* All italics and emboldening are editor’s own
Rachma, in her own words
I used to think of myself as a pianist, but these days I consider myself more of an aspiring messenger for Music. I see music as an art or craft that brings joy, relief, hope and faith to people. To the best of my power, I want to influence the world in a constructive way.The draw to keys
I started out learning classical piano, like most kids. I wanted to be a concert pianist. However, while I was in Lasalle, I fell in love with the spirit of Jazz and decided that it would be my future. Since then, the ride has been bumpy but exciting and I am enjoying it.
I think it’s both easier and harder to transition to Jazz from a classical background. It’s easier in the sense that the fundamentals for both genres of music are more or less the same – melody, harmony, texture, dynamics, etc are important elements of expression for music in general. However, this oversimplifies the problem, as the key element of Jazz that makes it such an expressive art-form is its very unique sense of rhythm – what we all know as swing. This is something that is harder to learn coming from a traditional classical perspective, but is not impossible. For me, the blues-y and swinging feel of the music was what struck me the most at first, it’s really fun and I fell in love with this culture. Because of this passion I had for the rhythm, it wasn’t a difficult task for me to learn how to swing – it’s just a different mode of learning.
Learning through teaching
I started teaching while I was doing my undergrad studies at Lasalle. I realized that I loved to teach because it allows me to connect with people through music. My students are of various levels and are able to commit various amounts of time to practice. Sometimes its a challenge to encourage everyone to move forward in the presence of their other daily commitments. In them, I also see myself as I struggle to juggle everything that goes on in my life. Teaching gives me a perspective on life itself, and while I impart knowledge to my students, not only do I reinforce the concepts that I teach to myself, I also learn a bit more each time about how to maintain balance in my life.
Developing a practice regime
You gotta really love practicing. Loving the music alone is not enough. I didn’t really have the habit and discipline of sticking to a practice routine back in Singapore and I mostly practiced on a project-basis, sometimes when I had the time and inspiration. Nowadays I make time to work on a more consistent schedule, such that it becomes like a ritual.
Rinse and repeat
Pick an exercise to work on. Stick with it for a long time. Rinse and repeat. No single exercise is going to make you strong, but the accumulation of practice. Sometimes, it’s a matter of having faith that your practising a small exercise will eventually bear fruit. That faith is the hardest part of practice, and I struggle with it everyday.
Understanding the roots
I think it is also important to check out older recordings, from show tunes, hymns etc to find out how this music was born. Most of the modern players that I love today like Gerald Clayton, Aaron Parks, all understand tradition. If you listen to their music you would hear that clearly in their playing.
A student in different cities
My expectations are different in both cities. In Singapore, I had just started out learning how to play jazz and did not put so much pressure on myself. When I came to New York, I was already playing in Singapore’s scene for close to ten years and was trying to work on seriously improving. I can see the difference in my peers as well. Over here, my classmates are sure of their direction and single-mindedly working towards their goals.
Now that I am taking my practice much more seriously, it has become both a good, and also perhaps, bad thing. I frequently feel lost and insecure, but it is precisely these feelings that push me to work harder. Without them, I may never get this chance to grow, so I remind myself to appreciate my time here.
One of the perks of living in New York is the exposure to great music. The greatest artists play regularly in New York and the access I enjoy is incredible.
There’s Mezzrow and Smalls. These are staples for college students to check out. They provides great straight-ahead jazz and offer students with half price on weekday nights, they have Afternoon and late night jam sessions. Fat cat is the other popular one.
We also visit the Jazz Gallery pretty frequently. They offer more contemporary jazz, and feature recent artists who are releasing their Originals. It’s always great to check out promising new players out there.
Of course, there are many many great places, such as Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, to name a few. Often we are spoiled with choices. Every night there’s so much going on, so much to check out, but these places aren’t as affordable for students with little or no income.
That New York state of jazz education
I would say a definite yes to the New York experience, although I feel that it is not necessary to be getting a formal education. School forces one to work toward deadlines, even if one does not feel up to it. You won’t need such a formal structure to keep going in New York though, because the level of competency is so high that you kind of get the same seriousness simply by osmosis.
Out of introspection into appreciation
I do hit road blocks and feel un-inspired at times, especially so in New York, where I see many unbelievably amazing musicians. Being overloaded with awe can at ties damage one’s self esteem as well. However, I remind myself to look at the bright side. I am so lucky and blessed to have the chance to witness these world talents in one single melting pot and they are all my role models from whom I can pick and learn different lessons from.
I was obsessed with excellence. In my opinion, to be excellent means to be good, but that doesn’t mean that one has to play difficult stuff, or the most intelligently. I believe that an excellent Jazz musician captures what it is that she loves about the music, means what she says and says what she means.
I used to put pressure on myself to be perfect, and was pretty dogmatic about it. I always thought an attitude like that would help me to push myself further, but just recently I started to open up my mind and see that the way forward is easier when approached with unconditional love, than with deadlines.
I feel the toughest part for me in learning new sets of skills are.. (I guess this applies to any other field(s)) overcoming the need to master it in a short period of time, and setting myself overly ambitious goals. This had caused me all sorts of unnecessary stress and tension,… from tendonitis to low self-esteem…, you get the idea. When I decided to let go and tried working within my own pace by keeping small goals but maintaining consistency, it greatly helped keep things interesting. That truly beats trying to over-achieve anytime! Well, I feel like I realised this much later in my life though. Had to learn it the hard way.
A composer who appreciates lyrics
I’ve always been into writing first. And since accompanying singers is one of the most in-demand jobs for pianists who want to make a living out of playing music, I was advised by many mentors to embrace this set of skills, and I basically plunged myself into it for a number of years. I grew to appreciate this role very much. It was rewarding to accompany someone who is dedicated to delivering a beautiful message through the lyrics of a song to the listeners. It has a kind of magic in itself. At this point in my development, I feel more satisfied playing vocal music rather than instrumental music, which possibly explains why I too, enjoy singing so much. I had attempted vocal training myself, yet still not really getting it at this point.
A musician’s advice to jazz singers
Based on my observations, as much as the lyrics are important to all of us, it’s also crucial for the singer to get to know what each band member’s role is. That is, getting to know the basic harmonic structure of the tune, what rhythmic comping style used by the guitarist or drummer and so on. This will reward a two-way conversation between singer and the band members and it’s going to be much more fun than just singing a monologue.
Her bands & projects
I joined a number of bands back in Singapore and the longest I was involved with, was a classical-Indian/Jazz fusion group called Raghajazz. I really enjoy making music with like minded musicians, and am in fact, really eager to work on new projects as soon as I head back to the country.
My music is currently a work-in-progress (since when is it not?) My major focus for this year would have to be my upcoming graduation recital. I am also looking forward to write and arrange a number of new tunes after learning some new tricks here.
Working with her (husband and) best friendEugene and I both are accompanists but we are pretty much opposite in our personalities. I feel it’s kind of nice that our styles complement each other and we don’t really get in each other’s way. We’ve always thought, since both of us play the same instrument, it would be challenging to play as a band together. To our surprise, we can do so much with 2 pianos. We had a number of performances with 2 keys prior to the wedding concert, and they always turned out better than we had expected. That was why we thought of giving it a shot and set ourselves a duet piano gig on our wedding day.
In my opinion, Eugene has always been more technically-minded and knows a bunch how to make the music fit to specifications, …it’s kind of like solving a puzzle for him. He is much more skilled and knowledgeable. My strength is in my imagination – I come up with the ideas, picture the sounds and moods that go well together and set the direction of the compositions in general. We always share conversations on music matters, and learned a lot from one another.. these days, I bring back the things that I picked up from school, and he too, gain opportunities to explore new things.
It’s a Breeze with him! ^_______________^ (I am leaving Rachma’s personal touch – an emoticon japanese style here to illustrate the pair of lovebirds they truly are)
The music in words, and the heart in spoken song
Language has also played a big role in my life. I was raised speaking the Hokkien dialect and spent my entire formal education with Bahasa Indonesia. My parents had a global mindset and encouraged me to pick up English and Mandarin, so of course I spent quite some time learning these staple languages pretty seriously. One thing I like about speaking more languages is that I relate better to others when I speak in their native tongue. There is a deeper and more sincere connection than if both parties were to try and communicate through a more universal language that they are less used to. I like the intimacy when I reach out to people this way.
Further down the road I picked up Japanese because I was enamoured with the beautiful sound of the language. I also admire the Japanese culture for its warmth and focus on excellence. I hope to master the language one day.
Through the years, I have learnt to separate my passing fancies from specific artistic goals I want to achieve. So although watercolour-ing helps me stay more focused and mindful (which is pretty helpful with music), I think it is still really tough to do everything simultaneously on a deeper level, so I have to prioritize my goals, and spend a longer time on each one of them.
At the moment, I try to do some yoga, running, check out the local art museums and snap landscape photos, hoping to paint them one day.
An evolving dream
Dreams may change from time to time, I remember wanting to be one of the most competent concert pianists who’d make my parents proud since they were the people who nurtured me most and encouraged me always to go for those musical dreams. However in the present, I just want to focus on spending each day at a time, learning, and growing more experiences that I can share with the people that I will continue to cross paths with in life.
Connect with Rachma and her music here:
+ Rachma’s Music:
+ Rachma & Eugene’s Wedding Highlights
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vD_aB2EwUs&feature=youtu.be (Original Composition “Roots”)
https://youtu.be/zmBgUh2J3nM (Original Composition “Yum Suite I”)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRtsOX9pdcw (Original Composition “Yi Shuang Shou”)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pluglK-s3jM (“What are you doing the rest of your life” – Michel Legrand)