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Life as a Military Musician

Interview with percussionist Christopher Kong (Singapore 🇸🇬)

Preface: Christopher served for two years in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band during his military service – a mandatory commitment for all Singaporean males aged 18 and above. A fitness status called Physical Employment Standard (PES) is assigned to each serviceman prior to enlistment, which determines their vocation based on their medical health. Ranked from A to F in decreasing order of fitness, Christopher held a PES C – mostly fit for combat service support vocations. Read on for his experience as a military musician!

This interview was lightly edited for brevity.

Tell us about yourself. How did your interest in music begin?

My music journey began with the piano at age 8, and joined my primary school’s Chinese orchestra at 9 as I was keen to become a percussionist. I went on to get a Grade 5 in piano, but have since dropped it to make time for wind bands, symphonic orchestras, and a Brazilian Samba band. The biggest honor of my 16 years of musicianship is playing for the SAF Band as a military percussionist. Today I am a percussionist in the National University Singapore Wind Symphony (NUSWS). Having mostly performed in Chinese and wind ensembles, my music engagement consists little of western music but I am very much still devoted to my craft.

Changing of Guards Ceremony at the Singapore Istana, April 2019. Image courtesy: Christopher Kong

Everyone wants to know – how did you manage to get into the SAF band? Tell us about the audition process.

I enlisted in the Army as a PES C serviceman and was unexpectedly called up to audition for the SAF band during the Basic Military Training. Seven other percussionists were present during the audition, so I was very shocked when I was the only one selected for the band. I was also unaware that being a military musician was a possible vocation for National Service and felt fortunate that such an opportunity was offered to me. Unfortunately, I am unable to share about the audition requirements as they contain sensitive information.

Let’s hear more about your time as a military musician – what instruments did you play and what was a typical day like for you?

I was required to learn and be adept on common parade instruments like the snare drum, bass drum, and marching crash cymbals. The SAF Band regularly held public concerts at the Esplanade and Botanic Gardens, allowing me to further my performing experience and skills on other percussion instruments like the timpani and mallets. A typical day included drills (playing instruments while marching), personal practice time, and physical training to keep our stamina in check. I also had time to learn music theory and get certification – an overall holistic approach to music learning.

"The military music culture is disciplined yet nurturing... some would arrange excerpts from movies and anime!"

What was the culture of music like in the military band?

I found the music culture in the military to be disciplined yet nurturing – everyone was open to collaborating and exploring new pieces together. Some bandmates would arrange excerpts from movies and anime, and others loved playing pieces from all kinds of genres. As the SAF band does not have string instruments, classical pieces were seldom played. However, we were always keen to play any pieces adapted for the wind band.

Share a highlight during your time in the military band.

The 2019 bicentennial National Day Parade (NDP) was the most memorable as I had the honor to perform for the whole nation, including the President and Prime Minister of Singapore who attended it in person. It was my largest parade ever and I was fortunate to share a combined drumline solo. Although the training and preparation took four months, the hard work and bonds forged made the experience fulfilling.

Watch the 2019 Singapore NDP →

The music played throughout the parade was performed live by the SAF Band.

57:02 - Debut of combined drum band

1:26:40 - SAF Band march-off

What are some of the pieces the SAF Band usually play? How long do you get to prepare them before an event?

The SAF Band primarily performs wind music for concerts and marching pieces for parades such as the “Air Force March”, “Infantry March”, and “Navy March”. Except for large scale events like NDP, we do not specifically prepare for a performance but rather, remain readily deployable. That means being constantly familiar with our drills and pieces in case of a sudden parade call-up.

Most people can only dream of playing in a military band. What are some unique attributes and challenges of playing an instrument as a serviceman?

Playing an instrument as a serviceman requires lots of discipline and drive. Every time we don our uniform we represent the SAF and the nation, placing huge pressure especially during parades that welcome foreign dignitaries into Singapore. The biggest difference from a typical orchestra lies in the strict regimentation of the SAF Band – essentially, the experience is being in the Army with the bonus of playing music. Practices are comparatively more demanding with attention to the tiniest parade details, and I regularly caught myself scrutinizing my playing techniques. Nonetheless, such a challenging environment has led me to become more self-critical, resilient, and motivated to improve as a musician.

"Having good physical fitness is essential to performing well in a military band."

Some may think that joining a military band does not require strict physical fitness. How true is that?

I think this is a huge misconception. While only those with lower PES (groups C and E) are eligible to join the band, being a military musician is far from physically lenient. We were placed under frequent physical training to ensure that we have the strength to support our instruments for hours during rehearsals and parades while marching and playing them. Suffice to say, without strict physical fitness a military band would fail to keep up with the countless parades, much less produce a stellar performance.

We thank Christopher for his insightful sharing on being a military musician.

Be kind & keep striving!

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