions had to switch back to Zoom sessions, I was becoming better and better during a few sessions till someone praised me for my efforts; it was undoubtedly a memorable event.

The junior I was teaching was now better than me and should be taking over me, so he suggested that I transfer to help a section that is dropping in playing and players, which is the trombone section. In the middle of those exhausting months, I was told by my main band instructor that he really wanted me to join SYF in 2023 in the Band A group, which represents the school at the time for Distinction. My senior F horn player was there, and I also didn’t want to leave because of the numerous memories the section had given me. However, I ultimately made the decision to transfer to the trombone section. 

I was able to restart my band career when I joined the trombone section. At the time, Mr. Jack Lim, my main band instructor, painstakingly taught the main band in one room while juggling teaching me the fundamentals of the trombone privately on Zoom in another room. I understood that he must also be exhausted. I diligently followed his advice and picked up tips from other band members who had also moved to the trombone section, which allowed me to develop over the course of the following two to three months. When I first joined the main band, it was intimidating for me because I didn’t know or interact with many of the individuals there that much. However, the music we made together as a group was one thing that genuinely changed everything. I’m not sure how to put it, but the sound of our first recording and playing together as a band completely altered my perspective towards band.

A few months later, I had already adapted to the main band remarkably well. A fellow Secondary 1 trombone player who joined the main band early since he came from a primary school band and was already ahead of the other Secondary 1s was introduced to me after the Secondary 1 CCA exposure. Since I was the only trombone player in band A at the time and the others were in band B, when he joined me, I no longer felt alone. His introduction has had a significant impact on how I see the world. We soon became the greatest of friends after speaking for a while, both in person and online, as well as going through together and getting reprimanded. Without him, I would never have appreciated my last few months in band.

However, when SMM measures were relaxed and the group limit was lifted, it completely altered the course of our SYF 2023 journey. As a result, we were once again permitted to combine bands A and B into a single band. At this point, I was unable to properly interact with the other band B members, especially those in my trombone section, with whom I was unable to really meet them previouly. Band has been more fascinating and gratifying in the months preceding up to SYF as a result of practicing not only our chosen composition, “A New Beginning” by Satoshi Yagisawa, but also for our school’s NDP parade and performance for Henderson Dawson CC.

One piece of information that really startled me and that I was unaware of is that in addition to our choice piece, “Tanah Di Bawah Angin” by Kahchun Wong, is a set piece that all secondary schools in Singapore are required to perform. Although it presented us with a fresh and worthwhile challenge, QuestBand is up to any task. It was difficult for me personally to balance my academics and find time for both my family and friends during the months leading up to SYF, but I was able to manage both psychologically and physically by planning and constantly heeding the advice of my other classmates and teachers. However, this is about the band as well as me, so it’s not just about me. A few difficulties our band encountered were mainly people getting COVID-19 or getting sick and being unable to attend sessions, as well as the issue when the Secondary 3 band members—who made up the majority of our band—went to the OBS camps, which took place over two weeks before our SYF performance day. 

But how did QuestBand get past these difficulties? It was a result of our diligence in practicing during each session that we attended. We continuously learned from our mistakes, session by session, and eventually, even with practically constant absences, we were still able to grow as a band. A good band is like a team, as Ronnie Hawkins once stated. You need to strike the ideal balance. The appropriate individuals for the task are sometimes more important than the best candidates. 

We also participated in a lot of fun and memorable exchanges with bands from other schools along the way, which not only gave us the chance to show our abilities to other bands in Singapore but also gave us the chance to learn from and pick up mistakes from one another as a large band community. Therefore, I believe that all these interactions provided us with a opportunity to improve in our playing, through this SYF journey as well. 

All of these delightful times passed by very fast, and the day that had been anticipated by everyone finally arrived. SYF 2023! Many of us were extremely anxious, but with the help and direction of our instructors, we eventually played both of our pieces to the very last note. In all honesty, several of my bandmates and I were unsure if we could perform well for SYF following SYF, but we ended up performing quite well! Many of us were dejected that the SYF journey was already over for us and that we wouldn’t likely run into each other again. But every end of a journey is a new beginning, as our featured piece’s title, “A New Beginning,” states. And now is the moment for our fellow juniors to take the lead and continue in our footsteps; this is the start of a new chapter for us all. 

Some of us Secondary 4 seniors, however, will be performing at the SYF celebration festival concert at the Esplanade Theatre, playing the SYF set piece, but this time marching and performing with our school’s Malay dance CCA. This means that our Secondary 4 years are not quite over. This will undoubtedly deepen the piece’s meaning when we perform it with our Malay dancers, illuminating the song. 

However, for many of us, this is just the beginning of our band journey, and this happy SYF journey – doing tireless training for numerous full-day trainings over the holidays and weekends – is just one of many milestones we will encounter. But I can confidently state that SYF 2023, my last and first SYF, was a flavourful one, with many relationships being built through conversing, but more importantly, through the music, we have really formed a special bond with one another. creating a lot of humorous, and enjoyable moments through band. And I can assure all the upcoming juniors of one thing: band will initially be boring for new players, but once you fully comprehend it and join the main band, you will really enjoy it.

Without our one and only Mr. Jack Lim, who focused on both our playing and our attitude both inside and outside of the band, our SYF journey would not have been as pleasurable. Always encouraging us along the path, providing us with life lessons we can use to our own situations to help us become better people, as well as sending us a message of encouragement and consolation when we’re feeling sad or anxious before an exchange, and finally, SYF. Without the support of our dedicated band members, who have sacrificed several responsibilities, and our former and current band teachers, this journey cannot be finished. They all provided support, and as a result, QuestBand has grown steadily stronger each day.

To conclude, I shall end this long article with this quote: “It isn’t a band. It’s bigger than a band. It’s a lifestyle”, by Zakk Wylde.