Coach, help us get gold

Veteran coaches share what it takes for schools to excel in the Singapore Youth Festival

When Catholic High School (Primary) approached Mr Yang Ji Wei to be the music director and conductor of its Chinese orchestra in 2010, the school had received a silver at the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) that year.

The silver was a blemish on the school's hitherto long unbroken string of gold and gold with honours awards received at the annual festival organised by the Ministry of Education.

Mr Yang, 35, was tasked to get the Chinese orchestra co-curricular activity (CCA) at Catholic High to do better.

Although fresh from earning his bachelor's degree in music from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, he had been conducting Chinese orchestras in schools.

In 2004, he co-founded The Teng Company, a non-profit arts company.

However, perhaps the important entry in his resume for Catholic High School was this: In 2005, together with fellow ex-students from the Chinese orchestra at Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road), he helped the Chinese orchestra at his alma mater advance from getting a bronze to a gold at the festival.

When he took over the reins at Catholic High, he overhauled the band programme, screening all Primary 2 and 3 pupils and testing them on pitch and rhythm.

Those found to be musically inclined were invited to join the orchestra. Upon joining, they were further screened by 10 sectional instructors to see what instruments they were suitable for.Students who showed more potential in a particular instrument were encouraged to go for private classes.

When the date for the youth festival drew near, he stepped up practice from three hours once a week, to three and even four times a week.

If one or two players did not do well, the entire section had to stay back. Mr Yang would also reward students who displayed consistent improvement with small gifts.

At the next festival in 2012, the orchestra bounced back with a gold with honours. It has won another distinction since.

The festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is believed to be the most recognised national platform for artistic excellence in schools.

This year, the month-long festival runs from the end of the month.

It is held annually with primary schools alternating each year with secondary schools, junior colleges and centralised institutes. This year, it is held for primary schools.

There are categories for band, drama, choir, dance (including Chinese, Malay and Indian dances) and instrumental ensembles (including those for the angklung, guzheng and guitar).

When Mr Mohammad Faizal Othman, 39, first joined the brass band at Peixin Primary School in 1999, there was a shortage of instruments and students - most of whom had no music background - had to take turns to play instruments.

Nonetheless, to make the music "more colourful", Mr Faizal, who holds a specialist diploma in band directing from the National Institute of Education, converted the brass band to a concert band, which featured more instruments.

He invited the alumni "who had been through the training and had a better understanding of the problems kids tended to face" to come back to teach.

His unconventional teaching methods, which included matching instruments with the students' character, also paid off.

A year after he joined, the band took home its first silver at the SYF.

In 2002, it received its first gold and, in 2006, its first gold with honours. Since then, it has been one of the top primary school bands here. In 2009, Peixin merged with Yishun Primary.

Top CCA coaches, some of whom command between $100 and $200 an hour, can make a difference in how well a CCA group does at the festival. However, Mr Faizal, who is also the band director at two secondary schools - both of which received distinction at the last festival - says to perform well, the band needs to have not just strong moral support from the school and parents, but also a strong team spirit.

He cultivates this through regular music camps and getting the seniors to guide the juniors during practice. "A band is only as strong as its weakest player. If a junior makes a mistake, I will reprimand the seniors too, as they have not guided him well."

The festival became so competitive at one stage that some students broke down when they did not achieve the highest award of gold with honours.

In 2013, the Education Ministry revamped the award structure and replaced the previous levels - gold with honours, gold, silver, bronze and certificates of participation - with just three: distinction, accomplishment and commendation. The score needed to obtain the highest award was lowered from 85 per cent to 75 per cent.

Coaches say the revamp has not significantly changed the way they groom their teams for the festival.

Says Mr Yang, who conducts the Chinese orchestras in six schools: "Nearer to the festival, I may not get the orchestras to practise more, but I still expect them to work hard and go on with their usual practice."

Mr Faizal is of the same opinion.

"We still work hard because the goal of our band programme is music excellence, which, to me, is to play music from the heart and touch the audience," he says.

Other than cultivating a strong team spirit in his bands, band director Adrian Chiang, 37, says he also tries to make practice fun and enjoyable.

"The band room where the students practise is like an oasis, a place for them to de-stress," says Mr Chiang, who has groomed the symphonic band at Maris Stella High School to be a top band at the festival over the past 11 years.

"When students are happy practising, they are more likely to perform well."

He also lets his students make decisions, such as which pieces they want to play.

He says: "When they have a say in what they want to do, they tend to be more responsible and are motivated to work harder."

For the same reason, CCA dance instructor Dan Kwoh, 36, also involves his dancers in the creative process - from getting them to propose the title of the dance item to the choreography concept to the type of costumes they would like to wear.

Mr Kwoh, who is also the founder of private dance school dACADEMY Singapore, has been coaching school dance teams since 2006.

All the four secondary schools and two junior colleges that he coaches at scored distinction at the last festival.

The revamped festival award structure has made him focus less on winning awards, though.

He says: "In the past, if many of my students come with no dance or ballet background and could not stand on their toes, for instance, I would choreograph an item that was less technical and rely on costumes and other props to make the dance more visually impactful.

"But with the revamped award structure, I can now focus more on the artistic development of the students."

Choral director Lim Ai Hooi, 50, however, has reservations about the current award structure.

She says: "By lowering the score of the highest award, which is now called a distinction, there is a risk of compromising standards, especially if there is no clear definition of what a distinction is.

"It could affect how the next generation of students view art."

She is in charge of the choirs at three secondary schools and one junior college - all of which have been getting top-tier awards at the festival for the past 10 to 15 years that she has been with them.

She says stress in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, "as long as the educators teach students to manage stress and cope with success and failure".

"My priorities have always been in building character, confidence, discipline and having the right mindset towards appreciating art."

For her, one of the most rewarding parts of instructing a school choir is to see the students gain confidence.

"I have seen shy and quiet students open up and become more confident through taking the choir journey together with others and performing in public."

For Chinese orchestra CCA conductor Yang, it has been a full circle.

Being part of the Chinese orchestra CCA at ACS (Barker Road) and getting silver at the festival in the 1990s sealed his love of Chinese classical music.

He says: "Without the Chinese orchestra CCA, I wouldn't have pursued a career in Chinese classical music because I wouldn't have had the chance to be exposed to it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'Coach, help us get gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe