Published on Friday, 15 January 2010 23:32
Written by Bruce Gale
In June 2003, the Concert Band (TCB) interviewed New Wee Beng, outgoing chairman of Nanyang Technological University Symphonic Band, to get some insights into what it is like to help run one of Singapore’s best college bands.
TCB: You were educated at Dunman Secondary School, a neighbourhood school, which does not have one of the top [gold medal] bands in Singapore. Did you ever feel that this was a handicap when you entered NTU [National technological University] band?
NWB: First of all, thank you for interviewing me.
TCB: Oh, no formalities, please!
NWB: Musically, I was definitely at a disadvantage.
TCB: In what way?
NWB: After Dunman, I went straight to JC [Junior College], where I did not play in any band. After that, I moved on to national service [military training], so I took a break of about four to five years before I picked up playing again. And when I joined NTU Band I was told that I had most of the basics wrong, such my embouchure and the way I held the cornet. While I was at a disadvantage musically, I tried to make up for this by getting involved in the administration side by being in the band committee in my first year. I held a minor position. That year was a learning experience for me.
TCB: What was this minor position?
NWB: I was the logistics officer there. And after that one year, I took up the position of chairman.
TCB: You were voted in to this position?
TCB: So band members voted for you despite the fact that you did not come from a gold medal band?
NWB: Yes, it showed that they [the band] had confidence in me despite being inexperienced.
TCB: But that experience you gained was only administrative experience, and you said that your main problem was musical.
NWB: [slowly] Well, I feel that for your words to carry weight you must be a good musician. But in a tertiary band there is an important difference in responsibility between the chairman and the concert master. The chairman takes care of administration.
TCB: So it is the concert master who really needs to have the musical experience?
NWB: Yes, ideally.
TCB: What advice would you give to someone thinking about taking up your job in future?
NWB: [pause] My advice for the incoming chairman would be to remember that ultimately he or she is in the band to enjoy music, so he or she should not be overwhelmed by the responsibilities.
TCB: Does being chairman take up a lot of time? Would you do it again if you had the choice?
NWB: I would definitely like to do it again for the experience. It would give me a chance to do the things I could not do during my first time, but then again I will be entering my third year in NTU so I will need to spend more time with my studies.
TCB: What did you enjoy most about the job?
NWB: [pause]. What I enjoyed most was the audience applause after the staging of a successful performance. That’s when the sense of accomplishment comes in. I enjoyed that the most.
TCB: But you were not involved in the musical side of things, just administration.
NWB: [with enthusiasm] The concert is inclusive of the admin side. To have a good concert, the show must be running properly, and that’s where the admin comes in.
TCB: What did you enjoy the least?
NWB: Going for band meetings, because they are usually very long [laughs].
TCB: What personal qualities are required of a chairman?
NWB: I think for a tertiary band, time management is very important. The chairman has to juggle things like going for practices, his academic work, and he or she will have to spend time with his family. And all this will be on top of the practice time. Then there are sectionals, combined practice and self practice. So time management is very important.
TCB: But are those qualities any different from those required of a leader of any other group?
NWB: I feel that being a band leader is more time consuming than those non-performing arts groups in NTU.
TCB: When I first met you a few years ago, you were playing cornet in Dunman Secondary School band. Have you always played cornet?
NWB: I started learning cornet when I was in primary school, and I continued when I was in Dunman.
TCB: Why cornet? Why not trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone?
NWB: First of all it was allocated to me when I was in primary school, and I continued with that in Dunman. Why I did not play trumpet instead of cornet was because of instrumentation. They did not have trumpets in Dunman band at that time.
TCB: Has Dunman changed since then? Have they switched to trumpets?
NWB: Yes, they have changed to trumpets.
TCB: Have you ever tried or considered learning any other instrument?
NWB: Before I entered NTU I considered switching to another instrument. I was quite in favour of French horn, but I realised that I have a lot of things to learn regarding trumpet playing. I thought that if I were to start afresh on a new instrument I would really be putting myself in a worse situation.
TCB: The mouthpiece on a French horn is quite different. There are different techniques …
NWB: Correct, correct.
TCB: You have been playing in wind bands for a number of years now, and are obviously interested in it. Do you plan to continue this association once you start working?
NWB: [long pause] You mean continue playing?
TCB: Yes, perhaps in a CC [community club] band.
NWB: Well, as much as I would like to continue playing, it will depend on what my work schedule will be like after I graduate. And depending on whether any bands would want to take me.
TCB: NTU band went to China last year. Is that right?
NWB: Yes, correct.
TCB: What was that like?
NWB: In July last year we had a music exchange in Shanghai with one of the local polytechnic equivalents. It was a one-day music exchange. We went there, met up with the students and had some sectionals and interaction. And after that we staged a combined performance.
TCB: Go on.
NWB: It was a very good experience. Since then, quite a few Singapore bands have been going to China. Soka [Japanese Association Band in Jurong], for one. Before the SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] breakout, Dunman was actually thinking of going to China too.
It opens up a new experience in the sense that it shows us how bands overseas operate. The members have to buy their own instruments. If you are a tuba player, you have to buy your own tuba.
TCB: [laughing] That would not be very popular.
NWB: Yeah [laughs]. The schools do not buy the instruments. The instruments that they are using are different from ours too.
TCB: What brands to they use?
NWB: Made in China
TCB: Those instruments are generally regarded as inferior. Do you think that is true?
NWB: They produce a different tone. To them [the students in Shanghai], Yamaha and Besson instruments are a luxury that they cannot afford.
TCB: What do you think of the quality of the bands?
NWB: When we reached there we were quite shocked to learn that they were actually rehearsing Fantasy Variations, the piece we played as our choice piece for the WMC [World Music Contest]. We were quite impressed with their passion for music. Most of them were four to five years younger than us, and they were already practising such pieces!
TCB: So can I conclude that you think the standards of the bands in Shanghai are quite high?
NWB: [long pause] I wouldn’t want to comment on that as I think I am not competent to comment on their standard.
TCB: Let me rephrase the question. Would intonation be one of the problems they need to work on?
NWB: They still sound a bit raw. Perhaps it’s because of the instruments they are using.
TCB: The brass section in NTU band has been criticised for playing too loudly, sometimes to the point where the woodwinds are drowned out. The brass section certainly seems to be very big. What do you think?
NWB: I asked Mr Luk Hoi Yui [the NTU band’s Resident Conductor] about this, and he said that the strong brass section was simply part of the sound or style that sets us apart from other bands in Singapore.
TCB: With such a powerful brass section, this will surely affect the way the woodwinds play.
NWB: It does!
TCB: Well, that’s all I have to ask. Are there any other issues you would like to raise? Maybe something about the local band scene?
NWB: I was at the esplanade just now. It seems that more and more musical groups are staging their performances there. I think it’s a very good experience. However, the high rental cost is a big problem. I wish there could be some help for bands wanting to have performances there. After all, it is supposed to be a national arts performing centre. It would be a very good exposure for young musicians and a very good inspiration for them.
TCB: OK. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.
NWB: Thank you.