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    音乐人生



My Musical Journey

Dr Soh Kay Cheng

Music intertwined with my life at different stages in different ways to give me many hours of pleasure and a sense of achievement, and through it I made many friends, who were very active in the music scene in Singapore since 1950s.

My earliest memory of music is my kindergarten teacher giving me two animal-shape biscuits as a reward for singing well in front of the class. Perhaps, I really sang well at that young age. Perhaps not, but the teacher was kind.

I also remember a violinist who stayed with us when I was five. He used to play in the morning at the back of the second floor of the house, 242 Telok Ayer, where the Soh Clan Association was located. The violinist lived there only for a short while and I was too young to be interested in who he was, but his playing must have captivated me.

My next memory is the ‘pedal organ’ we had. It was the kind of China-made small keyboard instrument. It required the player to pedal and pump air into the pipes to produce the sound of the pressed keys. I was particularly impressed when a girl (of course, an older girl) from the neighborhood played it crossing her forearms now and then. That was fascinating!

In this article, allow me to share about my experience in playing the harmonica, composing and writing about music. I hope that my experience will be a beacon of light in motivating youths to enjoy music.

Harmonica

I began to learn the harmonica in Chung Cheng High School (Branch) at Kim Yam Road when I was in Secondary Two. Someone organized a class and I joined. In those days, ECAs in school were usually initiated by the students, with or without the teachers’ guidance and supervision. The instructor was Mr. Wong Dai Shun (黄大信) from the Catholic High School (公教中学)and he was a student there. This was my ‘formal’ introduction to classical music as Mr. Wong taught us some of the popular classics such as the Danube Waves (not the better-known Blue Danube by Johann Strauss) and the Military March of Franz Schubert.

I began to learn the harmonica in Chung Cheng High School (Branch) at Kim Yam Road when I was in Secondary Two. Someone organized a class and I joined. In those days, ECAs in school were usually initiated by the students, with or without the teachers’ guidance and supervision. The instructor was Mr. Wong Dai Shun (黄大信) from the Catholic High School (公教中学)and he was a student there. This was my ‘formal’ introduction to classical music as Mr. Wong taught us some of the popular classics such as the Danube Waves (not the better-known Blue Danube by Johann Strauss) and the Military March of Franz Schubert.

Believe it or not, we played every piece of music in the key of C, without the sharps and flats – all diatonic, that is, on a seven-note major scale! This was done out of necessity and ignorance. All of us in the harmonica band could only afford the diatonic harmonica in C, not in any other key. We did not learn music the proper way and we did not listen to those pieces we played. We played reading the simplified notations (简谱) which uses numeric such as “1” is for Do, “2” is for Re, etc. Well, everything sounded alright as long as we were able to keep the right pace together with one another!

We were also fascinated by some other aspects of the harmonica band. As we made progress, the “horn harmonica” was introduced into the band. This is in fact just a metal tube with a slit to insert a harmonica. It gave a metallic sound like a horn. Much later, the school was generous to give some money for us to buy a chord harmonica (in C, of course) which plays chords. It is about half a meter in length; a tall boy with long arms played it. Then, we also got a bass harmonica which produce, of course, a very low and mellow sound. This is a heavy instrument and we had a strong boy to play it. Thus, with the three special kinds of harmonica, the band sounded great and, in a sense, complete.

Later, some of us were introduced to the sharpened harmonica. This is the C-harmonica made to sound C sharp; every reed was scraped to make it sound half tone higher. So, in fact it became a C#-harmonica. This was a break-through. Now, we could play the sharps (and, of course, flats) in a piece of music when required. This was done by laying the C#-harmonica above the C-harmonica and switching between them when necessary – without breaking the teeth! However, not everyone did this; only those of us who played solos.

What’s more! There was the minor harmonica. For this, the third and sixth notes of a C-harmonica were flattened by a half-tone. This allows minor chords in place of major chords. A soloist would grip a C-harmonica and a C#-harmonica with both hands and insert and a C minor-harmonica between the forearms near the wrists. Thus, the player could switch from major to minor and vice versa when necessary. This was in the 1950s. BUT, not all music is written in the keys of C and C-sharp minor! They are in the keys of G, F, etc. So, of course, we always played in the wrong keys. However, if you were not familiar with the piece of music, this sounded alright to the untrained ears.

As time went by, some of us ventured into playing the chromatic harmonica. This is a two-in-one harmonica with a C-harmonica and a C-sharp harmonica packed together and there is a button at one end to press. The harmonica is in the key of C. When the button is pressed, the holes for the C- notes are covered and C-sharp notes are sounded. This is very much like the white and black keys on the piano. Now we could play music involving sharps and flats (accidentals) like playing a violin. Great! One snag: since there is only one reed for each note, the sound is much weaker and a microphone is needed for us to play in a big hall.

The school’s harmonica band played at farewell concerts. In the olden days, the graduating classes were sent off with such concerts. Music, dance, and drama were performed by the graduating students and other classes. The harmonica band also played on the radio; the radio studio was at the back of the Cathay Building then. Alas! The band grew smaller, not bigger, with members leaving. A possible reason was that, as the standard improved, the pieces became more difficult and taking music more seriously might not be the cup of tea for most members. However, half a dozen of the ‘die-hards’ stayed on and had a few recordings for the radio. As members disappeared, the band disappeared, too. That’s life……

Another memorable experience is playing Beethoven’s Romance in F for Violin on the chromatic harmonica in a concert of the Metro Philharmonic Society (星市合唱团), with Mr. Leong Yoon Pin (梁荣平) at the piano. Everything was ‘OK’ except that the long trill on the note G was not technically possible. I substituted the trill with rapid tongue-flicking to emulate the trill. I did not know how the effect was but that was the best I could think of at that time. Now, I come to think of it, I could have scraped the G# a half tone higher to make it sound like an A and play with rapid pressing of the lever (button). Well, too late now; one is always wiser after the event.

The repertoire for the harmonica band was rather limited. Much of it came from Shanghai where there were very active players and large bands. To solve the problem, partially at least, I began to transcribe piano pieces into simplified notations and arranged them into parts for the band. For this, I learned to read musical notes although I was not able to play the piano – I did not have one!

The chromatic harmonica opened the much wider world of classical music to me. With it, I came to know more classical music and it set me on a long, enriching journey. And it also set me to embark on composing music more seriously.

Composing

I helped Mr. Lee Yoke Chuan (李煜传) to form a small violin group for the alumni of the Industrial and Commercial Continuation School (now renamed as Gong Shang Primary School工商小学). This later evolved into a chamber group with the violins, a viola, a cello, a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, and a bassoon! We practiced in my home at Jalan Gajus and performed in concerts, playing some Mozart pieces and our own works. We played my arrangement of Happy Birthday for my wife Lee Piak Geok (李碧玉). This was a surprise birthday gift to her. This small group also played Lee Yoke Chuan’s The MacRitchie Reservoir and my composition, Ali and Ah Lee.

Ali and Ah Lee (阿利和阿李)is a dance suite of four short movements. It begins with The Kampong Scene, a depiction of a village where many races lived harmoniously. The melody is typically Malay in flavor and the rhythm was inspired by the kompang (Malay procession drum); someone even asked me where I got that Malay folksong. Next comes a caprice based on a Chinese folk song, A Bamboo Pole (一根扁担). It is a dance for Ah Lee, the karung guni man who went around the village collecting and buying old bottles, clothes, etc. Then comes the Playful Children for which a Malay and a Chinese boys played goli (small marble balls) on the dusty ground happily. This section is composed in the typical classical style. Finally comes Dance for Reconciliation between Ali (husband of the Malay lady who stepped on a broken glass and to whom Ah Lee came to help but created a misunderstanding) and Ah Lee. This last movement was written in the modern harmonic style as I was fascinated by Bela Bartok’s piano pieces at that time. The story and choreography were created by Huang Tian Neng (黄天能) of the Practice Theatre (艺术剧场). Subsequently, Ali and Ah Lee was performed by the Radio Orchestra, with Ahmad Jaffa conducting. Years later, a transcription was made for the Chinese orchestra and was performed by the Lion City Chinese Orchestra (of the Dunman High School) conducted by Mr. Tay Teow Kiat (郑朝吉) and even later by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Kuok Ling Qiang(郭令强). Three movements of this dance suite were also performed in Beijing at a ‘Singapore Nights’ concert featuring music by Singapore composers.

It was during my lower secondary school days that I became interested in music composition. I began to dabble with composing simple songs using Tang poems as the lyrics. The regular four-sentence-five-word structure made it easy to write without bothering about musical form; I only needed to express the mood of the poems into melodies. The very first song I wrote is Spring Morning (春晓; 孟浩然诗) using the pentatonic scale. It depicts the mood of the poet waking up on a cold Spring morning, hearing birds chirping, and lamenting the flowers’short life.

In a sense, I was a self-taught composer since I did not have formal training in composition. I read many books on harmony, counterpoints, and orchestration. As I felt that I needed guidance, I showed my drafts to Mr. Samuel Ting who was then teaching music in Chung Cheng High School (Main). I also showed my drafts to my friend Leong Yoon Pin and Lee Yoke Chuan who both conducted choirs and included my choral and solo compositions in their concerts regularly. One of the audience’s favourites was Daughter Is Marrying (姑娘要出嫁了!), a little village drama, which was repeatedly performed over the years. This composition was also well liked by my friends, Leong Yoon Pin and Lee Yoke Chuan.

Composing continued but only occasionally now. One of my own current favourite is a set of three songs. They are reminiscences of my secondary school days at Chung Cheng High School. The lyrics are from an anthology of poems about the beautiful scenes of the school lake (pond?) at different times of the day. The poet is Zheng Hong (曾泓). For these songs, I used pentatonic melodies and harmony freely and applied, in a sense, the modern classical composition technique of the twentieth century. But, of all my compositions, I believe, the most liked by singers and audience alike is the solo piece Only Me and My Heart Know (只有我和我的心知道). The lyrics is based on Tagore’s poem from the New Moon Anthology (新月集) and the style was inspired by Brahms’ Serenade. Indeed, it was written as a serenade.

For all my musical works, I used the pen-name Di-An (迪安).

Writing about Music

Besides composing music, I also wrote about music.

Starting in my secondary school days, I wrote commentaries on music for the newspapers, including the then Nan Yang Shang Bao (南洋商报), Sin Zhou Ri Bao (星洲日报), and Nan Fang Wan Bao (南方晚报). I guided the readers with tips on how to appreciate classical music, how to behave when attending a concert, how composers wrote their masterpieces, stories about well-known short pieces and the likes, such as Saint-Saens’ The Swan, Massenet’s Meditation, Schubert’s Hark Hark the Lark etc. Many of these were later complied and published as my first book, Symphonic Poems and Symphonic Miniatures (交响诗与交响小品). Later, I published another book on music and titled it Caprice (随想曲), published by the Educational Publication Bureau.

There was another kind of writing about music that I enjoyed. This was writing for the radio. I was given this opportunity to write for this series and that, in a way, forced me to read up on composers and write about them and their masterpieces. And, to do a good job, I had to read many of their scores while listening to their music. Come to think about it now, that was really good training in many aspects. And, perhaps, this is a thorough way of enjoyment and appreciation where classical music is concerned. This series lasted for about two years and I was much enriched by my experience.

Epilogue

In a very real sense, my musical journey is long, winding, and erratic. I learned from teachers; I learned from friends; and I learned on my own. Music composing honed my competency and writing about music enriched my understanding of great works. My life will be much the poorer without these experiences. This makes me believe that everyone can appreciate music – good classical music. Perhaps, I am biased.



23 June 2020

Dr Soh Kay Cheng collaborated regularly with Mr Leong Yoon Pin and Mr Lee Yoke Chuan to bring music to the public. He was also coached by Mr. Samuel Ting (丁祝三). He had played in the Singapore Chamber Ensemble of Mr. Paul Abisheganaden, Principal of Teachers’ Training College. He studied formal violin lessons with Mr. Goh Boon Eng (吴文英) and Mr. Basafra, viola leader of the then Symphony Orchestra of the Singapore Musi society. He collaborated with his friend, Lim Heng Dow (林兴导) who was a producer on the radio and they started a weekly series of programme to introduce classical music systematically in the 1960s. He now regularly meets up with his old friend, Mr. Chua Kah Pin (蔡嘉宾), who studied in Rome with world class pianists and enjoyed listening to Kah Pin’s holistic and unconventional views about music.