#54 How it all started – 7

Back in the day (90s and early 2000s), students in Hong Kong had to do two public exams: the HKCEE and HKALE. They were the type of exams that could determine one’s life, as the results would count toward university application. I took my HKCEE in 2000, and having achieved a big task (without knowing my results yet), I asked my mom to buy me a fender.

We went to Tom Lee, and the sales could have handed me any guitar and I would have said yes. I was mostly trying Fenders (Gibson seemed a lot more expensive somehow), and ended up with a strat. Not just a regular strat. It is an “American double fat strat” with two double humbuckers (so is it still a strat?). I knew nothing about guitars (I still don’t), but I knew I should get an American one. Mr. Sales Guy mentioned “jazz” (do people play jazz on strat? what did I know about jazz then?), and rhythm guitar. I might have checked out some Jackson and PRS too, but… Fender!

It was a busy day, and at one point Mr. Sales Guy had to step away, as Eason Chan was there and needed his help. There was a moment Eason was next to me. We were both waiting for the Mr. Sales guy to return. Eason was friendly, and we had the most useless conversation. “Are you buying a guitar?? He asked, in his bright orange Hawaiian shirt and straw hat (I remember seeing him in the same outfit in the newspaper next morning). “Yes!” I replied. He was a budding singer at the time, not like what he is now.

I bought my Fender around year 2000, at an equivalent of USD $800. It was a lot of money, especially for a spoiled 17 year-old. I can’t thank my mother enough. At the time, I thought I would play that guitar a lot to make up for how much it’s worth. I still play this guitar today, and it’s my main axe. It’s the electric guitar I feel the most comfortable playing.

#31 How it all started – 6

I eventually got my first acoustic guitar as my 16 year old birthday present at 新星堂, a Japanese music chain that had a store in Hong Kong – Japanese rock was really popular back then, thanks to the many Japanese tv shows. I drew the John lennon self-portrait this dreadnought-style guitar. I grew up watching the Beatles Anthology – watched them when they were first broadcasted on TV, recorded them, and rewatched them many times. Forward a few years, when I came to the States, I lent this guitar to a friend – we played in the same band back then, and I thought it would be easy to get the guitar back in the future. I never saw it again.

Beyond was a legendary band from Hong Kong, and I spent much time and effort learning songs on their double live album “Beyond 的精彩LIVE&BASIC“. It was a very emotional album, as it was the first live show after the passing of the frontman man, Wong Ka-Kui. I spent a lot of time learing the solo of 太空 and Love. I had the VCDs of the concert, and I just keep rewinding until I got the solos.

(The VCD is a “weaker” version of the DVD – lower resolution, and each disc can only store video of about an hour long. It’s a transitional format between VHS and DVD. I don’t think the VCDs were ever used in the US)

Back then, I didn’t know the opening track of the concert was an arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird! Well (I still don’t know about a lot of things)! As I started learning these songs, I quickly realized that there was such a thing as a cutaway guitar, and mine was not a cutaway. It was hard to learn those electric guitar solos.

I picked up many loose melodies and licks here and there. I also learned 愛我別走, and 我的知己在街頭 (now, I would ask my more advanced guitar students to learn the latter). I remember making tabs of 愛我別走 in class. I was improving, and could learn melodies by ear faster. There was also the Japanese arcade game, Guitar Freaks (precursor of Guitar Hero in US). My friends would be playing Happy Man in the game, and I would be playing the same tune on a real guitar. At the time, the most difficult song I was learning at the time was Eric Johnson’s Song for Life.

A friend in 5C and I made a pact – we would go buy electric guitars together to start a band. We went back to 新星堂 on their annual “sale day”, waited in the long line, and bought the cheapest guitars in store. But I actually bought a bass. Yeah, if we start a band, someone had to play bass, right?

My friend ended up not playing his electric guitar much, and I borrowed his electric guitar too. Now I have an acoustic guitar, and electric guitar, a bass, and the J-rock band scores. Naturally, I was learning mores, and really wanted a nice electric guitar. I was a huge fan of X-Japan, and was dreaming about his guitar. I would ended up getting something quite different.

Hide, and my dream guitar

(To be continued in How it at started #7)

#21 How it all started – 5

Although I didn’t join the the school orchestra in secondary school (approximately middle school and high school in US?), I continued violin lessons through my secondary school, until I was 19. I often had my violin with me, so that I could go to my teacher’s home after school for lessons.

I recall being scolded by a teacher while I was in grade 8 (or 9…?). She said the violin was too loud, and I shouldn’t be playing in between classes. Of course that didn’t stop me from playing. I just turned my violin sideways, and continued to play by plucking instead of bowing the strings (I also remember doing that in a class grade 7 class when we were given free time to study). Where did I pick up that from?

Seeing me plucking away, my best friend at the time told me he had a guitar sitting in the closet that I could use. And that’s how I got into playing the guitar. I really wanted a steel string guitar at the time. That’s what all the popular songs used. Of course, my friend’s guitar is a classical style, nylon string guitar. I gladly took up the offer anyways. Who can say no to a free guitar? And who knew I would end up studying classical guitar?

It was not terribly difficult to pick up the guitar – playing the violin helped the left hand much. Open chords were easy to pick up, but barred chords were tough. The F chord was a bitch. I was playing a lot of cantopop tunes, J-rock, Brit rock, and American pop/rock. I remember having picked out the intro to a pop song, and immediately asked my parents to listen to me play. They must have thought it was strange? There was no youtube back then, and i would put a mp3 track on repeat to slowly figure out the notes. I also looked up a lot of tabs, and learned that tabs (on anything online) were not to be trusted.

There were a few (rich?) kids one grade higher, and I remember them mocking me as I didn’t know much back them. They were all taking lessons and playing electric guitars for their CP (class performance). How cool was that?! One thing I did learn from them was that many Japanese rock bands released full scores with tabs of their albums. These scores were (they still are) the best thing on earth. Whoever transcribed them note for note are saints. I hope my Luna Sea and L’Arc-en-ciel scores are still at home in HK. And I have just purchased a few X-Japan scores off Ebay.

Speaking of X-Japan… internet hit the household when I was around 16 years old. Those were the days of Geocities, Yahoo mail, Netscape, 14.4K modem (hearing white noise if you picked up the phone), ICQ, Winamp, Xanga. How many of these still exist today? But anyhow, one of the first things I looked up were official websites of my favorite bands, and I remember trying xjapan.com. It brings you to the band’s homepage now, but back then, it would bring you to a naughty site.

(To be continued in How it all started #6)

#20 How it all started – 4

My brother and I began our violin lessons when we were 6 and 7 years old. We did two years of after-school group violin classes, and were suggested to take private lessons with the head violin teacher. I was intimidated at first, as my teacher seemed strict. We were so young, so at first our parents would arrange our maid to take us to our teacher’s home for back-to-back lessons. I remember waiting for an hour outside our teachers apartment for our first lessons – either him or us have messed up the lesson time.

As we grew older, our teacher offered to drive us to his place if we could wait for him to finish teaching his after-school group class. Those were really fun times. My brother and I got to hang out with other kids at school for a few hours, and then we would hop on our teacher’s BMW, and take an “unusual” route (not the familiar route to go home). My teacher drove fast too.

As we advanced to secondary school, the school day ended later in the afternoon, so I would get to my teacher’s place by taking the school bus (what did my brother go? I don’t remember us taking the school bus together. Maybe he had other extra curricular activities?) The school bus experience was strange, as I had to share the ride in a packed school bus with kids I see only once a week. I remember going to the library a lot before and after violin lessons, borrowing many wuxia novels and books on Hong Kong crime cases. Was I too young to read those brutal crime cases? It had to start somewhere…

During my high school years, I would take public transport to my lessons. Such a sense of independence and being a growin up (but never mature): should I take the bus? #1? #5? #5A? Or #10? All had slightly different routes and prices. What about the tram? Maybe check out a music store before hopping on a bus? Snacks and drinks from Park N Shop? The latest comic books or magazines before or after lesson?

I forgot when it was, but wandering around my teacher’s neighborhood gave me a chance to see the drummer of my favorite band from Hong Kong. I was star struck. He was talking to a friend, so he didn’t see me. I wouldn’t have interrupted and said hi anyways.

(To be continued in How it all started – 5.)

#8 How it all started – 3

My brother and I ended up playing the viola in the primary school orchestra. We never took a viola lesson, but our teacher would transpose all music from alto to treble clef so that we can play it like a violin. I remember in a Christmas performance at school, the viola parts didn’t have to come in till later in the piece, but when it came time for the viola entrance, I couldn’t get into playing position quick enough and started late. I still do stupid things like that today.

I did not play in the school orchestra when I entered secondary school (equivalent to grade 7?). I wasn’t really sure why, but it seemed like my violin teacher did not want his students to be involved with the school orchestra. I respected my teacher a lot, so I did what he said. Back then, everyone student who took music lessons would take performance exams through the Royal School of Music, and my teacher was so opposed to the idea that a performance can be quantified in different levels. It certainly made an impact on me, to be careful of numbers of the commercial world. He would play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the most musical way, and ask us young students, how would we grade his performance?

My teacher did have a student, whose parents would insist on my teacher helping her achieve grade 8 in two years. She was a beginner. She got grade 8 in two years. She sounded…. bad.

Even though I didn’t join the school orchestra, I continued violin lessons, all the way through age 19, until I came to the States for college. I was quite proud that when I was 15, I played the Presto from Bach’s BWV 1001 for my music exam at school, and my music teacher asked me why wasn’t I in the orchestra. He thought I played so well for my exam. I am glad to not be part of the orchestra though, as I was much more into basketball during those years. I would have a whole different group of friends had I played in the school orchestra. I am also glad I kept my violin lessons too (ended up taking 12 years of lessons), as it paved the way for my mandolin playing.

(To be continued in How it all started – 4.)

#7 How it all started – 2

I played in the school orchesra for 4 years since 8 years old. The first piece I played was the second violin part of the famous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart. Along with my choir experience, it showed me how musical parts are being put together to form a whole piece.

Orchestra was really fun, because rehearsals were on Saturday afternoons, and we would play table tennis before/after reherasals and during rehearsal breaks. Primary school back then was split into AM and PM schools, and the two schools would have classes on alternating Saturday mornings. Going to orchestras would allow students between the two schools to mingle. Somehow I didn’t exchange names with the PM kids. We would just play ping pong and hang out every week and never bothered to formally meet each other.

There was a piece I learned from orchestra that I really liked, but the repertoire kept changing, and I ended up forgetting the name of the piece and the composer. I remember the melody very well, and would hum the tune for years before (re)learning its name. It wasn’t until I got to Eastman that I learned it was the second movement of Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. No wonder I never remembered it. “Serenade” and “Tchaikovsky” were very difficult words to spell/remember.

Thinking back, this could be the reason of why I am so obssessed with waltzes. (I can think of two other reasons – the waltz cd, and the video game Antarctic Adventure, but this is worth another post altogether.)

(To be continued in How it all started – 3.)

#5 How it all started – 1

My mom told me I asked for piano lessons when I was 5. I faintly remember, I asked my mom for piano lessons on my birthday (…?), but lessons didn’t last long, because I didn’t practice.

I was in the school choir between 6 to 10 years old – an experience I am grateful for, because it taught me how to sing harmonies – extremely useful for all the bands I play with. The only song I remember from choir is All Things Bright and Beautiful by John Rutter. I still hum this song from time to time.

I also remember a humiliating experience from a choir practice: in the middle of rehearsal, the teacher was working with one of the sections, and the rest of us were supposed to sit quietly and wait. I was so into the music, and didn’t realize I was whispering my part along. Suddenly, the girl who say next to me glared at me with disdain. My ears turned red, but I couldn’t go anywhere. Looking back, I didn’t know why I felt so embarrassed – was I singing too loud? I sang out of tune? Because I didn’t keep quiet? I guess it was strange I forgot others were around me. What’s worse was I had to sit next to her for the rest of the semester.

My brother signed up for violin lessons when he was 6 (he is one year younger than me). I don’t know how it started, but I remember taking the violin over (not by force), happily playing what he just practiced on. I didn’t know how to read music then, and I was picking up the tunes by ear. Naturally I also signed up violin lessons. I played violin until I came to the States for college at the age of 19.

Much later in life, I have learned that the critical period for acquiring perfect pitch was 6 years old. My brother has perfect pitch, but I don’t, even though we started roughly at the same time – he was 6 and I was 7!

In Elementary training for musicians, Hindemith wrote about his exercises for training perfect pitch:

“… This experiment may at first fail frequently enough, but after eighty or a hundred attempts a fairly firm and reproducible impression of A must be established. If not, the question may be raised whether there is any musical gift at all in a mind that cannot learn to remember and compare pitches…”

Sorry Maestro.

(To be continued on How it all started 2.)