Posted on July 20, 2015
Music found me when I was around three through forced piano lessons, which my mom inflicted upon me (still bitter, but a little less now). I remember being so tiny, my feet couldn’t even touch the pedals. I hated practicing, I hated scales, I hated classical music, I hated examinations, I hated italicised Italian mumbo-jumbo, I hated recitals, I hated competitive parents, I hated all of it. I especially hated the wrong notes. As soon as my mom let me, I quit at the daring age of ten.
I vowed never to touch the piano again. Yet, I was getting into listening to popular music and wanted to try something new. What was the most rebellious instrument to learn, I asked myself? Drums, of course! I bought my first pair of sticks when I was eleven and I bought a snare drum for school band. I remember walking to school wearing a snare drum in a massive black bag with suspender-like straps to school every day and feeling like a wounded gazelle limping across the Serengeti. Nothing screams cool like a snare drum destroying your center of gravity and brittle confidence. Still, I was determined and rocked that snare drum until I broke the head and eventually I moved to the drum set and continued until the end of high school.
Drums taught me rhythm, an underlying component of all music, which opened the door to every genre. Anything I heard, I could play, be it jazz, hip hop, rock, electronica – anything. I even tried putting beats over music with no drums like Phillip Glass and Debussy. Somehow, it worked and I was hooked. Rhythm taught me my greatest musical lesson: to just play. Having fun has pushed me further than anything else in my musical career.
In my last years of high school, I sat in the library at recess reading any book I could find about music. I was transfixed by the idea of influence. Who influenced Bob Dylan? The Blues? Who started the Blues? Robert Johnson? Who was he influenced by? It was a never-ending quest to find the root of everything. I found that every artist in some way has some relation to another. By the end of the year, I read every single book the library had on music.
I also picked the piano up again but instead of playing written music, I learned to play using chords and guitar tabs. It was so liberating to play whatever I felt rather than whatever I read. I began improvising, which opened me to jazz. I overcame my fear of wrong notes, which early piano lessons had drilled in me. I loved theory books and began a personal quest to master jazz. I am still an amateur but it is my favorite genre to play.
As I got further and further with drums and piano, I bought a guitar and learned how to play chords and sing. In the way that Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson were tied together, so were all instruments in their sound and technique and I’ve been addicted to learning new instruments since. If music is a language, each instrument is a dialect and the more you learn, the easier it becomes to speak another dialect.
I toyed with the idea of putting two unlikely genres or artists together to see if it would work. This experimentation resulted in buying a MIDI keyboard, pirating Fruity Loops and attempting to write my own music. After many years of figuring out how to make music on a computer, I released my first song online, called Stick Up Kids, under the alias “The Lam.”
Since then, the rest of my musical projects have been a blur. I’ve recorded an acoustic album, written film scores, composed 30-minute long ambient strangeness, learned how to DJ and mix, but my favorite thing to do is to share what I’ve learned with whoever I can.
I’ve played a streel-string beside the best blues band I ever heard, Electric Cadillac, in Jakarta. I’ve played piano in a jazz trio, Fly Right, at fancy art shows around Hong Kong. I’ve played the keyboard and sound effects to my accompany my school’s production of Wizard of Oz. I’ve played romantic ballads to young lovers in a park in Kelowna, Canada and pressured them to kiss. I’ve played at the Secret Island Party two years in a row now on an unknown tropical island. I’ve played to the Indian Army on the Pakistan border in exchange for chai tea. Most importantly though, I played around.
Music is a matter of enjoying who you are and making the most of what you got. It is a life-long journey and it is a deeply rewarding one to traverse. If I can impart any single lesson to my students, it’s this: in matters of life and learning, there are no wrong notes. I am 90% self-taught and I still hate practicing but if a little three-year-old quitter like me can do any of this, so can you.