Living, Breathing Music
by Tan Wen Hui
Singapore brass musician Low Jia Hua shares with Tan Wen Hui his thoughts on professional playing.
Passionate musicians live and breathe music, and Singapore Brass musician Low Jia Hua knows that best. This well-mannered gentleman who appears cool and collected admits he has never given himself a day off since turning professional.
What’s more, Jia Hua is so devoted to music he enrolled himself into the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music a year after serving out his National Service. Little wonders what drives this gentleman to be so drawn to music; he cannot tear himself away from music!
Mr. Low Jia Hua
I was busy over the weekend managing the Singapore Festival Orchestra (SFO) at the National Piano and Violin Competition. I have been the Orchestra Manager of the SFO since it was formed in 2007 by the National Arts Council, and work closely with its Music Director, Maestro Chan Tze Law, to put together the musicians for each performance SFO undertakes.
In our next performance we will be collaborating with the acclaimed composer-conductor, Tan Dun, in a special performance which aims to showcase soundtracks from blockbusters Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero and Banquet. This performance will be held at the Esplanade Huayi Festival in January next year.
Let’s talk about your music job. As a Brass musician, which aspect of Brass music intrigues you the most?
Jia Hua: Actually I don’t have an entertainer job, insofar as is commonly perceived by most people: I don’t have one fixed employer who pays me every month to work a certain number of hours at assigned tasks. I used to struggle a lot when I needed to explain to people what I do for a living, but nowadays I identify myself as a freelance musician.
As a student of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, I majored in Trumpet Performance. I enjoy playing the trumpet because it is such a versatile instrument, you can perform a variety of musical genres such as classical, jazz, contemporary and popular music. Also, brass musicians have more flexibility compared to other instrumentalists in terms of where we can perform; the instruments are durable, portable, it projects well without the need for amplification. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find professional string players willing to even take their instruments out of their cases in places without air-conditioning!
On a personal note, I enjoy this flexibility as a brass musician. It mirrors how I would like to approach the concept of work.
Most musicians draw their inspiration from one another. Where do you draw your musical influences from and how does this influence your playing style?
Jia Hua: I honestly believe that it is possible to draw inspiration from every single musician and performance that you hear and experience. It all depends on how you process the “information” that you receive and learn from it, whether it is aural, visual, or emotional. Of course it is important to have positive examples that you can model yourself after, but it is equally valuable to be able to learn from negative examples that reinforce in our own minds what we want to achieve and avoid doing as musicians.
Here are the musicians who have had a particularly positive influence on how I have developed, and continue to grow as a performer. They are my teachers, namely Yap Thien Soo, Jun Ikebe and Laurie Gargan – who are also members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and trumpet artists Ole Edvard Antonsen, Hans Gansch and Thomas Gansch, all who inspire me with how they harness their technical command of the trumpet to enjoy and express their musical ideas. Similarly, contemporary singers like Wei Ru Xuan, Van Fan and Utada Hikaru had inspired me, as a classically-trained musician, to “loosen up” and learn to connect with the audience.
Thankfully for the rest of the pieces, I somehow managed to play my trumpet on auto-pilot while my mind was in over-drive trying to sort out a new order for the remaining pieces and how to introduce them in order to “restore” balance to the rest of the programme. Luckily, we had rehearsed well enough for my “auto-pilot” to work, and we were able to complete the entire performance without the audience realising anything had gone wrong.
What is/are the challenges you face in your line of work and what do you do to overcome them?
Jia Hua: Actually there’s not much of a difference from every other job, which all boils down to resource management; whether that resource is time, energy, money or other people you work with. As a freelancer juggling a variety of work and portfolios, it is absolutely essential that I manage my time and energy such that I am able to give my best in whatever I do.
I don’t have the luxury of practicing for hours every day to keep my musical chops in shape, because I have other works to accomplish. But I have enough experience to know just how much time over how many days I need to practice for each performance. All I need to do is make sure I set aside enough time and energy for practice in the days leading up to the performance.
I guess the unusual thing that I think actively about and which most people don’t talk about is energy management. We always hear about the importance of time management, but if we don’t manage our energy levels, we wouldn’t be able to perform at our optimum.
It’s said that musicians, like artists, are not paid well. How true is this statement?
Jia Hua: As a musician, I would have to disagree with this statement. In every field and every profession, there are those who struggle to get by every day and those who are financially successful. The main pitfall here is when musicians become too close-minded, and insist on “being a musician” in a narrow and conventionally pre-determined way. These are the musicians who end up struggling to find work.
As a musician, what message(s) do you intend to promote through your playing?
Jia Hua: I didn’t grow up in a musically-privileged environment, and have the benefit of music lessons. In that sense, I was way behind most of my peers. So I had to be creative in making use of the resources that were available to me back then, and to learn as much as I could from every opportunity I had; constantly trying my very best to grow and improve.
However, I will never be the best musician or trumpet player in the world or in Singapore, and that is absolutely true for all musicians everywhere. After all, what does it really mean to be “the best” in music?
What is more important is to dare to enjoy music, whether as a performer or a listener. Everyone has the right to enjoy music, and that is what I try to communicate as much as I can through my playing and work.
What advice would you give aspiring musicians?
Jia Hua: Don’t limit your musical education and growth as a musician to just what you do with your instrument. Always be prepared to learn from any situation, whether positive or negative, and let the growth of your musical self guide the development of your technical skills.