Daniel Yiau is currently based in Amsterdam as a Wind/Brass band conducting Masters student at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He also serves as Music Director of Symphonic Winds and Soli Deo Gloria Koog-Zaandijk.
Daniel has attended masterclasses in Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Portugal and The Netherlands at various wind band festivals and academies. He has performed in various iconic venues across continents with various ensembles – the Philharmonic Winds, the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band, Orchestra of the Music Makers, CREA Orkest, Amsterdamse Tramharmonie and the Koninklijke Harmonie Orpheus.
As an advocate for music education and wind-playing, Daniel has worked with numerous student wind and brass bands in Singapore and the Netherlands, inspiring the next generation of wind players.
We spoke to Daniel about his wind band conducting career, conducting approach, music interests, and advices for young band conductors.
What made you decide to do wind band conducting instead of orchestral conducting like what most people would think of?
My first musical encounter was the recorder in primary school (*cues high piercing shrieks!). Although these music lessons were short-lived, my class was selected to perform for a school celebration, making this my only musical childhood memory.
In secondary school, I joined the marching band as a tubist for 4 years, picking up the clarinet by self-learning on a plastic clarinet that my parents could afford. I was very fortunate to join AudioImage Wind Ensemble in 2001, who took me in as a complete novice clarinet player.
Since then, my life as a clarinetist began, with multiple doors opened – performing in wind groups and chamber ensembles; participating in competitions, concerts, masterclasses and lessons with various clarinet teachers. I was exposed to many conductors as a clarinetist in the various ensembles, whom had inspired me to conduct like them some day.
After 8 years of teaching school bands, I decided that it was essential for me to be formally trained in a musical institution. With my affinity towards wind instrumentalists, I decided to conduct and pursue primarily wind music.
While there is a healthy amount of orchestral conductors around, I strongly believe there is a lack of good wind band conductors by comparison. I hope that in some way or another, I would be able to bring wind band music onto the same level of appreciation as orchestral music. I also hope to pave the way for the growth of wind band music, which is currently declining globally with bands shrinking in numbers or completely closing.
Most importantly, I really love great wind band music! When performed well, it has the ability to pull the same heart-strings like any good choral or orchestral music.
Why did you pick the Netherlands out of the many options available?
In 2005, I competed in the World Music Contest (WMC) with The Philharmonic Winds in Kerkrade, and being there meant that I was exposed to top bands from all over the world, particularly the excellent Dutch bands that were so deeply rooted in their wind band traditions. As this left a huge impression on me, it was a natural decision for me to go to the Netherlands to study. Coincidentally, the Conservatory of Amsterdam is one of the few institutions that offers conducting as an undergraduate programme!
Unlike Singapore, there are no Dutch school bands; not even on the collegiate levels. Instead, bands are mostly community or village bands, which is common to see different generations playing together. Most of these bands have such a strong bond that even when you leave the group for work or study in another city, you are obligated to return and play with them for a concert or competition, as a form of giving back to the community that imparted musical knowledge through your youth.
What is your approach to conducting?
My approach to conducting is relatively simple; to be as functional as I can for the musicians, always to guide and help, never to hinder, and to always make music. As I am still trying to get the grips of “conducting”, I am uncertain of what conducting style I have, but I definitely try to be as minimalistic and clear as I possibly can.
What wind band music interests you the most? Any favourite composers or works?
European music has so much to offer given the different backgrounds and history. One such example is composer Philip Sparke, with beautiful melodies, lush harmonies and virtuosity for all instrumental parts in his advanced pieces, and many exquisite pieces for young ensembles as well. Sparke is always a crowd pleaser due to accessibility to the audience and playability for the performers.
Swiss composer Olivier Waespi is one of my favourites. He incorporates elements from pop-culture in his music, which I think is refreshing for the everyday listener and fun for the performer. Divertimento is my go-to piece to recommend for advanced ensembles.
The usual suspects – Holst, Hindemith, Arnold, Vaughan-Williams, Persichetti and Grainger are the must-knows and must-plays for any band. These composers shaped the beginnings of what we know now as band music, but unfortunately their music is not played much these days.
Igor Stravinsky also wrote many wind pieces, although not for wind band per se. His Symphonies of wind instruments, Octet for winds and Soldier’s Tale are top in my wind music list, and are very important to the development of wind writing. Wind instrumental majors should always perform these pieces, given the opportunity.
Every piece of wind band music has its interesting points, but sometimes it can be ‘too much of a good thing’ when composers try to exaggerate musical moments with multiple-climaxes that is tiresome to the listener.
How has your recent projects with the Singapore groups help in your conducting career?
I am extremely grateful to Singapore Horn Sounds (Alan Kartik), Phil Clarinets (Desmond Chow) and Orchestra Collective (Jeremy Lee) for the opportunity to conduct these ensembles over my short break back home. It was such an incredible time working with friends and colleagues, and I hope to have more collaborations in the future.
Having to conduct, performing in concerts, and even competing at the Nanyang International Music Competition (NIMC) with the OC Clarinets was a great exposure for me, leaving a mark and allowing fellow musicians to know me better, both as a young conductor and clarinetist.
With these projects and post-concert recordings, I am able to show my friends, colleagues and mentors back in Amsterdam that as tiny an island Singapore is, we have a huge pool of talented musicians whom are out studying and performing globally on such a high musical level!
Do you find that as a wind band conductor, you have lesser opportunities than that of an orchestral conductor?
I would assume the contrary. There are definitely more wind bands than orchestras worldwide, the only disadvantage and difference is that most bands are non-professional and you cannot expect them to play advanced pieces all the time and it is a different level of accomplishment when an amateur group performs at a surprisingly high level, surpassing what you initially expected; that makes the job all worth it.
Dutch amateur/community bands members set aside their leisure time for music making, and contribute monthly towards the conductor’s fee and rental cost of venues. Hence, the conductor’s duty is to ensure as much enjoyment through the rehearsals while maintaining a certain level of musical excellence. Why would a musician put in time and effort practicing if they are wasting time at mundane rehearsals, when they could be at home with their loved ones on weekday evenings or weekends?
As far as conducting goes, whether you conduct an orchestra, wind band, choir or chamber ensemble, our job as a conductor is always the same; to guide, lead and make good music. Regardless of the ensemble type, what matters most is we do justice to the music and not just recreate sounds from what we see on paper. Same goes for musicians – just because you play in a wind band does not equate to being a lower class musician compared to an orchestral player. This comparison between the statuses of wind band and orchestras has to stop because it is unhealthy for the music; I have been privileged to have conducted incredible musicians through primarily wind instrumental ensembles.
In closing, what advices do you have for young wind band conductors?
Know the music you conduct very well, and let the music flow.
It is better to let the music go and allow the musicians to make music together, than to be restrictive to every single detail. We are not machines but we can strive for musical perfection by being human.
Make Music, Always.