By Caleb Leow (18A01A), Vice-Chairperson
Photographs by Raffles Photographic Society
Everything about school-based string ensembles screams pretentiousness: from the French “ensemble” (meaning “together”) with its nasal “en” and muffled final syllable, to the glossy Western suits which hang baggily over the young performers, to the smug way a self-proclaimed student musician tells you the difference between a violin and a viola. Replace the word “String” with “Chamber” – which is by definition a small group of musicians – and the ensemble sounds an octave higher in its exclusiveness.
Yet in Raffles Chamber Ensemble, one finds none of this snobbery.
Granted, it is much smaller in size with only slightly more than ten members coming in every year. But if there is any reason why the yearly intake of Chamber is smaller than that of secondary school string ensembles despite a significantly larger school population, it is because many students who may have previously only joined a strings CCA out of parental coercion leave, and those who select Chamber mostly do so out of their own volition and interest. That is not to say that members of the Chamber Ensemble are extremely proficient string maniacs who spend fifty hours a day practicing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto and whatnot. Rather, those who remain are simply students who have a genuine passion for classical music, regardless of their level of playing.
CCA sessions are far from gruelling, with only one session of practice per week on Wednesdays from 2:30-6:30pm, although extra practice sessions will be arranged nearing our annual concert sometime in May, or if we have any other CCA VIA activities. The atmosphere during CCA sessions is generally quite fun and relaxed, even if you are the occasional victim of a snarky remark passed by our conductor Ms Marietta Ku. After sessions, we usually go for dinner where we sit in a circle, eat, and stare at each other’s deadpan faces (because it’s JC, you know).
Students are also accorded a fair bit of choice when it comes to selecting pieces, especially within one’s own “Chamber group”, which ranges from a piano trio to a string quartet to a piano quintet. Even for combined ensemble pieces, there is a democratic Google Form where you can input your suggestions (VIAs are the exception here. For such events, we never fail to whip out our collection of easy-to-play Chinese song transcriptions like 月亮代表我的心 [yue liang dai biao wo de xin].)
I concede that there is something seemingly pretentious about listening to and trying to promote the same canon of compositions by dead White men: but it is not the pompous name of classical music nor the cultural capital attached to it that motivates students to join Chamber; rather, it is the comforting belief that there can be a kind of timeless and universal beauty in certain works of Art or Music. More often than not, the constraints of being in the context of a school and our own playing standards limit our ability to do justice to this beauty in a make-it-or-break-it concert that only happens once a year. Off-stage perhaps, our classmates butcher the pronunciation of some obscure Russian composer; while on-stage we with trembling fingers butcher his music. It may seem farcical and disappointing, but so what? Even if the word “ensemble” has been milked to death for its connotations of camaraderie, it is certainly true that even if we cannot keep together when we are playing, we still are together in the mistakes that are made, together when we sit at J8 and stare at each other’s’ tired 8pm faces, and most of all, together in the rare moments when we play well enough to earn a half-smile from our conductor.
We hope to see you at our auditions.