Riding the Waves: Nami by Guitar Ensemble

By Valerie Tan (20A01E)
Photos courtesy of Geng Heqin (20S06S) from Raffles Photographic Society

6:25PM, 23rd May 2019.

For an LT that hardly ever sees students enter its aisles for lectures, LT2 is remarkably alive tonight. Students and parents alike fill its seats, and an unceasing wave of chatter and conversation washes through the entire space, accompanying the almost indiscernible music playing in the background. At the edge of the stage sit cardboard waves, painted deep sea blue and lined with tinsel, while four gold foil balloons spell out NAMI at its bottom.

Nami, or Japanese for “wave”, is the theme of Guitar Ensemble’s showcase this year, representing the journey of ups and downs the ensemble has had thus far. This is the first year the ensemble has both participated in SYF and held a concert, making the showcase even more demanding for them. Emily Ho (19S03I), the outgoing chairperson, comments afterwards that the greatest challenge the ensemble faced while preparing for the showcase was the time constraints, as they only had about one and a half months to prepare and perfect other pieces after SYF. Furthermore, most of the members start off with little to no guitar experience, compounding the challenge of playing some of the more complex pieces.

Nevertheless, the guitarists have kept their head above water: after braving through the tough times together, they are now ready to present the fruits of their efforts in this showcase. Pieces with varying moods and character have been selected to evoke different emotions and parallel the tides of waves, says Emily, and the showcase promises to bring the audience on a ride of stormy seas and calming waters.

6:30PM, 23rd May 2019.

The lights dim, and the journey begins.

The ensemble starts off the concert with  “Allegro” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in A Minor”. From the very beginning, it is clear that dynamics are a key feature of this piece—the ensemble alternates between crescendos and decrescendos, creating a rolling effect that mimics the waves of the ocean. The bassline serves as a rich countermelody to the rest of the ensemble, while repeated phrases keep the audience in suspense and on the edge of our seats. Overall, the ensemble’s dextrous finger work and synchronisation does not fail to mesmerise the audience, opening the showcase gracefully. Behind this lay months and months of repetitive practice, the emcees go on to elaborate afterwards, especially as this piece was performed for their SYF that same year—it was more vital than ever to perfect it.

01 syf ensemble
The SYF ensemble performing the first piece in deep concentration.

Next comes “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart, meaning “a little serenade” in German, which is performed by seven seniors and juniors. Despite the unfamiliar title of the song, the audience soon perks up with surprise as a familiar tune unfolds. As it turns out, this is believed to be Mozart’s most popular work: given that it is recorded and performed everywhere, it is no surprise that the audience recognises it. Liu Enqi (19A01C) explains in a later interview that the song had many ornaments such as slurs and trills, and there was great pressure on the only two melody players.  Nevertheless, the ensemble manages to do full justice to this classic. Vivacious, spirited and enchanting all at once, it is received with much applause from the audience.

02 mini ensemble
The mini ensemble takes a bow after their performance.

The showcase now takes a turn towards the contemporary, with the classical music giving way to a rendition of “Shallow” by Emily and Sarah Wong (19A01C), complete with singing. This song was originally performed by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and is known for being vocally challenging—it demands that the singer belts at full volume, raw and powerful and loaded with emotion. And yet, the duo manages to pull it off. Though they are visibly nervous, they captivate the audience with their passionate voices, and deliver a spectacular performance.

03 emily and sarah
Emily and Sarah serenading the audience with their lovely voices.

When the curtains next open, Enqi sits on stage alone, guitar at the ready, and begins to deliver a pop medley consisting of three songs: “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic, “Strawberries and Cigarettes” by Troye Sivan, and “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran. The song rhythms have been adapted slightly for a refreshing touch, and smooth transitions blend the songs together: it is clear that Enqi is a skilful performer. Indeed, her mellifluous voice and lovely playing completely enchant the audience, who sing and clap along enthusiastically. Some even wave their phone flashlights to the music, lighting up the entire LT.

Behind this quality performance, however, is something that the audience may not have expected: instead of having finished preparations early, Enqi faced the challenge of not knowing anything until the last minute. “After fitting in Counting Stars and Photograph, I considered and discarded many songs while looking around for the third song,” she explains. “I only decided to add Strawberries and Cigarettes to the medley maybe a week and a half before.” When asked about her choice of the songs, Enqi says that she was inspired by the Ed Sheeran concert she attended, and also decided to sing Strawberries and Cigarettes after listening to it again after a long while, falling back in love with it.

04 enqi
Enqi playing and singing along to her favourite pop songs.

Following this is “Start”, an upbeat and energetic number performed by Koh Qin Ruo (19S05A) and Andrew Teoh (19S03G). Despite having only two guitars carry the piece, it is still noticeably rich in sound, with a compelling melody that skillfully had tempo rubato employed to add interest to the otherwise fast-paced piece. The two performers display great synergy on stage, exchanging nods and eye contact multiple times; passion is written all over their faces. Andrew even grooves to the song himself by tapping his feet. Nur Syazayuni Bte Saleh (20S06H), one of the junior ensemble members, later cites this as her favourite performance after her own batch piece, referring to the duo as being “cool”.

05 qinruo and andrew
Qinruo and Andrew’s closeness is evident from their great synergy during their performance.

And speaking of the batch piece—here it is! The Year 5s finally make their debut on stage as a batch with a Studio Ghibli medley. Featuring tracks such as “Town with an Ocean View” (from Kiki’s Delivery Service), “Merry-Go-Round of Life” (from Howl’s Moving Castle) and “Carrying You” (from Castle in the Sky), their performance brings back fond childhood memories and evokes a sense of nostalgia. Of the 17 members of the batch, two who had no knowledge of the guitar and had to learn it from scratch are Syazayuni and Tammie Tang (20A01E). “My greatest challenge was learning the songs because I’m a beginner, and having to suddenly play things like Studio Ghibli was tough,” Syazayuni shares. Tammie echoes these sentiments: “I had no guitar experience, so the more advanced parts like fast notes were hard to get right,” she reflects. “But that meant it was more fun, and learning it together with my batchmates was a journey that I liked and appreciated very much.” Thankfully, their hard work pays off, and the batch puts up a stunning show for the audience.

06 year fives
The Year 5s of Guitar Ensemble 2019 taking a bow after their first performance as a batch.

Before the last piece, the emcees return to thank the captains who have steered their ship thus far. Their teachers-in-charge Mdm Shalliet Ng and Mr Winston Cheong, as well as their conductor Mr Eugene Lee, are each presented with a bouquet of flowers, and they return the sentiment with warm hugs and handshakes. And then the last piece makes its appearance: “Variations on the Theme ‘Shabondama’”, composed by Keigo Fujii and performed by the ensemble for their SYF earlier this year. Emily declares this to be her favourite piece of the evening, and it’s not difficult to see why—it truly embodies the theme of “Nami” with five different sections and varying moods, as well as gradual changes in dynamics, bringing the audience through high and low tides gracefully. The piece closes with a decrescendo, concluding the showcase beautifully…

“Encore! Encore!”

…or maybe not.

The CCA returns together with an ensemble rendition of “How Far I’ll Go”, the iconic song from Disney’s Moana, deliberately chosen to match the theme. It features a lovely build-up and pause in the bridge segment, adding flavour to the already-stunning original, and serves as a perfect closure—a real one—to the showcase. Now the lights come on and the audience floods out, waiting outside to take pictures with their friends at the thoughtfully-set up photobooth. After the past hour of magical music, walking out into the school to an almost-dark sky feels like a dream.

07 moana; ensemble rises
The ensemble rises, and the showcase is over.

7:30PM, 23rd May 2019.

The showcase has come to an end, and so has the Year 6s’ journey in Guitar Ensemble. When two of them are asked about how they feel, they respond with a common word in mind: fulfilled. “It feels kind of surreal that it’s the end of the chapter of something you have been so invested in,” Emily confesses, “but I’m glad we ended the journey on a good note!” Similarly, Enqi feels both sad and grateful at the same time: “I’ve always wanted to be a performer, not just a guitarist, and I’m really thankful to the showcase and RJGE for giving me that opportunity… I know this won’t be the last time I play a guitar, or even perform, but I’ll miss the comfortable and conducive environment, and working towards a common goal.”

What about the Year 5s who have just had their first showcase, and are about to step up? Syazayuni admits that she feels a bit empty, because all the hard work and preparation put into the showcase has passed so quickly. “But I’m glad that was my first performance with Guitar!” she clarifies quickly. Tammie adds to this, saying that she’s “very happy and excited for next year’s concert.” Indeed, the CCA seems to be in good hands, and will definitely live up to the outgoing chairperson’s beliefs: that the batch, being as bonded as they are, will take over with passion and produce a good concert next year.

As the last hint of a sunset fades from the sky, the audience begins to make their way home, only now rising from the entrancing, dreamy waters of song. Guitar Ensemble has truly taken us on an incredible journey, allowing us to ride the waves of life with their music, and our foray into their small part of the universe has been nothing short of memorable.

00_08 guitar ensemble 2019
Guitar Ensemble 2019, basking in the afterglow of their successful showcase.

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