I Remember

3 07 2009

The other week I asked one of my students (Kyu-Yeon, henceforth to be known as The Q – that’s awsomeness right there) to track down an old (5+ years) KPOP tune for me. The tune was Lee Soo Young’s LaLaLa.

Well, The Q and her sidekick Minji (or is it the other way around?) are quite efficient when it comes to anything Korean (duh!), and so she found me a link, I loaded it up into my mp3 player, and had a listen to a song I havn’t heard in a looong time – right in the college library (I’m a student again, remember?).

And I remembered Nari, singing it in her pale yellow top and white skirt. I also remember the time she came to my classroom fighting back tears: she had accidentaly (who would do such a thing on purpose?) bashed her head on a fire extinguisher outside and was rather stunned by the sudden rush of pain usually associated with bashing one’s head on blunt, immovable objects with great force (and vice versa).

It was only my second year of teaching, and well, since I don’t get high school students with blunt force trauma in my class everyday, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. Rather innocently, I held-up two fingers and asked her to count them. She laughed (as best as one can when one’s head is ringing like a church bell).

As one memory leads to another, I then remembered Yoojin – one of the gentlest souls to ever grace my classroom. I think whoever composed her writeup in their batch yearbook was onto something when she called her a “Choi-doll” – she was always very soft-spoken and self-effacing, gently bopping her head when she found herself slow on the uptake. She helped me start The Orchestra, along with Abbie and Kristine and Yona and Yookyung – she was our first concertmaster.

She gave me kimchi – a whole bucketload of it (my attempts to store it on campus made me an instant celebrity). She called her violin kking-kkang because of the sound she made on it.

I remember Abbie, who is in Japan now. She had just about given-up on playing the violin, since she had been through a string of sub-par teachers (excellent players, but really bad teachers) before me. She was one of my tallest students, around 5’5″ or 5’6″, with nicely-tanned skin (a color we call moreno/morena) and wise-looking eyes.

During The Orchestra’s very first concert, she came onstage for her solo part in this gold and scarlet gown, all prettied-up (there goes good grammar) and beautiful, and I still remember the collective gasp from the audience.

I could actually go on and on with this, but I’m long on memories and short on time. All I want to say is that if your name is on this list, then know that today, I speak it in rememberance. If not, its probably because either you were never a student of mine to begin with, or you still are 😉

  • Nari Yim
  • Tanya Aritao
  • Kristine Borja
  • Seoyun Park
  • Taerang Park
  • Yookyung Lee
  • Yoojin Choi
  • Eric Wong
  • Benjamin Tolentino
  • Eunice Oquialda
  • Fahad Al-Khaldi
  • Kenzo Teves
  • She Ha Nul Hong
  • Monserrat Gonzales
  • Katrina Gonzales
  • Jonty Domingo
  • Katlyn de Mesa
  • Abiel Balon
  • Abigail Balon
  • Jen Miguel
  • Anna Calcetas
  • Charisse Cruz
  • Kathleen Hyun Kwak
  • James Oquialda
  • David Vidad
  • Juwon Park

I have this hankering feeling I’ve forgotten a few people, as is wont when it comes to this sort of thing. I apologize – frankly, I’m amazed I remember this many.

Wherever you are, whatever you might be doing, whatever you might have become, I remember, and thank God for you.


In recent events…

27 06 2009

Yesterday, our Educ110 class met for the first time. Entitled The Teaching Profession, the teacher had us watch a teacher movie – Freedom Writers featuring a shockingly-thin Hillary Swank and, if I’m not mistaken, a pre-Gray’s Anatomy Patrick Dempsey (who I better remember from the late-90’s film With Honors) – but not before making us give answers to a few questions:

  1. Why do you want to be a teacher?
  2. What do you think the average citizen thinks of our school today?
  3. How important do you believe teachers are to our society? Why?
  4. What are the characteristics of the best teachers you’ve ever had?
  5. How would you rate Filipino secondary teachers as a group?

The first question is asked endlessly in the College of Education, regardless of the subject. It’s cliché, I admit, and the answer is often cliché-er (“it’s a noble profession”, “to help the country”, blah-blah-blah”), unfortunately. Not wishing to become a statistical cliché myself, yet wanting to be honest, I opted for this answer: “I derive a great deal of personal pleasure and professional satisfaction from teaching – I cannot, for the life of me, imagine myself doing anything else.”

And I mean that, in case any of you are wondering.

After the movie, she gave us another set of questions to answer:

  1. Do you still want to be a teacher?
  2. Do you think you have the talent necessary to become a good teacher?
  3. Are you willing to learn the necessary skills required of a good teacher?

In a fit of what some people here might call “suffocating hubris”  (I prefer to call it “overwhelming passion”), I just wrote down “yes” to every question (my handwriting got bigger with every “yes”), turned in my paper, and went home.

Teaching: it’s what I do.


I auditioned for the university band this morning – the bulk of their ranks were graduating, so they needed “fresh meat”. I was probably past my expiration date, since I was the only fellow who showed up who was…well…old (I graduated from college five years ago. All the other auditionees were still within their first three years of college.)

I’ve done quite a bit of reading about auditions, since the orchestral life (in the States, at least) is rife with them, and they are taken very, very seriously (if you fail to win one, at some point, you will likely have to trade in your instrument – which you’ve been studying for more than a decade – for something else…like an office cubicle).

Well, there I was, surrounded by (for lack of a better term) kids who, if they were not showing-off to one another how well they could cop the latest tune from Paramore (AAUUGGHHH! EMO!!! RUN!!!), were busy worrying about how the next arrival would ruin their chances of winning a slot. Funny – I was in the exact same position some six years ago when I auditioned for conservatory.

The outgoing members of the band lined the well-equipped room and watched as their “leader” made me play the violin, then the bongos and the congas, then the bass guitar.

At this point, kindly postpone judgement and just let me be honest instead of PC: while the guy plays a mean guitar, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was a college washout. I can’t explain it, but it was just there. Like ROTC officer-alumni who show-up on training days because that’s the only place where they could get a modicum of respect, this guy seemed to be there because…well…it was the only place where he could get a modicum of respect.

I could be wrong about the fellow, but that’s how it felt at the time. If I’m wrong, I would like to apologize in advance. If I’m right, well…it doesn’t matter anyway.

I bring this up because (and my students can attest to this) while I love music, and making music, and teaching music, I can’t see sacrificing one’s future for the apparent glamor of the stage (which is never as glamorous as MTV would like you to believe) as a profitable exchange. Get that college degree, make sure you’re qualified to take on a job that provides a steady, albeit modest, income, and then go, be a rockstar…if you can. Beware: few people make it…and most of them fizzle out after their first album.

I say this having witnessed numerous examples of skilled musicians who have grown old in “the business”, yet lead lives that border on pathetic. I just don’t believe music was meant for that.

But anyway. That’s my rant. Before I find myself eating my own words, I shall find something more productive to do.

Day 3

24 06 2009

I am now into my third day of classes. For those of you who don’t know yet, I’ve decided to take-up the 34 units of Education classes required by the government before I can take the Licensure Exam for Teachers (henceforth to be known as the LET).

Having already graduated college, I am now classified as an SS (Special Student – which brings all sorts of weirdness to mind), and have been herded into a class where we are all a bunch of SS’s (that’s weirdness right there for you). As such, we have classes from Monday to Friday, but always from 4:30PM until 7:30PM. It makes for some very strange sleeping habits on my part.

So far, I’ve had, ahem: Guidance and Counseling, Growth and Develepment of the Individual (the context, of course, being education), and The Sociological Foundations of Education. Today, I will be attending Student Assessment and The Teaching Profession.

The teachers are okay, although one or two stand out from among the rest (I have four, so that might not really be saying anything significant). My classmates, being older, will talk…but I must confess that few really seem to want to be in school.

Fortunately, I’ve been reunited with my old friend Jerms from high school, and he’s one of the sharp ones, so we keep each other sane when classmates don’t seem to get what we’re saying (For example: the teacher asked, “Can anyone give an example of a Static Force in Society?”. I answered, “Laws.” and a classmate of mine disagreed, saying that laws change from place to place, society to society. I countered by saying that while the content of the law changes, the fact remains that any functional society must have laws. She didn’t get it, and so the exchange started to become heated until I realized I probably should just shut up.)

Impressions? Well, despite the late hours, I find I like going to class. The concepts (so far) are easy enough to understand. I don’t find them terribly interesting at the moment, but its still too-early to tell for certain. We shall see.

I’m aiming for 1.0’s, which is the highest grade a student can get. I’ve never aimed so high before. I wonder what happens when I do…

Version 2.0

21 06 2009

*Looks around* I wonder if I have any readers left…

Well, regardless…

I have just (not even an hour has passed) uploaded the totally redesigned website of The Orchestra. Yes, after almost a month of neurotic pixel-pushing and by-the-hour redesigns, I’ve decided I need to get a life outside of code crunching.

That said, don’t think I am not proud of it – despite its imperfections, I am. Built from the ground up – no templates, no cheating, 100% hard-coded (none of that WYSIWYG-editor nonsense). I possess intimate knowledge regarding how the whole thing is put together: bone-structure, musculature, skin, clothes and all.

…and still I notice there’s something wrong. Oh well. Tomorrow, tomorrow.

Actually, that pretty much sums up my stay so far here in Iligan City. If I’m not infront of a computer cranking-out standards-compliant code or attending to my steadily-growing number of violin students (only on Saturdays) or attending class (Monday to Friday, 430PM – 730PM), you can find me perusing the little coffee shops that have proliferated here in the past year or so (Aruma’s Bannoffee Pie is mind-shattering…and so is the price), or at home, annoying the family cat.

Hmm…I suppose now would be a good time to work on that driver’s license.

Exit, stage right.

5 05 2009

I suppose there’s no point hiding it anymore, now that the people who really need to know about it already do.

I shall be going on a year’s sabbatical, if you will, returning to my home province to complete the requirements for the national Licensure Examination for Teachers. This year, the Comission on Higher Education and the Philippine Regulations Commission raised the number of education units needed for one to take the exam from 18 to a whopping 30. If I studied for that while working, at a rate of 3 units a semester, why, I’d be studying for five years! My parents, who are educators themselves, got a whiff of this and dropped me a line, saying, “We would like to sponsor your studies. Board, lodging, and tuition care of us, of course. The catch? Please come home for a year. You might want to take the opportunity while we’re still around to offer it.”

That was almost a month ago. I thought about it for a week, knowing that my parents had an excellent point (many of my colleagues agree – their eyes and faces all lit up when I mentioned my parents would sponsor me) but that taking the opportunity would mean leaving the students that I so dearly love and the school that has been my home for the past five years. And yes, there’s The Orchestra to consider.

Five years ago, I walked onstage as The Orchestra’s only cellist. I had put The Orchestra together so as not to have to listen to 30 students play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star one after another. Seeing they, now joined together as a larger performing group, could play more dignified repertoire, I proceeded to be ambitious and program arrangements of Vivaldi’s Spring, the popular hymn Amazing Grace, Edgar Meyer’s Short Trip Home, and Jay Ungar’s Ashokan Farewell. I was young and a bit more foolish than I am today, and I confess I shamelessly inserted a cello solo into Ashokan Farewell when I, in retrospect, really should not have done so.

Five years later, I can no longer be so shameless, since I can’t take anymore solos. The Orchestra has more than doubled in number and the students have time and again surprised many a jaded colleague who thought they were coming to watch a laughable, if adorable student performance. Today, the students are such that what used to take 3 months to learn they can now do in one rehearsal. There eyes are experienced, their fingers accurate, their ears sharp.

And for one year, I must leave them.

I confess, it is flattering to hear reports of them losing the motivation to play in my absence, to hear some of them whine, “Don’t go…” even though they know I must. But it also disturbs me that I have failed to train a successor, or at the very least, a substitute, thus making The Orchestra very me-centric, which was never my intention at any point. Now, as I prepare to bid everyone goodbye for a year, there’s a mad scramble to prepare everyone to carry-on without me. Mental note: train a pool of conductors when I get back.

Of course, I don’t intend to just study (oh, how boring!) – I intend to tie up the several loose ends that I’ve left hanging ever since landing my teaching job at school. Things like learning to drive and getting a driver’s license, clearing up my social security and taxpayer’s status, that sort of thing.

And so I will miss the school, the students, The Orchestra – some of the students I might not see again, since they graduate this school year and few students are seen again on campus once they’ve graduated. I will miss my colleagues – some more than others *ahem* – but I will be back. I can only stay away for so long 🙂

Odd. I’m actually excited by this sabbatical – I have loved every moment of the past five years – but this…this feels like I’m turning a corner.


3 05 2009

I had another rehearsal today with a drastically-reduced (5) orchestra; We put Dante’s Theme from Full Metal Alchemist on the lineup right away (I had just completed arranging it at 1AM that morning), as well as The Opened Way from Shadow of the Colossus, and of course, Woodcarving Partita from Castlevania.

We did The Opened Way first, which is the first time I will actually be conducting the piece, as opposed to playing someone’s part (double bass) while simultaneously directing someone else’s performance. Early in the piece there’s this section where the 1st and 2nd violins double each other an octave apart on top of a tempo I would have to describe as “insistent” – it’s a simple part with just half, quarter, and the occasional eighth note, but I got an immense feeling of pleasure listening to it: there’s really nothing like the live sound being generated by players you can actually see.

Dante’s Theme came about as a suggestion by one of the 1st violins – I must admit it took about 3 listenings before the piece grew on me. But grow it did, and I must say I have never arranged a piece as complex and as densely orchestrated as this one in one sitting. I gave a few pointers on how to get a crisp attack on the 1st violins opening 16th notes (spicatto), placated the whining cellos (the tenor clef was obfuscating them to no end), and finally getting the whole thing running. Even from our initial runthrough, the feel of the piece was already there – as one of the cellists put it: “The melody is so…haunting“.

Woodcarving Partita is not really something we will perform as a full orchestra – it’s written as chamber music for a piano quintet – but we rehearse it as an orchestra anyway, getting the frontliners and the understudies ready in one fell sweep. I have to admit I only really heard, for the first time, the difference between the “orchestral” and “chamber” sounds of a piece.

I realize that I am just rambling at the moment. It’s 2AM on a Sunday morning, I’m not really sleepy enough to shut down the computer – I just want to commit to this journal how thankful I am to God for allowing and enabling me to do what I do: my work with students and the orchestra and the music itself.  I am very, very privileged.

Thank You.

Songs of Fire, Songs of Light

10 03 2009


A few people have been clamoring for this post (I wonder why), so I guess I should get to work on it…

It’s a strange feeling, really…in the days leading up to the concert, there was little else I could think about…let alone talk about. Now that it’s done, I don’t feel like talking about it much – not that I didn’t enjoy the concert (you have no idea how much I loved it), its like a picturesque sunrise that one wants to enjoy in contemplative silence – words just tend to get in the way.

But, with a service provider like WordPress, you just have to use words sometime, I guess, so here…

Maybe in other orchestras, the conductor just shows up in shirt and tails, baton and scores in hand, takes the stage, leads the performance, boom, gets his paycheck and then it’s off to the classiest bar in town to (maybe) get wasted. Not in this orchestra.

No. The show was scheduled for 6PM, this conductor was up and already at work by 5AM. I packed a good shirt with nice cuff links, coat, shiny brogues, a bottle of cologne (my sole attempt at dignity, knowing what lay ahead in the day), didn’t forget the scores and the baton; received a call from the principal percussionist, informing me that he had forgotten the all-important triangle, so I had to shuffle over to school and retrieve that. I was finally on my way to the theater by 645AM (We were supposed to be there by 6AM).

Arrived at theater an hour later, helped the deliverymen haul in the double bass, the cellos, the music stands, the gigantic platforms. Greeted the brass players who were so punctual, it was embarrassing. Set up the stage for final rehearsals at 8AM.

C’est un miracle! The orchestra was actually on time! Which is a good thing, because rehearsals didn’t go too well. I finished the slide show presentation for the concert during the almost 6-hour downtime, where I also did voice overs for the department’s grand recital.

The recital had to be extended by 30-minutes, so when it was finally over, all hell broke loose onstage as we wrestled to get two grand pianos into position, getting one of the astonishingly heavy platforms offstage, and getting the musician’s chairs into position. The timpani appeared out of nowhere (or I wasn’t looking when they rolled them in), the musicians were getting restless…

A note on the musicians: this being our 5th anniversary, I had instructed everyone to break out the formal wear – gowns for the ladies, suits for the guys. Apparently, despite my rigorous research as to what exactly constitutes a gown, some of the ladies still came in numbers several inches too short. But those ladies who came in proper gowns…elegant and royal and refined are some of the adjectives that come to mind. Even Kyu Yeon, our principal second violinist, who vehemently opposed the idea of the ladies wearing gowns and had all these excuses to not wear one, looked…well…awesome is the proper word. I doubt she will complain about wearing a gown again.

So you have all of these musicians between the ages of 10 and 25 milling about backstage (which I had the PAs clear of suitors, moochers, and other useless interlopers), and more than a few of them would come up to me or to my assistant Lyndon (who plays in the first violins) to have their instruments tuned, right while we are dragging the profoundly heavy podium desk onstage.

Finally, everything was ready, the musicians in place (many of whom are desperately practicing everything); the assistant concertmaster urges me to get dressed. I hesitantly oblige.

Last minute instructions, a reminder that we are a family, an earnest final prayer, and the concertmaster and I leave the stage as the theater doors are opened and an equally restless audience shuffles to their seats.

First number, Canon in D, and I am shocked that the violas are actually playing in tune, in time – something that simply hasn’t happened before during rehearsals. They’re actually loud.

Second number, Somewhere in Time…the pianist misses his entrance, but only by a nanosecond, no big deal. The percussionist in charge of the bells (glockenspiel as we insist on calling it) also missed an entrance, but she came in on the beat, and nobody (except us) noticed anything amiss. The strings got their notes right, and I know for a fact that someone in the audience wanted to die from the beauty of it all.

Viva la Vida actually grooved – something we had been trying so hard to achieve in the past months, but had eluded us at every turn. Dynamics were flat? Don’t remember. Don’t really care anymore. Haha!

Iris – so the soloist miffed the ending, leaving us in a confused mess. But we smoked the instrumental bridge section, the orchestra coming to a complete but exquisitely-timed halt every third beat. Haha! Oh well. It’s time for us to move on from that piece anyway.

Violin Concerto in D minor – it actually got people interested in classical music again! Sharie put so much rosin on her bow, it looked like she was setting the strings on fire (I didn’t teach her that trick – how serendipitous!). The theater was utterly silent during her cadenza, which made the final entrance of the orchestra that much more explosive. My favorite part is still the last three measures, where the strings crunch on the beat, the timpani hammers the rhythm home, and we end on a huge A and D interval. I can still hear the whoops coming from the audience – some of which I know was directed towards the comely-yet-stunning looks of the soloist – the occupational hazards of being talented and beautiful.

Fureai – Ahhh…my favorite piece in the first set. OK, so I remember that the first violins still sounded too detache for my taste, but when the big crescendos began and the brass kicked in, ohhh…the tingles! If there’s a piece I would like to perform again soon, it’s this one.

Pirate Suite – Most of the audience went home with this one in their heads. One went so far as to tell Ana, our principal violist, to tell me that the only thing missing was water. The Kraken kicked major behind, with the detuned double bass, piano, and bass guitar playing more tightly in sync than they had ever done during rehearsals, the soft beater on the bass drum sounding like an infernal, malicious heartbeat…I heard that even those backstage got goosebumps.

INTERMISSION: I’ve never seen The Orchestra so happy before – they were all hugging one another, cheering each other on, happily wolfing down more than their share of the sponsored dinner. I couldn’t so much as sniff my burger…I had to content myself with a slightly acidic energy drink. Our first set made the choir nervous – apparently, we sounded that good.

Gloria was a shock – I never imagined The Orchestra, with its modest resources, could produce such a thick sound. I remember the tenors missed an important entrance midway through the song, but who cares? Ha!

Lacrimosa seemed to be the favorite of the choir. The lighting director put on quite a show, but I didn’t notice any of that. I do remember that the snare drummer had his eyes riveted on the baton, and he kept perfect time.

Titan and Return of the King – Isa’s double bass solo was surprisingly loud. It wasn’t perfect, but really, now that its over, does it matter? I remember the brass actually responding to my conducting towards the end of the slow part of Return of the King. I had to develop a gesture on the spot to control their cutoffs, and it actually worked. Cool.

In Lux Aeterna, it was all loud. Strings, percussion, choir. I should have written parts for brass.

We ended with Hallelujah (We had to sack Amen because it was just too difficult for the choir), and frankly, I’m glad we did. The trumpets drowned all the mistakes out (Ha!), the choir sounded reasonably confident – the final “Hallelujah” was glorious, and the timpanist told me that he actually found himself worshipping. Now that’s a compliment worth remembering!

I suppose the experience was different for everybody, but I suspect the difference is only more glaring between audience and musicians. The audience tends to focus on the actual performance – was it in tune, in time? Was it loud enough? Were the dynamics present?  The musicians (although I could be speaking for myself) tend to focus on the cumulative whole – from rehearsals all the way to the performance, including the intermission. An exchange of text messages last night with The Cat  made me indeed realize that the things the audience sees and hears, I quickly forget about. Case in point, if the audience marveled at the light show that accompanied the more…ahem…fiery songs, frankly, I didn’t even realize there was a light show. If the bass drum in Viva La Vida wasn’t loud enough, I actually don’t remember anymore. In fact, I don’t really care. We can’t repeat the performance anytime soon, so we can’t fix anything anymore.

I remember during the 6-hour downtime thinking “What if I were conducting a professional ensemble?” and I quickly realized that while I could have had a highly polished performance, it wouldn’t mean anything, because what makes every concert of The Orchestra special is the fact that for the past 10 months, we struggled together – to learn the songs, to develop the technique necessary to play them, to develop our relational skills so that the lower-ranked players would actually obey and learn. We learned to love one another, despite how we actually felt about each other – Kyu Yeon has become a formidable principal, not because of her skill (which is very formidable – and intimidating), but because she has chosen to take responsibility for her section. Her sectionmates affectionately call her “Mom”, and from hereon, the principal second violinist will be called “Mom” or “Dad”. I bet that even when she has moved to the first violins, she will still keep an eye on the second violins, just to keep them in line.

I no longer remember many details of the performance – like which piece were we playing when I almost fell off the podium – but I remember the smiles on the musician’s faces, the look in their eyes that told me, “Let’s do this, sir!”. I remember the red of the front-row cellist’s lipstick, the glint of the spotlight on Kyu Yeon’s glasses. I remember the roar of shuffling feet as they cheered for one another. I remember the soul-stirring sudden silence that gripped the theater during the sudden endings of Lacrimosa, Return of the King, and Lux Aeterna. I remember the sacred silence right after the second-to-the-last “Hallelujah” (which was broken by a few over-enthusiastic members of the audience, but somehow remained sacred nontheless).

The Orchestra will undergo some radical changes come next season – we can no longer operate “beneath the radar” so to speak, and I can no longer be involved in all aspects of managing it – all I really like doing is arranging, conducting, and teaching. But for now, I remember, and I am profoundly thankful to God for my job, and the people it puts me in contact with, and the ways that I can influence them in His name.

…and for those of you who gave most of the Saturdays over the past 10 months to The Orchestra – I am fiercely proud of you.