COPYRIGHT © 2003-2023 PLAY BY EAR
An interview with PBE guest appearances: Sylvester Sim 沈祥龙 (runner-up of Singapore Idol ONE) and Nic Lee (front man of 迷路兵 – Singapore-based rock band )
Andrew: What does the term “play by ear” mean to you?
Sly: It’s about moving out of the box. It’s about the feel, about playing something that you desire and not blinded by restrictions. It’s an important ability especially for live shows. You only have one shot. You literally need to play by ear. My sight reading is very weak and I wish I could spend more time brushing up my music theory because I think it’s important. You still have to know your fundamentals before you can learn to break the rules.
Nic: To me, it is like having an idea what you want to do, and then running with it to see if it suits the situation. When people say ‘play by ear’, they usually think it’s just listening and playing. To me, it is having an idea of what you want to do, and you play it out to see if it is what you like. Music is very evolutionary. We can change it. It is a very ‘human thing’. And humans are not ‘MIDI’ machines. *Laughs*
Andrew: Who is your role model in music?
Sly: For me, I started off playing the guitar first, so it’s Steve Vai. He brought a lot of amazing stuff into my life. His music, his stage presence, everything. If I need to choose someone closer to me, I would say my dad. He is a guitarist, and he inspired me when I was a child.
Nic: Wow, well just like Sly, my role model is my dad. I remember picking up the guitar when I was six years old. He taught me how to strum, how to do finger picking, and that’s when it all started. I learned all the rules, and today I’m breaking the rules and playing by ear. *laughs*
Andrew: What do you think of the current music scene in Singapore?
Nic: I think it has been picking up in the last few years. The arts scene is definitely booming and our government is also encouraging local musicians to excel in this industry. Though I think the scene is growing too slowly in comparison to other countries, perhaps because Singapore is still pretty new in the arts culture. But I think things are moving quite well, with the Esplanade, the Scape and stuff. We hope the locals can support and accept more local artistes. The music scene is growing steadily, I would say.
Andrew: What other instruments do you play or wish to learn to play, and which is your favorite?
Sly: My favorite will still be the electric guitar. It’s in my blood. I was jamming with a lot of bands during my teenage years, where I picked up other instruments by ear, like the piano, drums and bass. Actually if I can find some time for myself, I am hoping to learn the sitar as well. It may seem strange, but I kind of like the sound of it. It carries a very distinct Asian flavor. And I think it may help some of the songs I write.
Nic: I am mainly a guitarist, but I enjoy drums and bass a lot. Not the techno house drum and bass, but live drum kits and the bass guitar. I do a lot production work so I was forced to learn almost every instrument, from piano to bass, strings and drums. Every instrument has their place in music. Sly wants to pick up the sitar. I want to pick up the banjo! I think it will be quite fun.
Andrew: As vocalists yourselves, do you think anyone can pick up singing and be a professional singer? Can singing be taught?
Sly: Of course. As long as you have a voice to talk, you can sing. You only need to learn how to properly pitch your talking, and it becomes singing. From there, you will naturally pick up the other vocal techniques that are essential to fine tune your voice. Yes, I think anyone can be a good singer. And I know many good but under-rated singers out there.
Nic: Everyone is given a set of vocals. God gave us a free instrument, although some people may be more inclined to music. For the others, it only requires an extra effort. There is no such thing as “cannot be taught”. Singing is no different from playing the piano. Some people will give excuses like their fingers are too short or too stiff, etc. But if they are forced to touch and learn the piano, they will be able to. Anyone can be a musician; it’s just like learning a new language. It’s about how much time you put in.
Andrew: What are some of the vocal techniques you use?
Nic: I like to scream.
Sly: I guess I am like Nic, I do scream a lot as well! But recently, I am picking up falsetto. It is very important especially in a lot of my ballad tracks.
Nic: I use a lot of compression, a lot of ‘drive’ and ‘dirt’. I suppose different people do things differently. You have to figure what works for you.
Andrew: Let’s talk about your stardom, you (Sly) won runner-up for Singapore Idol and you (Nic) won the Superband competition. How do you feel about having such a great achievement?
Sly: I don’t know about how Nic feels, but for me I’m not much of a “fame” person. I want to be known as a musician. I am more passionate about writing and producing music and playing live shows. However, Singapore Idol helped make a ‘name’ for me. I don’t need the fame, I only need the ‘name’. Because with the ‘name’, it is easier for me to do what I want to do in the music industry. For example when I write a song without a ‘name’, probably nobody would want to listen to my music. I don’t know. But the platform that Singapore Idol helped me to get on, it’s easier for me to gain acceptance for the music I write.
Nic: To begin with, it’s a very great honor for me. I supposed my response will be similar to Sly, it helped us in what we love to do, which is music. It’s really all about the music. The Superband competition was a great start-up for me. Ironically, in other international competitions like American Idol and Britain got Talent, the winners and runner-ups are already superb to begin with, they are already professionals in their own trade. As for me, winning the competition was only a stepping stone. And that stepping stone was my first learning point.
Andrew: If you have to choose another career path besides music, what would it be?
Sly: Wah, I think I’ll rather be a ghost. I don’t know. I have nothing else I want to do in life except music. Hmm, basically I eat and breathe music.
Nic: For me, I graduated majoring in Audio Engineering. So perhaps sound engineer as my second career choice? Is that still related to music?
Sly: Ok, I would choose to be a graphic designer. Luckily I have a diploma in Graphic Design. It’s another form of arts. Maybe I’ll design CD covers for other band artistes?
Andrew: Hmm. Ok, another crazy question. Would you give up music totally, in exchange for $10 million dollars? That means, in anything you do for the rest of your life, you cannot be in any way related or connected to music. Would you give it all up, in exchange for $10 million dollars?
Sly: *Eye browns raised*
Nic: Tough choice … touch choice…
Sly: So, you mean, we have to ban music altogether?
Nic: I suppose after thinking through, and this is one tough question, I think it’s going to be hard to give up music totally. There are some things money can’t buy, which is the smiles, the appreciation that we get from our fans and audiences. That keeps us alive, and motivated to writing more music and playing live.
Andrew: What advice would you give to PBE students learning music?
Sly: It is all about patience. Nothing comes free and easy. It may not be easy to start, but if you take things slowly at your own pace, you will be able to learn faster ironically. Let’s say for guitar, if you start learning for the first time, you will definitely get blisters on your fingers. Don’t quit just because of the pain. The pain is bearable. You have to be really patient with yourself. Keep moving forward, but do things at your own pace. There are many people I have seen who rush and speed up the learning process insanely, hoping to learn faster and get done with it. Music is a never ending learning process. So, don’t rush and don’t give up. Be passionate. Go slow.
Nic: Even now I still get blisters on my fingers, and I guess after a while you learn how to enjoy the learning process. To me, I am learning how to enjoy the pain. When there is pain, it means that I am “working very hard”, and it feels good. That’s for me, that’s how I motivate myself to push forward. Generally, when you are really passionate about music, you will go all out and look for ways to improve yourself, like watching youtube tutorials, googling tips and stuff. Learning from a music school is a great platform for every student. You have to discipline yourself and you ensure you learn the right things the right way. However, as a student, you have to find your own motivating factors. When you are really in it, you will make time for it. Practicing will not be a chore. When you reach the stage where you enjoy your practice time, that’s the start of your real learning.
PBE: You were a finalist for the Campus superstar competition. How do you feel?
ZiJie: It was a good experience. And my first experience of a competition as big as this. I admit I learnt a lot through this, and it isn’t all about winning or the TV exposure, but being able to meet other musicians. That really broadened my perspective of music. It a real eye opener, performing on stage is so much more than what I originally thought.
PBE: Sounds like it was good start for your career. How did you continue from there?
ZiJie: I always liked music and arts, and wanted to explore more. I did a bit of beat-boxing and dancing as well, primarily hip hop style. For singing, I took up lessons and became serious about it. I was very honored to sing for the Chingay Parade and also for the Taiwan Superidol competition a couple of years ago.
PBE: Wow, a truly multi-talented artiste! Please share some secrets with us!
Zijie: *Laughs* No No No… I mean, no secrets! Hah! I think it’s about the passion. And practice. With the right attitude, you will ‘automatically’ practice without anyone telling you to.
PBE: What other advice would you give to PBE students who want to learn how to sing?
Zijie: *stress* Hah… Well, I think every singer has their own tone and set of techniques. For me, feeling is very important. When you actually feel the song, your tone changes dramatically. I also think learning how and when to breathe is just as important. You have to listen to yourself all the time, sometimes it is even good to record yourself and keep listening. I also listen to other singers of other genres, and try to imitate their diction and other techniques, and then put everything together to create my own vocal identity.
PBE: You acted in Jack Neo’s latest movie – The Lion Men, and you also sang their theme song. What was the experience like?
Zijie: I was very blessed to have this opportunity, and it is my first time on the big screen. It was really great fun, and again I’ve learnt so much during the production . It opened my social circle as well. Acting is a completely different ball game, but I feel its all part of arts’. And with the arts, everything is somehow related, music, dancing, acting, etc.
PBE: What your future plans as of now?
Zijie: Right now we are still in the music and video production for Lion Men part 2 and possibly more projects with Jack Neo. And I guess I am always open to explore all other areas in the entertainment industry.