(Disclaimer: The following views are subjective from a layman’s point of view and do not represent the views of MOE.)
The SYF Chinese orchestra (CO) 2015 for secondary schools and junior colleges just ended yesterday.
For those unacquainted with what SYF Chinese orchestra is, here is a short summary of what it is. SYF stands for Singapore Youth Festival. Every year, schools with Chinese orchestras get together to perform 2 pieces in front of 5-6 judges who will give them gradings in the form of ‘Distinction, Accomplishment and Commendation’. It happens bi-annually for schools because it rotates between primary schools and secondary schools / junior colleges.
We took the time to sit through most of the 50 secondary schools and 13 junior colleges and here are some observations.
1. Strength in numbers
COs with larger numbers definitely have an advantage in terms of a fuller / bigger sound and looks more impressive visually. Thus, recruit more if you can.
2. Drums rock
If you cannot get strength in numbers, get strength in drums. Invest in a few of those Da Tang Gu (大堂鼓) and Da Gang Gu (大缸鼓) and you can easily get the adrenaline pumping.
3. Drummers rock
The drummer forms the backbone of any band. It creates a solid foundation, setting and keeping a steady pace for the rest. If you can train a percussion player in the CO with good groove and rhythm, your music will be groovy and smooth.
4. Strength in bass
If you can, get more numbers in the bass section like double bass, cellos or even zhonghus. Having a strong bass section is like being cradled in a warm embrace. Having a thin bass section is like skating on thin ice.
5. Invest in a Suona and Dizi player
Train up at least a good suona and dizi player. Lots of pieces have suona and dizi solos. You can run but you can’t hide.
6. Conductor’s swag
A conductor with swag makes a difference. It brings some more drama into the music and the audience can feel it.
7. Rhythm simplicity
It is better to stick with songs with more straightforward rhythm. One of the choice pieces, Izpirazione II – Rambutan has pretty complicated rhythms and most teams that played it sounded messy.
8. Song choice is important
The strengths and weaknesses of every CO is different. Find a song that mask your weaknesses and accentuates your strengths.
9. Better instruments = better sound
An excellent player can make an average instrument sound good. An average player needs a good instrument to sound good. It is safe to say that at the primary, secondary and tertiary level, good instruments will help.
10. Limited resources not necessarily = bad
Some conductors have shown that with limited resources they can still put up a decent show.
11. Multi racial Chinese orchestra
It is heartening to see quite a number of non-Chinese in some Chinese orchestras. One Malay girl was even chosen to introduce her school and their set pieces. Music is regardless of race.
12. Overall standard maintained
SYF has recently evolved from a grading system of “Gold with honours, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Certificate of Participation” to the current system of “Distinction, Accomplishment, Commendation” in order to blunt the edges and reduce the intensity of competition among schools. From the feedback from various instructors, a result of this is tightening of budget for practices as well instruments. This is because schools feel less impetus to spend more on something that brings back the same thing as another who spends less (see point 13). But surprisingly, the overall standard has more or less maintained compared to 2 years ago. Some schools got better, some schools are not as good as last time.
13. Different distinctions
If you sat through some of the performances and looked at the final results, you would agree that there are ‘low’ distinctions and ‘high’ distinctions. The low distinctions are undoubtably encouraged by the results which is probably what MOE is trying achieving – a more wholesome SYF that is more encouraging and less competitive. The high distinctions might feel a little hard done by to share the distinction accolades with others with significant difference in standard. But the low distinctions represents are the majority and the end result does feel more harmonious and inclusive.
14. Showcase of talents behind closed doors
SYF is an opportunity for schools to showcase their talents, but currently it is to a limited audience only. Only a handful of people like the judges, some instructors of their respective schools, and people who took leave, get to witness the hard work by the students. Perhaps the video recordings of all the performances can be made available to the public for viewing at a website. In this way, the efforts of all the participating schools can be heard by a wider audience besides having their grading.
15. Importance of SYF for Chinese orchestra Singapore
SYF is still very important to the development of the Chinese orchestra in Singapore. With this showcase in place, you get new blood on board, and existing students and instructors have something to work towards. It is from this pool where you discover the next generation of movers and shakers in the Chinese orchestra scene.
Finally, congratulations to all schools, students, conductors, instructors and teachers in charge who got what they aimed for, and congratulations to CCA staff for another successful SYF Chinese orchestra.
Click on the below for the results of SYF 2015 Chinese orchestra presentation: