Butterfly At Heart – Music Chose Me (To Be A Messenger)

“Music is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond my grasp, but which, if I sit down quietly, may alight upon me.”
Celeste Koh (adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote)

When I was a small kid, my parents (especially my mother) would send me to abacus classes, make me memorise the multiplication tables, buy me academic books to study and make me do lots of worksheets and assessment papers. I guess I inherited some artistic genes from my mother too. I enjoyed drawing, colouring and painting. My mother would sign up for some children art competitions for me and I used to win some prizes for my art pieces too. In primary school, I joined the Art Club as my CCA (Co-Curricular Activities) and was also appointed the Art Board Monitor for my class by my art teacher, whose role was to decorate our class’s art board. But never did I have the chance to come into contact with music. When I was in Primary 5, I became curious with music and even daydreamed of myself being able to play nice pieces of music with musical instruments. So I quitted Art Club and joined the school’s Symphonic Band even though I didn’t have any musical background at all. However, because of my physique (I was taller and bigger in size than most of my peers), instead of getting to play the more popular instruments like flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and trombone, I was chosen by the conductor to play the most bulky, heavy and arguably the most boring instrument in the band – the tuba.

That’s how a tuba looks like

Suddenly, I was given those musical sheets which I didn’t know how to read. There wasn’t really anyone who was there to properly teach and guide me from the basics. Most of the time, when the whole band was practising together, I couldn’t really keep up with the rest. I would pretend I was playing along, but I wasn’t actually making a sound. Despite of this, I somehow still managed to muddle through my last 2 years of primary school in the band. But I really enjoyed listening to how the music sounded like when all the different instruments were playing together in harmony. It felt so magical.

When I went on to pursue my secondary education in St. Nicholas Girls’ School, I decided to join the school’s Symphonic Band again. This time, again because of my physique, I was assigned by my conductor to play a brass instrument. Fortunately, this time though, I was given tuba’s little sister, the euphonium. It has the same shape as the tuba but smaller in size and higher in pitch.

How an euphonium looks like.

(may change the above photo to another photo of myself playing the euphonium back then if I manage to find the photos in my old laptop later on 😀 )

The conductor didn’t need many euphonium players in the band so typically she only wanted just one player from each level (Secondary 1-4). In other words, in any one year, there were usually only 4 euphonium players in the band altogether. I was the only euphonium player in my level, so I considered myself unique. Hehe. Because our euphonium section was very small, we combined with the tuba players to form what we called the E.T. section.

The E.T. Section. This photo was taken in 2007 when I was already a senior. Those squatting on the floor were me and my peers, those standing were our juniors. That was how our band uniforms looked like back then. 🙂

Things were difficult when I first started out as a Secondary 1 recruit. I still considered myself without having any musical background, despite my short 2 years spent in my primary school band. I had to learn everything from scratch. I was very slow in learning when it came to music. My brain seemed to take an extra long time to process everything all at one go – from recognising the note on the score sheet, translating it into the fingering on my instrument, thinking about how much air and force I needed to blow into the instrument to get the right pitch, and then, at the same time, I had to keep track of the count and keep up with the tempo. There were too many things going on at one time – it was so difficult to me. I also had a problem of using my diaphragm to project my sound louder. Moreover, my euphonium section leader (the Sec 4 senior) at that time who was in charge of teaching me during our sectional practices, though very petite in size, was rather fierce and strict to me. Because I kept making the same mistakes over and over again, she would get impatient and start raising her voice. Her beats would get louder and louder as she tapped her stick on the music stand to do the counting for me. I became scared of her and sometimes I would skip band practices just to avoid the gruelling practice sessions with her.

Things however got better in the following year when I began to make some good friends of the same level in band. At least I began to have something to look forward to when I went for band practices. The Sec 4 senior had already graduated and left, and the Sec 3 senior took over and became our euphonium section leader. But she was also another rather stern kind of person; she was also elected as our drum major (2nd highest position in our band) so she was someone of high authority. Our sectional practices were usually very serious and no-fun. I was afraid to make mistakes in front of her too.

It was 2005. That year, we had our biannual Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Central Judging competition. You could say, it was the most important competition for the symphonic bands from all secondary schools in Singapore. Each band had to play a piece of their own choice + a common piece selected by the organiser, and the judges would grade each band with either Gold with Honours, Gold, Silver, Bronze or Certificate of Participation (COP). I was among the “failed” recruits who were not selected by our conductor to take part in this competition with the main band. While some of the “failed” recruits were bitter about it and even hated the conductor for not giving them a chance to take part in this prestigious competition, I was however pretty cool about not getting selected. I accepted the fact that my skills were lacking and I wasn’t good enough to be part of this competition yet. I didn’t want to drag the whole band down because of me either. Our band was aiming to get a Gold or even Gold with Honours this time because in the past few years, we only got a Silver.

On the day of the competition, I was seated in the concert theatre at the Singapore Conference Hall to watch as an audience with the other “failed” recruits. I was sitting at the right corner at the very last row at the highest level. St Nicholas Symphonic Band (SNSB) was the last band to play for the day. It was nerve-wrecking as I watched our band perform the pieces in front of the judges. I could only hope for the best for them.

After our band finished, there was an intermission as the judges took the time to finalise the results for the day. Moments before the results were announced, there was a little commotion going on in the theatre. It turned out that there was a mysterious big, golden brown butterfly/moth flying around in the theatre. Many people turned around to look at it. Before I could react, it flew towards me and went straight into my blazer (I was wearing the band uniform). I was shocked and my friends beside me helped to shake it out of my blazer before it finally flew out and disappeared. Awhile later, the results were announced – our band was awarded GOLD! (you can see the SYF results of that year here. My school is right at the end, the last one.)

Years later, till today, I could never forget that mysterious appearance of the golden moth, what’s more in a concert hall. Not only was it an omen that our band was going to win a gold, the fact that it chose to land on my chest seemed to be an early indication that I was someone who was already special back then. It was the first encounter I had which made me feel that I probably had or was going to have an unique connection with music.

2 years later after the competition, I became the Sec 4 senior – and the euphonium section leader. There was once we had a combined band practice with our conductor. In front of the rest of the band, the conductor complimented me for having a really good tone / nice euphonium sound and asked me to play a few notes to demonstrate my sound. And then, she went on to say that I had really improved so much over the last few years. It was definitely one of the proudest moments I ever had in my life. I might not be the most skilful euphonium player. I might not be the loudest. But I had the most beautiful sound.

Now, if you ask me about any technical aspects of music or even how to read a note on the score sheet, I have to say that I still don’t know anything. All the music-related skills and techniques which I had learned in the past somehow were still not ingrained in my mind yet.

I guess my attitude towards music has always been like: I don’t really like to know too much technical details of music, but I care more about its emotions, feelings and mood. Sometimes, it seems more like I don’t know music but it knows me.

I couldn’t agree more with the following quote from Elvis Presley which Sooyoung shared on her instagram 2 years ago.

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A post shared by Sooyoung Choi (@sooyoungchoi) on

From the day the golden moth/butterfly came into my heart, I guess music had already chosen me – not to be a professional singer, an artiste, a composer, an arranger, a musical instrument player, but to be its messenger. <3

Sidenote: Taenggu has a special connection with butterflies too! Read #14 MONTHSARY: FLY LIKE A BUTTERFLY as I explained it here before. 🙂

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