• Katherine Pan

I Spent 5 Years in a Symphonic Band

I once believed that I was going to be in a symphonic band for all my life. I had just graduated secondary school and the band left a lasting impression on me. I loved every moment I spent in the band room because it symbolized laughter and joy. However, my life in the band in junior college was a living hell. The band room had become a toxic place to remind me of my underachievement and incapability. I left quickly after a year and never considered joining a band again. Even so, I decided to write about my band experience because it was a huge part of my teenage life and it helped to shape the person I am today.

It has been 3 years but I will never forget the terror. (Meme sourced from https://www.musicnotes.com/now/omg/the-best-marching-band-memes/)


My band journey started at age 13. Joining the symphonic band was not what I had in mind because I had my eyes on community work. However, it was my brother who convinced me to join the band as he claimed that I will "regret not joining". Thankfully, I was accepted and during the first band session, I declared my interest in the flute. We were given mouthpieces of different instruments to try on the next session and I was so proud when I produced a sound on the flute mouthpiece on my first try. Silly old me thought this meant that I had the potential to be a great musician! Well, sorry to disappoint young me because I have not touched the flute since 2017.


Oh god I hope this was not how my band director felt back then. (Meme sourced from https://cheezburger.com/9346565/musical-memes-for-the-band-geeks-and-orch-dorks)


Shortly afterward, I was assigned to the flute section. My first year was spent learning basic music theory and the fundamentals of the flute. Due to a lack of knowledge, my younger self overlooked the importance of counting beats and rhythm recognition. This grave mistake would later cause my band career in junior college to take a downturn. Even today, I am unable to count beats and recognize rhythms. How did I manage to stay in the band for so many years you ask? My trick was to let band pieces play on repeat while I memorize the tune and rhythm. During practice, I would reproduce what I had memorized. This was not the way to learn music, but I did not know better.

After my first year of basic training, I graduated from the junior band and joined the main band! In my school band, the flute section is seated next to the oboe and clarinet section. I was still dense and uneducated about band instruments, so I spent a year thinking that the oboe player was a rejected clarinet player. You cannot blame me because the instruments looked so similar! Imagine my surprise when I found out that the clarinet reject was the oboe player in the band.


This is how the oboe looks. (Image sourced from https://www.oboe-shop.de/en/loree-etoile-16404.html)


This is how the clarinet looks. (Image sourced from https://europe.yamaha.com/en/products/musical_instruments/winds/clarinets/ycl-255/index.html)

In the main band, I was greeted by wonderful seniors that were the big sisters that I never had. They were lovely, patient, and understanding women, and I loved their guidance. Every band practice felt welcoming and comfortable thanks to them. They always made sure that we juniors could catch up and understand what is going on. However, life gave me a huge slap across the face as 5 months later, the seniors graduated. A new batch of leaders was sworn in and I was assigned to be the flute section leader. I had to fill in my seniors' shoes and take on great responsibilities. The role was unexpected, and I was unprepared due to a lack of leadership experience. Ensuring discipline, overseeing welfare, and command control of the section fell onto my shoulders. Fortunately, I was not alone in my journey because of my amazing section mate, Celine! She helped to lead the section musically, an area that I am weak in, while I oversaw logistics and welfare. Until today, Celine and I are still great friends and I want to give a huge shoutout to her for being amazing <3.

"People have to be angry at someone but as a leader, one cannot simply react to everything."

I wished I knew about this quote while I was a section leader. (Quote from Winston Churchill in The Crown)


There are several performances lined up every year and I remember my most memorable performance was during the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF). SYF is a biennial competition and every school band will be judged based on two pieces. A set-piece and a choice piece will be played, and it is probably the most stressful time for any performer. I participated in the SYF in 2015 and the set-piece was Hermes by Hayato Hirose. I recall seeing a quote about how the best experiences we have in life are also some of the worst experiences we had. This quote resonated with me because I fell into a slump preparing for SYF.


Listen to Hermes by Hayato Hirose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUzEvG4DU6U

The set-piece had a piccolo part, and I was assigned to play the role. The piccolo is half the size of a flute, produces notes one octave higher, and has a different embouchure. I had 4 months to learn this new instrument. The piccolo was much tougher to learn than the flute and I was constantly frustrated at myself. My playing on the piccolo sounded awful and with the SYF being so near, I was demoralized. As the piccolo is a high-pitched instrument, one can hear it distinctively even when the entire band is playing the piece. I was fortunate to have a conductor that was willing to overlook my incapability. He had acknowledged the hard work that I put in and never told me that I was not good. Thinking back, it was such reassurance that enabled me to carry on and not throw in the towel.


(Meme sourced from https://www.musicnotes.com/now/omg/the-best-marching-band-memes/)

Despite the struggles I had musically, the band room was still one of my favorite places in the school. It was a room that allowed me to unwind and offered an escape from the stress that I had in my student life. The band felt like a family that was so welcoming and lovely, with every band member looking out for each other. I loved the band spirit that was in the air and dreaded the day that it will end.


This shot was taken right after my band's SYF performance!


This was one of my favourite outdoor performances. It was at the Merlion Plaza in Sentosa before the merlion was demolized.


After graduation, I was determined to join the symphonic band in junior college. I continued to play the flute and found myself preparing for the SYF again. It was 2017, and the set-piece was Escape Velocity by Kelly Tang. Escape velocity is a physics term. It describes the speed a body must possess to escape the earth’s gravitational field and enter orbit. According to Kelly Tang, Escape Velocity is a piece that conveys the unfolding of music as a series of escapes.

"Escape Velocity tries to put a spotlight on this excitement and the breaking of patterns in music. It is like how films are made, and how stories are told; by creating a pattern, breaking it up, moving forward, and finally coming to a close."

Kelly Tang's interpretation of Escape Velocity (Sourced from https://thebandpost.com/2017/04/escape-velocity-with-kelly-tang/)

Listen to Escape Velocity by Kelly Tang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JylD1nXthzc


This spelled disaster for me, as the score felt like a fragmented mess. Escape Velocity has various play styles and tunes which made it difficult for me to memorize. This meant that I had to overcome a steep learning curve as Escape Velocity was a grade five song. Meanwhile, my counting and rhythms were barely considered to be grade one.


I would like to do this for the entirety of Escape Velocity please. (Meme sourced from https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/practising-instrument-memes/)

To make matters worse, I had a section mate that often picked on my playing. Let us call him Phil. Closer to the day of the performance, the doubt and fear in my mind only grew exponentially. No amount of practice or effort that I put in seemed to improve my playing and Phil's words rang continuously in my mind. It all became too heavy of a weight for me to carry. While I was on stage for the SYF, I decided to perform only the parts that needed me. At that moment, it seemed to be for the best if I did not play anything unnecessary lest I cause any fatal mistakes. Yet as I reflect now, I realized that I was lacking in confidence and I was undermining myself.


This was taken right after the SYF performance.

Phil would later become the section leader and he never acknowledged the effort I had put in perfecting the flute. His leadership, or the lack of it, made me decide to leave the band the same year. I had enough of his unreasonable behavior. Phil never bothered to ask why I was struggling or lead me musically. I understood that it was in no way right to criticize someone all the time, yet not offer help as a leader. My time in the junior college band was disappointing and I was disillusioned. Time has allowed me to reflect on what has happened and I wish older me could lend a hand to the younger me, who was confused and afraid.

Despite what I have been through, I still have fond memories of the days I spent in the symphonic band. After all, it was always a shock to discover that band practice has ended even though it only felt like 1 hour. Thinking back, joining the symphonic band is one of the best decisions in my life. I matured as an individual, met my best friend, and made plenty of fond memories that warm my heart even until today.


Home is not a place. Home is the people you surround yourself with.
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