They've got rhythm. Alumni members of the band perform a sleek routine during a prize presentation day.
"Being in the band has taught me discipline," states Muhammad Khairi bin Suhaimi. The Secondary 4 Drum Major adds, "For example, although I'd rather be practising on my drum pad, I know to put it aside when I have homework to complete."
With similar conviction, Khairi's bandmate, Eunice Sng Hui Jun, adds, "It can be stressful at times, but I have no regrets - I have enjoyed very much my time in the school band."
With such declarations of dedication, it's clear that Bowen Secondary School's Military Band is an outfit with a difference. For unlike most bands, this ensemble delivers a tour de force of choreographed colours and movements. Helmed by a team of Colourguards who twirl flags, batons or wooden 'rifles', the display band turns the standard march into a complex dance that tells a story, showcases a theme and dazzles their audiences.
Plumes and bright uniforms add colour to the music.
From their base in the northeast of Singapore, the musicians have made their school a magnet for students who seek to play a part in a CCA with multiple awards under its belt. Recognised as a Niche School for its band programme in 2008, Bowen Secondary School has charted ten gold awards at the Singapore Youth Festival, including two 'Gold with honours' in 2006 and 2010.
The exacting demands of a display band fail to deter would-be members, who send in more applications than the band can accept every year. Some, like Eunice, opted for Bowen Secondary School after their PSLE with the goal of joining the band and honing their existing skills. Others, such as Khairi, mastered the beat despite having no musical knowledge or band experience. In fact, more than 90 percent of each Sec 1 cohort lacked training in both music and marching; they pick up the tools and talent from sheer hard work and determination, and rightly reap the rewards.
A culture of passion
Band director and Subject Head for Aesthetics (Internal), Mr Herald Khoo, who has led the CCA since 2006, claims to have inherited "the winning streak" from the band members who are "very passionate about doing well". A former band member himself, he worked to beef up the players' individual technique and mould the group into a tight unit, using top bands in other cities as benchmarks.
For a marching band, hitting the beats means hours on the feet.
To do just that, Mr Khoo sent the band to the 2009 World Marching Band Competition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where they managed to bag a silver award. "When the students realised the high standards of other bands, they became more motivated to improve themselves," says Mr Khoo. Further exposure to the international arena came in 2008 and 2010, when selected band members flew to Nagoya, Japan, to take part in a one-week training, exchange and immersion programme with the renowned Aimachi Marching Band. Since 2008, the school has also invited world-class instructors from Japan to lead master classes for the students in Singapore.
All band members are also required to prepare for the Trinity Guildhall Music Theory Examination. "We try to push them to attain at least a Grade 4 or 5 before they get to Sec 4," reveals Miss Melissa Chong, Music Programme Director and teacher-in-charge, who is a former band member herself.
For the common good
In addition to technical skills, band members imbibe a culture of resilience, discipline and teamwork through the rigours of band practice. The results may look glamorous, but rehearsals command nine hours of intense drills over three days each week, with additional sessions on Saturdays in the run-up to major performances or competitions. There are also individual work-outs, sectionals, combined practices as well as marches both indoors and outdoors.
Miss Melissa Chong (in blue) and Mr Herald Khoo (in blue) are former band members who continue to share their love for music and showmanship.
It's a routine that may take up some personal time, but the band members have no qualms about sacrificing their leisure hours. "We are committed to doing well," says Eunice, who is now in Sec 4. "When we perform, we set aside all our conflicts and work as a team."
"I have definitely learnt to be more responsible, tough and confident" states Khairi, who has to cope with the pressure of taking centrestage as the Drum Major. It's a far cry from his Sec 1 days when he was a clueless recruit who had signed up simply because the band looked "fun" when he saw them performing during the orientation. But for both Khairi and Eunice, the experience has turned a hobby into a masterful talent and both students hope to contribute to the band long after they leave the school to keep the music playing.