When the band comes marching inThey perform at the National Day Parade (NDP) every year. And they are first ones in and last ones out at almost every SAF parade and ceremony.
// Story Teo Jing Ting
// Photos PIONEER photographers, Timothy Sim & courtesy of SAF Central Band
They perform at the National Day Parade (NDP) every year. And they are first ones in and last ones out at almost every SAF parade and ceremony.
Smartly dressed in their crisp white uniforms with red and gold accents, the musicians of the SAF Band set the stage with their rousing tunes. The drum major cuts a commanding figure with his silver mace, guiding the band and executing smooth twirls.
At 61, the Band is still young. That is, if compared against their more established counterparts from Japan, the United Kingdom and United States (US).
But over the years, the SAF Band has risen to build its standing on the international stage again and again. Since 2006, it has received yearly invitations to take part in various military tattoos and festivals.
Through their performances, Singapore's military musicians bring a slice of the nation's multiracial culture and the SAF's professionalism all over the world.
The way in
Want to join the SAF Band? Get qualified in music first.
Almost all SAF Band hopefuls must already be proficient in their instruments before trying out at the auditions. Regulars need to have at least seven years of musical experience and perform at a high level. For Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), the criteria are less stringent — but they still need to have experience playing for their school band.
The audition process is simple but tough: Apart from playing music pieces, they are tested on their sight-reading skills.
This means reading and performing from sheet music without preparation. Those who are less proficient have to work on this skill before a re-audition.
Learning the basics
Once in, all military musicians go through nine weeks of Basic Military Musician Course (BMMC) where they learn not only how to march and play at the same time, but also read mace signals.
For Corporal (CPL) Isaac Chen, this was the most challenging part of the vocation. Noting that his instrument is particularly heavy and bulky, the 21-year-old tuba player from SAF Ceremonial Band B said: "It's not easy marching while playing, especially when you need more energy to blow into the tuba. But after a while, you get used to it."
During the BMMC, NSFs are also given individual tutoring sessions by Regulars who play the same instrument.
"The band's always the first one in and last out. But the minute we finish playing and everyone starts clapping, there's a feeling of accomplishment."
Recruit (REC) Riyadh Al-Muttaqin, who joined the Band seven months ago, recalled: "I was taught techniques on playing the saxophone and even tips on how to open up my throat, which helped me play much better."
"It was a privilege to be tutored and I brushed up a lot of my music skills here," added the 20-year-old saxophone player from SAF Ceremonial Band A.
Upon graduating from the course, these NSFs are deployed alongside Regulars to perform at various events such as the Changing of Guards ceremonies as well as Guard of Honour and graduation parades.
Regulars will move on to attend the two-year Enhanced BMMC, where they are further equipped with performance skills and advanced instrumental techniques.
As they progress, the Regulars will go for advanced courses, both local and overseas, to deepen their expertise at each stage of their careers.
"The military musician vocation is out of the ordinary and I feel a lot of pride to be a part of it. We are serving the nation in a diplomatic mission."
Beyond making music
With his elaborate mace displays, the drum major is often the star of every show. But the route to leading a band on parade is not an easy one.
Potentials who possess high band drill standards and leadership qualities will be chosen to attend the SAF Drum Major Course. During this two-week process, Regulars learn mace drills to lead the band in ceremonial performances, and also pick up choreography skills.
Being a drum major is more than just doing fancy moves, said SAF Central Band Drum Major Military Expert (ME) 1 Jash Chua.
"On parade, you have to make sure your band marches well and sounds good, while also performing in their drills," said the 31-year-old tuba player.
As effortless as ME1 Chua makes it seem, mace display is hard work. For one, injuries are part of the training process (he's dropped his mace on his foot and sustained multiple bruises many times).
And because he is first and foremost a musician, mace practice often has to be done after work hours.
"We are ambassadors of the nation as well as the SAF, and we raise their awareness that Singapore may be small, but we are powerful."
Ace of mace
Nevertheless, it is his passion for the role that keeps him going. Since his debut at the Republic of Singapore Navy Open House in 2011, he has performed at events such as the opening of the Southeast Asian Games in 2015 and the NDP in 2016 and 2018.
Last November, ME1 Chua took it up a notch by acing his mace moves in front of more than 10,000 Japanese audience members at the 54th Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) Marching Festival in Tokyo, Japan.
Throughout all seven shows, he kept the crowd on the edge of their seats as he twirled, threw and caught his mace with precision and confidence.
No one could tell that he was actually a bundle of nerves.
"It's not easy to throw and catch the mace, but the audience's applause was a great encouragement."
Likewise, fellow musician ME1 Isabelle Wong was heartened by the warm response when she belted out Japanese folk song Nada Sou Sou (Tears for You) during the marching festival.
It was the first time the 27-year-old bassoon player had to sing in a foreign language. To pronounce the lyrics as accurately as possible, she listened to the original version by Rimi Natsukawa on repeat.
"I enjoy it when a foreign person takes time and effort to sound as correct as possible…so I wanted to do the same for the Japanese audience."
Her efforts paid off. The audience praised her accuracy and many were astounded to find out that she was not Japanese.
ME1 Wong's vocal talent was discovered when she took part in an inter-unit talent time competition during her recruit days in 2012. Positive feedback at the 2014 SAF Band Annual Family Concert led to more ideas on how she could use her voice to add an edge to the Band's performances.
She made her solo overseas debut at the Virginia International Tattoo in the US in 2017, performing its official traditional state song Our Great Virginia. Her rendition was so stirring, she left a lady in tears.
"When the audience thanked me for singing the song, I was very touched. I know if I sing from the heart, no matter where I come from, I can reach out to them."
"An SAF military musician must first and foremost be really proud to be a Singaporean. We wear the uniform, do our best and know that we are making an impact."
Proud to play
When she is not singing, ME1 Wong is honing her bassoon playing skills.
Since joining the Band in 2012, she continually improved her craft by taking music theory lessons and tuition from accomplished bassoon players in and outside the SAF. Last August, she took her Grade 8 exam and passed with distinction.
"It made me feel very accomplished. I'm glad that the SAF Band always puts in effort to upgrade our skills," said ME1 Wong.
She also takes pride in how the Band is showcasing Singapore to the world through music.
"We give other countries a huge impression of Singapore, especially those that have little military ties with us."
"Through music, we are able to bond and relay our country's military professionalism."
Spreading the right notes
Beyond being masters in their trades, these military musicians have a passion for inspiring the next generation.
Double bassist ME1 Sanche Jagatheesan used to be a person who only cared about doing his own part. Being in the SAF Band gave him a sense of discipline and responsibility, and with that, a joy in guiding others.
"Whenever I feel something is wrong during practice sessions, I'll ask the other members what's wrong and help them through a particular section."
While the 27-year-old admitted that he is no expert across all the instruments, he is still able to guide others in basic performance skills like rhythm, getting the notes right and learning how to play with other people.
This passion eventually led ME1 Jagatheesan to take up a performance instructor role within the SAF Band Training Wing, where he now guides younger musicians to ensure that they are ready to perform.
Apart from teaching and sharing about his performances and military tattoo experiences, he constantly encourages feedback among the musicians so that they can learn from one another.
"Giving constructive feedback is important, because learning how to critique others will give you a different perspective about music. You can use this knowledge to become a better musician yourself too."
"How many bands can march, play, do displays and even go overseas to perform? That's what we are, the premier band of Singapore."
Drumming up a storm
For ME2 Hazizi Jaafar, building a drumming culture among youths is his focus.
The 29-year-old drummer voluntarily conducts an annual drumming workshop for secondary school, polytechnic and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts students. Lessons are free and during those three hours, students are taught the basics of drumming and the importance of knowing the right fundamentals.
He came up with this initiative after returning from an international drumming conference in 2016.
"We were discussing how we could sustain the interest of young drummers and get quality drummers to join us," said ME2 Hazizi, who has close friendships with many of the international drumming community because of the SAF Band's overseas performances.
"I want to prep them at a young age and hopefully, they will maintain their interest and know that there's an option to audition for the SAF Band."
Within the SAF Band, the accomplished percussionist finds satisfaction in keeping young musicians interested in drumming together.
"It's nice when I can get a group of 12 NSFs to come together and develop teamwork and camaraderie through drumming. In 2013, I started a drumline and till today, the group still keeps in contact!"
A great honour
Ask about his most memorable moment in his 10 years serving in the Band and ME2 Hazizi does not mention his appearances in several international magazines. Instead, it was accompanying the funeral procession for Singapore's first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Looking back on the most solemn event he had ever done, he recalled being awake for almost 24 hours as the Band could only rehearse after midnight.
"It poured just before the funeral started and my drum, which was wrapped in black cloth, was soaked. It was really heavy to carry, but it was all worth it," said ME2 Hazizi.
"It was my honour."
"Lots of people are amazed at how a young country like us can have a military band of high quality. Our music and show is a good rojak (hotchpotch) of different elements."
Words like "powerful and fresh", "stylish and cool" were used to describe the SAF Central Band's performance as they captivated the Japanese audience with their rousing tunes and smooth moves.
Held from 21 to 23 Nov 2018 at the Nippon Budokan, the 54th JSDF Marching Festival aimed to reinforce friendships and defence relations among participating countries.
Besides the SAF Central Band and the Japanese military bands, the US Army Japan Marching Band, the US' III Marine Expeditionary Force Band and the French Navy Band also took part in the musical showcase. The SAF Band last performed at this festival in 2010.
Colonel Higuchi Takahiro, Commander and Conductor of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force Central Band, was very impressed by the Band's routine.
"They are a young band, but their performance is very good. They've improved a lot since their performance eight years ago. I'm looking forward to seeing them grow even more."
To bring out Singapore's multicultural society, 28-year-old clarinet player ME1 Vincent Tan designed a seven-song mash-up featuring Chinese, Malay and Indian folk tunes, two Singapore national songs and two Japanese songs — Nada Sou Sou and Guren no Yumiya (Crimson Bow and Arrow), the theme song from popular Japanese anime Attack on Titan.
His efforts were well received. Sergeant Cary Eaves, a French horn player from the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band, commented that his favourite part of the SAF Central Band's performance was how they seamlessly incorporated Guren no Yumiya into the musical flow.
"(The SAF Central Band) chose music that was relevant to Japan and their performance quality was of the highest."
For the Band, every overseas stint is an opportunity to bring a slice of Singapore to the world, build relationships and showcase the SAF's capabilities. They have performed across the globe from Australia to China, Malaysia, Scotland, Switzerland and the US.
During a concert in Khabarovsk, Russia in 2016, their performance of popular local folk song, Oy, to ne vecher (The Cossack's Parable) was so moving that the Russian crowd joined in.
Calling it a huge moment, Senior Band Major ME3 Abdul Razak Mohammed Noor, 56, said: "The Band showed what we are made of through the precision of our drills and how we deliver our performance."
Reaching out to the masses
Besides performing overseas, the SAF Band engages local audiences through five free public concerts that are held throughout the year.
These include two "Chamber Repertory" recitals in January and August, two "In Harmony" concerts in May and September and a Bandstand concert in October. The latter is held at the Botanic Gardens while the rest are performed at the Esplanade Concert Hall and Recital Studio.
The Band also conducts an annual year-end concert for SAF personnel and their families.
"It's outreach to connect to people who don't always watch concerts. At the same time, they get to know more about the Band and the SAF," explained ME6 Philip Tng, Senior Director of Music, SAF Band.
Other events that the Band regularly performs at include NDPs, SAF graduation parades and the welcoming of foreign dignitaries at the Istana.
"When the Band is invited and we put up a performance of high quality, they know that the organisation is a force to be reckoned with."
Sound of the SAF
As the musical ambassador of the SAF, the Band plays a crucial role in the nation's defence.
These military musicians are the first to appear and the last to leave at every SAF parade. And in every parade, they end the marching on a double beat — a rhythm that all SAF sergeant majors recognise as a signal for the procession to stop.
Without that, the ceremony cannot continue. This is the heartbeat of the SAF.
Did you know?
• Made up of various units, the SAF Band comprises the SAF Band Headquarters, SAF Band Training Wing and three operational bands — the SAF Central Band, SAF Ceremonial Band A and SAF Ceremonial Band B.
• Mace displays are primarily used during parades as signals to guide the Band on when to stop, march or turn. Sometimes, drum majors add mace twirls and throws to enhance the performance.
• Drum majors from the Singapore Police Force Band have also attended the SAF Drum Major Course in recent years.
• SAF Drum Majors have been the primary instructors for the Ministry of Education's Drum Major NCO Camp (a camp for secondary school drum majors) for the past 44 years.