CCA Previews ’21: Chinese Orchestra

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By Damien Low (21S06A), Chairperson and Justinian Guan (21S03F), Vice-Chairperson

Even if you’ve never watched a Chinese Orchestra performance, you probably think you know what a Chinese Orchestra sounds like. At the very mention of the word, distressing Chinese New Year memories of cacophonous flutes, strings, and cymbals invading seemingly every supermarket in Singapore start to flood your mind and you begin to cower in fear involuntarily… That’s what a Chinese Orchestra is, right?

Well, no, actually. The discordant stereotype of Chinese Orchestras (and we admit it is discordant) belies the beauty of a well-practiced and motivated orchestra, with its unique timbres, fascinating rhythms, and sensuous melodies. But at RJCO, such a euphonious orchestra—a family of many, many wonderful musicians exploring a hugely varied repertoire—is exactly what you get.

A 2019 RJCO performance.

Interested? Let’s find out more.

So, what exactly is a Chinese Orchestra? Simply put, what we have at CO (like in all other COs) is an ensemble of five sections: Huqin (bowed strings), Tanbo (plucked strings), Chuiguan (winds), Daji (percussion), and Cellobass (speaks for itself). Each section, of course, has its particular beauties—put them all together and you get a mesmerising interplay of timbres that is at times unexpected, but always piquant, always satisfying.

Batch of 2020 performing at National Day 2019 celebrations.

As an orchestra, we perform regularly at school events—Chinese New Year, of course, but also National Day and Open House. Here, the diversity of the orchestra’s repertoire is made clear: far from playing only Chinese orchestral classics or the greatest hits of Chinese New Year, the orchestra makes a point of playing pop music and other relatable songs too, like Camilla Cabello’s “Havana” and Kit Chan’s “Home”.

Outside of school, the orchestra has also performed at venues like the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre and the SCO Concert Hall—and it’s at performances like these where the gold of the orchestral experience resides: in the quiet thrum of a pipa, with the fervent expectancy of a packed audience; or in the catharsis of a full-orchestra climax, ending in the applause that is to every orchestra member’s delight.

RJCO performing with the Raffles Institution Chinese Orchestra (RICO) at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre, 2019.

Concerts like these are generally biennial, and, in between them, the orchestra prepares for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Showcase, at which the orchestra has, with its hard work, achieved Distinction regularly in past years. (In 2021, we’ll be going for SYF again—you could be part of this too!)

The road to prepare for performances like these can be rocky: every one of us needs to spend time practicing and making sure they are familiar with their parts. Still, this journey is made always more manageable and enjoyable by our wonderful instructors—who tirelessly work to make sure section standards are kept high—and our iconic conductor, Mr Yang Ji Wei. For he is nothing short of iconic: with his trademark jokes (please come to our combined sessions for examples), rhythm formulae (1-and­-2­-and—count your semiquavers!), and, above all, an unmistakable passion that makes him a friend and mentor to everyone in the orchestra.

2020 RJCO Interaction (CCA Orientation for incoming Y5 RP students). (photo taken pre-COVID)

What makes RJCO more than an orchestra but rather like a real family is what happens behind the scenes—behind all the performances and practices. It’s things like our weekly batch dinners where, during less socially distanced times at least, the whole orchestra gathers at the Junction 8 rooftop to eat with each other and, more importantly, to talk to one another. It’s things like our birthday tradition where each member is given a cake, a soft toy, and a card filled to the brim with notes from the whole orchestra. It’s things like our annual March chalet, where the whole orchestra sleeps over and enjoys activities like Fright Night and BBQ (because who doesn’t love BBQ?).

Dinner with Mr Yang after CCA combined practice. (photo taken pre-COVID)
Fright Night at the annual CCA chalet. (photo taken pre-COVID)

At the heart of all these activities is a culture of care for one another, an understanding that we’re all there for one another. As cliché as the phrase sounds, the orchestra is a family, and family sticks together. What this boils down to is a sense that everyone—regardless of where they come from, what they play, and who they are—is welcome because we’re all tied together by music and by shared experiences. This ineffable feeling of warmth is what makes all the time spent with each other (not studying) worthwhile in the end.

What family looks like. (photo taken pre-COVID)

With that said, in the RJCO family, each member is part of an unbreakable web held together by threads of comfort and care, working together with our one-of-a-kind instructors and conductor to make one-of-a-kind music. Here, all of us are the music makers—as the poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy put it—and the dreamers of dreams; the movers and shakers of the world forever.

If all that sounds appealing to you—incomparable experiences on stage; instructors and a conductor who become none other than friends; that warmth, comfort, and care; moving and shaking the world—then why not join RJCO? Our CCA sessions are on Monday from 5.30pm to 8.15pm (sectionals) and Tuesday from 5.30pm to 7.30pm (combined) RJCO is open to all, even if you’ve never touched an instrument before. Come join us, the adventure of a lifetime awaits.

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