Patently, A Latent Talent

Happy New Year! We have finally seen the end of 2020 – for most, it was their worst year ever. The first day of a new year brings renewed hope of better things to come. Surely, it cannot get any worse! It feels like a new dawn after the wild crazed scenes from the night before. The gully winds we get here are unpredictable – they can be gentle like leaf blower vacs annoyingly blowing leaves and dirt everywhere and anywhere but on certain nights under a gibbous moon, they can transform into mad and ferocious monsters that make the gumtrees weep and shake violently and uncontrollably. The madness during the night has long gone by the time the sun breaks through from the other side of the sky. The tell-tale signs we were visited by mad and ferocious monsters during the dark hours are usually the same. Any semblance of a well-cared-for garden is erased; the quaint yard’s zen-balance is disturbed by ad hoc garden displays of broken tree branches and bare rose bushes with just a sprinkling of stubborn petals that cling onto them. The indoor folding clothesline that has become a fixture under our pergola is a regular casualty too on nights such as these. It still escapes The Mrs’ attention that indoor stands are not designed for outdoor use. By the time she wakes up, all her garments that were viciously flung to the ground have been meticulously shaken clean of any dust and dirt and hung back on the clothesline. The most annoying items for me to retrieve are the polystyrene foam boxes that The Mrs uses to cart home discarded veggies from the local grocer. Her chooks may love the veggies but those white boxes are so light they become playthings for the strong gully winds to blow about all night.

In a few more days, Baby Son will be performing a concerto, live on the internet. The Mrs and I have been to quite a few of his concerts but this will be the first live concert online for us and more importantly, for him too. I suppose it will be no different than watching a live concert on TV. But, for him, it will be quite a new (and odd) experience to perform on stage to an empty hall dressed in a tuxedo with a mask to cover his face. Will he feel like the phantom of the opera? I have decided I should refrain from calling him Baby Son. He hasn’t been a baby for a long time. From now on, he will be known in my stories as Little Son. Little Son’s concerts are often sell-outs. A sell-out concert is, of course, a concert promoter’s dream. A parent’s dream too, for his son. The pandemic has wrecked the livelihoods of many – musicians have not been spared. It is therefore wonderful to see bands and orchestras adapt and experiment with not only new art but to also find a new avenue for their art. I hope the audience will tune in online and turn up to support their orchestra and musicians. Rather than sitting here quietly and hoping, I decided to help promote Little Son’s concert. If I could help sell just one extra ticket, why not? So, I shared the concert’s link with friends and family. I am fully aware of the fine line between sharing good news and bragging about good news. To help his concert sell tickets is, of course, my intention. In these bleak times, a well-attended concert could mean an orchestra extending its survival for a bit longer or the musician proving to the artistic director his popularity is good enough to earn him another concert gig. If tickets do not sell, then either scenario becomes less tenable. But, will these friends of mine think I am bragging instead? The obvious retort is of course, there is nothing to brag about. We are talking about an existential threat to the survival of many orchestras and bands. There is nothing to brag about. Before the pandemic struck and changed the world, people used to come forward during concert intervals or during after-concert signings and ask me if I was the concert artists’ father. “Oh, you must be so proud!” was a common remark as they grabbed my hand and shook politely. “So Proud?” I would feign ignorance. “No, that’s my middle name!” But, in truth, there is nothing for me to be proud of. Happy, yes but proud? It wasn’t my performance, I wasn’t on stage. I played no part on the night except to join in the raucous and prolonged applause that demanded their many reappearances on stage to accept the adoration of the audience. Sure, I was most happy for my sons as they soak in the love and appreciation of the zeitgeist. The wolf whistles, thunderous clapping, ecstatic screaming and the standing ovations are visible and audible measures of success in a concert hall. They took centre stage and made it their home. They made it look easy, to feel right at home under the spotlight. They were able to move some in the audience to tears. They made some so starstruck that people stayed back to join long queues for their autographs. Sometimes, people missed the second half of concerts just to mingle with them or take selfies with them.

Queue for an autograph

Wilson, my good friend who runs a printing business, insists that I write a story about Little Son’s concert. He threatens to withdraw his support to print my second book if I refuse. I don’t know if he is serious. But, I will tell him I can’t. They may be my sons, but they are their own identities with their own stories. I may be their father but it does not give me carte blanche to tell their stories. So, this is the compromise. Maybe, their story started 50 years ago. In 1970, in Penang. I was 12 years old when I won a State Award. It was without any fanfare at home – no praises from my parents, none from my siblings. No special treats, not even a slice of vanilla ice-cream sandwiched between two wafer biscuits from Cold Storage. No pat on the back, no pep talk from Pa. It was a non-event, even though my win was proclaimed as ‘Excellent’ in the Straits Times. It earned a little square box in the English-medium newspaper – what I won was the Trinity College of Music’s Bronze Medal for sight-reading. In music, sight-reading is the reading and performing of a piece of music that a musician has not seen or learned before. If you’re really good at it, the music in the score comes out alive, faultlessly as the composer intended. My teacher did not prepare me for it. There is nothing to prepare. You do not get a chance to practise for it; there is no second try if you stuff it up. This ability to play it well at first go, you either have it or you don’t. I did not know I had that ability. It was there all along, but it lay dormant, invisible and therefore unknown. I must have had great eyesight. You do need to read fast, and be able to read ahead of what your hands are doing. Your mind is a few bars in front whilst your heart is expressing the music a few beats behind. That’s talent, raw and innate. But, winning the award meant nothing to me. It did not feel like an achievement, it was no big deal. Yet, Big Sis suddenly brought this up last night – she remembered me winning this medal. “I should find it for you, it is somewhere in the house.” she said decisively. She seldom fails to find our old mementos. There have been a few awkward moments such as those when she openly hands out old photos of my old flames (in front of The Mrs!). But, this morning, she texted me to tell me she could not find it. Only then did I recall that Ma had found it and given it to me a few years ago. So, in the last 50 years, I had forgotten twice that I had the medal with me. Maybe my parents never dreamt I could be a musician. Maybe they did not want me to be one. Maybe they were of the opinion that there is no money in music. For a typical Asian family, the safe bets for your child to have an assured comfortable life would be to enrol them in medicine, dentistry, law or accounting. Yet, kudos to my parents, they had a discussion with me about furthering my violin lessons in Vienna. For a brief few weeks, there was serious consideration that I should learn German in preparation for a student life in Vienna. It did not eventuate – I think everyone knew I did not have that latent talent to be a good violinist. But, I won the medal, maybe the latency was buried too deep? I think the fact that my parents could entertain the idea of me enrolling in a music degree despite their misconception that musicians were poorly paid laid the groundwork for the next generation that they can be whatever they choose to be. Our career path should be determined by our passion, not by the promise of money.

The bronze medal with my name inscribed on the back of it.

My sons have taken me along with them in their journey in the music world. I have to say theirs is a very different world. It does not get mundane for them, nor do the zillions of hours spent on getting the scales right and bowing techniques immaculate faze them or bore them. Different instruments and different bows produce different sounds, different textures and different colours, and these in turn reveal a different world of possibilities to them. They have been fortunate too, to grow up in Adelaide. The local conservatoire here, The Con as it is affectionately called, was the fertile environment to nurture their talent. Mrs Yelland, their first teacher, gave them everything they needed as young students in a hurry to get onto the national stage. Passion cannot be taught, it is innate too. But if passion could be acquired, then Mrs Yelland had certainly passed it on to them. It is that urge, that hunger to discover, that never-ending quest to learn more and more, to accumulate knowledge and skills, to keep improving, to never stop. That is passion, and it is passion that is behind every successful person. I remember the stale fug of Bishop Hall where they gave their early recitals. There is one evening that still resides fresh in my mind. After the successful recital, Mr Laurs, with that twinkle in his bright round eyes, beamed a smile that complemented his friendly podgy face. He hugged them proudly to let the room know that they were his students. Bishop Hall was named after John Bishop, the father of David Bishop who taught Mr Laurs at The Con. Later that evening, I got lost along the dark and dank corridors of the conservatorium which tunnel their way up to the main stage. There was a spine-tingling moment on one dark and dusty section which never saw any light of day. I felt a sudden icy-cold gust of air brush my face as the name James Whitehead echoed softly along the corridor. James Whitehead was also a great teacher who taught Mr Laurs at The Con. Now as I look back, it would not surprise me if it had been the latent power of the spirits of these great pedagogues that guided the young talented musicians to realise their potential.

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