The Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation for Concert Bands at the Secondary School Level took place from 31st March to 10th April, with the participation of 147 bands over a period of 8 days. During my visit to Singapore then, I attended and listened to about one third of the performances. This article is a summary of my observations during the Festival from a foreign perspective.
Having conducted classes for some Singaporean bands previously, I have a general understanding of secondary school bands’ standard. Nevertheless, I was surprised that some bands are able to produce spectacular performances during the festival despite their shorter practice times as compared to Japanese bands. I believe if Japanese band members are to listen to these performances, they will be surprised at the excellence of music when they find out the bands only have an average of 6 hours in practices weekly.
On the other hand, I feel that some bands are still developing in terms of music performance. In Japan, we believe that there are three essential aspects in the band programme: 1. individual technique, 2. ensemble ability and 3. music expression. It is said that if the band lacks in any of these factors, the performances will be considered unsuccessful. Indeed, throughout the SYF, I noticed that some of the performances lacked some of these aspects. Perhaps, the band directors need to design a good and efficient practice programme to improve on the three aspects within a limited practice schedule as the overall performance standard depends on the lowest one of these factors.
Through my observations, most bands fulfilled at least one of the aspects, and most of them tried to do music expression. One of the essences in art is to be able to express something and band activities are considered as artistic activities. Despite the limited abilities of secondary school students in expressing music, it is still important to express music as much as possible within their abilities.
Perhaps, if some developing bands can spare a little more time for fundamental training to improve individual techniques and/or band ensemble training, the total performance quality will be changed dramatically. In addition, once students understand that all trainings are to achieve better music expressions, the band practices may not be that boring for them anymore.
I was glad that many bands selected Japanese band music for choice piece. Apart from using Japanese works as choice pieces, I feel that there can be a wider range of repertoire to be selected for SYF. Surely, the selection of choice pieces can be difficult for band directors, as there are many factors to consider. These factors can include the suitability in the music grade for the band, the band’s strengths and weaknesses, the room for growth till the actual performance, the kind of music experience desired for the students and the possible educational value in the music. However, in my humble opinion, I feel that some bands have selected choice pieces without much deep considerations.
This is quite evident in the SYF when some bands select a much harder piece in comparable to their own band standard. I feel that if a difficult piece is chosen, the band may tend to spend almost all their practice time to read the music. In this case, the students may be deprived of the opportunity to study the music.
School band activities are, of course, one of the many types of education. Directors must be able to select the most “educational” music for the students, but that does not mean it has to be an easy one. An ideal chosen piece should be determined by the level and rehearsal situation of each band and only decide after careful considerations.
During my stay in Singapore, I spoke to a few teachers-in-charge of a band and everyone mentioned that they are hoping for good results for their bands. This is quite a natural reaction considering the SYF is one of the major events they participate in! Nonetheless, their biggest takeaway was not about the result, but the growth of their students.
Although I partly understand the difficult circumstances that Singaporean band directors face, I still believe that people who are engaged in educational activity must not forget its main purpose. To achieve the goal, a good music programme over regular practices is necessary. Band directors should use their abilities and knowledge to create successful programmes and plan band activities to help the students grow. Events such as the SYF or other competitions are often the best opportunities to showcase the band’s standards and for developing students’ potential.
In closing, I hope that this article sums up an impression of the Singapore band scene in relation to SYF. I hope that it will also provide a good opportunity for readers to think and reflect about the SYF, and contemplate on how band activities should be for the benefits and growth of their students.