Remembering 23/3/2015

Today’s a really unique day to be remembered. I felt I wouldn’t do the day justice if I don’t take my next hour writing this down for posterity.

Some might remember this day as the Johor Sultan’s Coronation, but for most on the island, whether you’re Singaporean, PR or foreigner, you would have woken up to a sad day. Every radio station became Symphony 924. Every TV channel became a history text book. Huge queues formed at both the condolence books and toto outlets (0318?) as the grand old man, the founding father, the pioneer who promise to turn in the grave if he sensed something wrong in the country he founded and loved, was set to be cremated coming Sunday.

I don’t think I’m qualified to write any dedication of this man whom I have not met and yet whose shadows I live in every day. Suffice to say that even though I share his ambitions of bringing the two countries closer together for a somewhat more “just” ideal, I’m currently in no position to make any of that happen. Nevertheless, the legacy of this man would continue to serve as a guide to many challenges I’ll face ahead.

That said, it’s barely 24 hours since he left us at 3:18am, and I felt like I’m living in the world’s most synchronised wake. Some have compared everything that’s transpired today to the North Koreans, except people weren’t expected to wail loudly in public. I disagree. Speaker’s Corner revocation aside, there was a genuine, and almost scary synchronisation across the (Facebook connected) nation, that led to an outpour of both grief and thankfulness. Each expression built on the next, and before you know it a huge echo chamber formed in the virtual atmosphere.

Even the traffic in the morning was slower, and trains did break down as promised as well.

Ok enough of LKY, as there’re plenty of websites and dedications out there on him already. This post is really about counting my blessings working with a resilient team of musicians. Hopefully without naming anyone or implicating anybody in this sensitive period, I would like to express my greatest thanks to all 14 who have performed today.

It’s probably the show with the most “spana” thrown at us. First, the requirements were weird. Our show originally required 7 person to bring music to an assembly of students in a school. But this school wanted 2 copies of it, happening at the same time, in 2 different locations in the school. Fine, we found another 7. But 3 of our regular 7 couldn’t perform. So we found 10 new people. Scheduling rehearsals was hard enough, but we managed to pull it through.

Then came the multiple changes in players after the rehearsals. For some, their priorities were clear, for others, they made a deliberate choice to drop out, and then others were committed but their circumstances forced them out. So fine, we replaced our players. Except we can’t have more rehearsals. One replacement whose father is critically ill in a foreign country had to be home till a certain date. Another had to be deployed overseas for work (that would be me hehe). Most had to juggle teaching and rescheduling of lessons to accommodate such adhoc changes in timing.

Then came the hoax period last week, which we realised we haven’t thought about it being the inevitable as a stream of PMO messages reached the public. One of our musicians was at risk being part of the machinery that _will_ be activated should the inevitable occur. And so when it did happen that the show fell exactly on the same day of the event, we were ready to react to call up backup, only to have the backup leave and go home as the regular player could perform after all. All these within the first 3 hours of the day.

But what took the cake was the engagement with the government. You see, these shows we do in school are primarily for students to learn more about the arts, and therefore paid for by the school, through a particular government programme. The content was up beat and engaging, something we knew worked and clicked with young teenagers. But it also bordered at being disrespectful to some during a 7 day mourning.

And so, we had a total of 2 hours reaction time to redo our programme, changing something we had productised and designed to be repeated in every school who hires us, into something more solemn and reflective. And the request came from both our stakeholders as well as the government.

The rational was that, we had to be sensitive. That I agreed. But to make sure everyone’s needs were taken care of, including our stakeholders, civil servants, the teacher and principal in the school and of course, the students who were the audience, we took it upon ourselves to fix the problem. I found an old chorale score written maybe 8 years ago from (it was still when I uploaded the score) that we downloaded, printed and rehearsed minutes before the show. Emcee scripts were changed and rehearsed also seconds before students streamed in.

If there was one thing I remembered it was the dazed look on the teacher’s face (the why-me? what-happened? did-i-do-anything-wrong? expression) as we explained that we needed the school to communicate with the government machinery responsible for such appropriateness. For us to then act as an advisor and a pace setter to sort things out amicably, was to me, very admirable of the team.

In the end we had a great experience with the relatively small group of students who attended and listened / clapped along suitably. I was positive that in that cozy environment, at least 1 more young soul would be encouraged to pick up an instrument to play music like we do.

Why all these? Because if I were to disclose to you the pittance we earn from doing shows like these, you would have laughed your head off. It was priced competitively assuming that the original team of 7 would perform over and over again with no additional preparations. It assumes every show builds on the previous and there are no further investment on our part to react, what more to react almost instantly like first responders.

In the past, shows were just that: go or no-go. If one key variable changed, we would be rescheduling the show to many months ahead, as students weren’t always available for such non-curriculum type of exposure. The money itself wouldn’t have made a difference when it’s finally divided by 14, even though to the customer (school) it seemed like a large sum of their budget.

What made the show tick is the confluence of a common desire to perform and reach out to new audiences, a fundamental and common grounding in the type of music that’s being played, and an attitude that does not give up no matter how many curved balls we were being thrown.

For example, no amount of rehearsal for this show would be able to bring out the full function of that said last minute chorale, if it wasn’t for the common classical music grounding of phrasing, harmony, balance and ensemble. No amount of money would be able to attract the musician to take up this show instead of the competing gig, if they weren’t happy performing this music over and over again. And no grand person’s birth or death can and shall stand between the innate desires of such an organisation and its purpose. That’s how we musicians deal with the messiness of life.

For that, I drove out the school gate remembering again, why I’m still holding on to this extensible conical tube. As part of the system, I was given, though joining in later than my Singaporean peers, a taste of elite life embraced by the present corridors of power. I walked the halls where people’s lives were shaped by public policy, spun the cogs in the machinery that generates stability, and asked myself ever so often why people decided that the shadow of the old man is the way to go? Have they not seen the daily struggles of man? And some days, like today, the answer is as clear as daylight: I could ask that question in the first place because I chose to struggle like any ordinary folk would, not only in the comforts of this air-conditioned nation, but also under that hot south east asian sun that watched over me as I grew up marching and playing music under.

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Two readings for your consideration:

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