The Day The Ball Didn’t Bounce

Based on a true story, this book by Dr Peter Mach, a surgeon in a public hospital (in Singapore), is about teenage suicide and seeks to help us not just deal with a sudden and unexplainable death but also how and whether we could have prevented the tragedy.

The main tool to prevent a suicide would be to recognise the early signs of stress that appears from behaviour and make the person aware that you care enough to want to listen to his or her troubles and want to work together to resolve them. The importance of the prevention perspective needs to be taken seriously.

The book begins with a quote by William James: The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.

The first part of the book, To Adolescents, is Nick’s account of his brother Jay’s journey. Jay committed suicide on April Fool’s Day in 2013. Reading Nick’s recollection, realisation, reaction, rationalisation and reflection, I found my eyes wet with tears. Suicide is indeed a terrible thing. One life lost is one too many.

Part 2 of the book, To Parents, contains chapters about what Resilience is – family support, trust, school support and peer support, promoting resilience identity (parents’ work, growing pains and the role of spirituality) and how adults can help – through sharing, transparency, communicatiion, being role models, spending quality time and being involved in voluntary causes and charitable activities.

There is an appendix at the end of the book on where to seek help, support and advice to anyone who has a problem. Also included is a list for suggested reading; among which is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

King of Mahjong

I picked up this DVD (2015) because it stars the funny Singaporean comedian Mark Lee.’King of Mahjong‘ centres on the decade-long feud and eventual reunion of Wang Tin Ba (Mark Lee) and Ah Fatt (Chapman To), two top disciples of the legendary mahjong maestro, Master Ru (Eric Tsang). Twenty years later, Wong, who is now a world-acclaimed mahjong champion and magnate, shows up in Ipoh to challenge Fatt to a final showdown – The World Mahjong Championship. Despite Wang’s insistence, Fatt declines to join the competition as he is determined and contented to lead the life of a commoner. In a bid to force Fatt into the showdown, Wang abduct Fatt’s wife and threatens her. Fatt has no choice but to join the championship.

Though I don’t understand mahjong at all, I find this movie to be rather enjoyable because it ias entertaining and heartwarming. The most important message is that family is more important than winning competitions. It is nice to see Ipoh from various angles. A surprise is that part of the story takes place in Singapore, and Singapore is really beautiful at night!

Forever In Love

This is one of the most inspirational books by June Cotner and it is a celebration of love and romance. Published in 2014, it is the result of years of collectiing poems about love and marriage which are grouped into 14 parts:

1. The Search eg Lovers doth finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along. (Kumi 1207-1273)

2. The Attraction eg Seeing you without warning/ After staying away so long/ The heart I thought I’d subdued/ Tore loose and ran straight/ Into April’s green dazzle/ Into the light of your hazel eyes/ Leaving the rest of me numb,/ Stunned with love. (Marjorie Rommel)

3. Longing eg No being in all the wide realms of heaven/ Or across this vast earth/ Can understand my desperate longing./ Only you./ Only you. (Ramprasad Sen 1718-1775)

4. Courtship eg Come live with me, and be my love,/ And we will some new pleasures prove/ Of golden sands and crystal brooks/ With silken lines, and silver hooks. (John Dunne 1572-1631)

5. Merging eg My soul quietly flows into you/ And as you lead me into your gentle embraces/ I exhale and welcome the peace that is/ The perfect promise of you. (Lori Eberhardy)

6. Commitment eg Sometimes it is invisible and at times it is silent./ But in the still of the night,/ It speaks to my heart and sings to my soul. (Lori Eberhardy)

7. Early Years eg All those “and they lived happily ever after” fairy-tale endings need to be changed to “and they began their hard work, making their marriages happy”. (Linda Miles)

8. Daily Life eg First we fall in love. That’s the exciting part./ Then we learn to love. That’s the hard part./ Finally we simply love being loving. And that, by far, is the best part.  (Michael Leech)

9. Struggles eg Marriage is that intimate relationship with tugs and pulls at two egos in order to create the fulfillment of each other – if only we can humble ourselves enough to cooperate. (Henry James Boyrs)

10. Mature Love eg I look at you and cannot stop/ The passion that surges to life./ My heart yearning as it did the very first time, / And I want to do with you/ What autumn does to maple leaves/ And northern light to sky. (Marian Olsen)

11. Later Years eg We have stretched past/ our middle years. Olive trees/ ready for the late autumn pressing. … We gently await/ the artist’s next brush stroke; savouring this stolen season. (Donna Wahlert)

12. In Sickness eg Words too painful to comprehend were captured by your ears. The eyes reacted, witholding tears yet expressing terror. Metastatic carcinoma, advanced. I held your head but could not hold back your dying. (Lois Green Stone)

13. Partings eg Music are when soft voices die, Vibrates in the memory – Odours, when sweet violets sicken, … / Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, …/ And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone, Love itself shall slumber on. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

14. Reflections eg What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility. (Leo Tolstoy 1828-1910)

This is a book that will allow couples to reminisce about earlier years together and look forward to the days to come. I am moved, awed and astonished by the kaleidoscope of feelings so eloquently expressed.

 

Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story

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One of my most prized possessions, Lang Lang’s book Journey of a Thousand Miles, is the only book he signed at the end of his concert I attended at the Esplanade Concert Hall (ECH) in 2010.(The ECH management had stipulated that each person in the queue at the autograph session could only ask Lang Lang to sign one CD. I not only got that, but also a photograph with him.) In person, Lang Lang was an imposing figure with lots of charm and charisma. Polite and affable, he was very obliging and immediatedly agreed to sign my book upon request. The few seconds (or a minute or two) with him would be forever etched in my memory.

 

The book began with his mother’s story: Zhou Xiu-lan was an actress, singer and dancer. Neither shy nor weak, she had dreams and ambitions, imagination and talent, but her professional dreams were thwarted by the Cultural Revolution. (Lang Lang practised to make up for her missed opportunities; the music became a soundtrack to a movie about his mother.) She met Lang Pa in 1977 when both were 24. Lang Pa was tenacious in his courtship and they married in 1980 and Lang Lang was born in 1982.As a child of two musicians who had had their ambitions and hopes shattered, Lang Lang was born of great expectations – one that  both guided him and led him to great success.

The first account that was slightly different from Lang Pa’s book was that the first piano was delivered just before Lang Lang turned two. Lang Lang loved Tom & Jerry, Monkey King and Transformers but didn’t like learning scales and tackling exercises but did so because he realised that to play the pieces he loved he needed to practice.

Lang Lang was a child who was much loved, even adored, by his mother, his grandparents, his uncle and aunts. It was telling that he did not include his dad here. Unconditional dedication to his career became his father’s solemn duty and dad never smiled or said anything much except “Practice!”. His mum explained that “Your father and I will protect you. You wil always be the most important thing in our lives. We will sacrifice whatever necessary to ensure your career”. Yet, to live without Lang Lang was a sacrifice she never considered; it started with Lang’s sojourn to Beijing.

Lang played with tears in his eyes. He played because it was easier to play than not to play; easier to play than to argue with his dad; easier to play than to listen to his parents fight; easier to play than to think about being ini Beijing without his mom. When his mum was gone, and Lang Pa demamded that he practised, Lang poured his heart into his playing. Without his mother to run to, the piano often became an extension of his emotions. When he wasn’t playing the piano, he felt that everything was lost. Nothing would ease the pain till he saw his mum again, though his mum explained, “Your father only wants what’s best for you”.

Later, during his mum’s visit, Lang never let her out of his sight. When she listened to him practise, she told him he was playing better than ever; he embraced her with all his strength. Her encouragement gave him the nourishment he’d been missing.

Lang Pa had given up his job to dedicate his life to his son. For all the differences in their personalities, father and son shared an obsession – to be Number 1. As his mum explained: “Most dads don’t care half as much as he does”. She was right. Lang Pa was relentless, difficult and cold, but he was also his son’s best ally and strength.

Mum explained that it was because of  her love for Lang that she stepped aside to let Lang Pa help him become Number 1, that the three of them were united in this great adventure to cultivate his talent and bring him fame, and that each of them had a role to play in this endeavour. His mum’s ego was more controlled. She loved her son without concern for her own well-being. Lang, in turn, loved her even more; he never stopped feeling the pain of her absence. His heart cried for her; he continued to cry for his mum throughout his entire childhood and, to be honest, long after that. Of the three of them, mum was the strongest, enduring endless stretches of loniliness for her son’s benefit.

Lang fell in love with New York at first sight and was enchanted by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (which is older and calmer that New York). Lang Pa told him America was the most open country with the most possibilities. In America, the sky was the limit.

Lang Lang realised for the first time how much he loved his dad when Lang Pa was hospitalised because of two large tumours in his throat on the plane back to China after the Curtis audition. Those were dark days. Lang Lang cried all the time. What would become of him without his father?

On another level, the new life was a revelation in many ways; one of which was to see kids of his age question authority. He felt creative and alive. Then the incident with the shoe happened. It was as Lang Pa recounted in his book, except that Lang Lang remembered it had hit his ear.

The most astounding day for Lang Lang was when he replaced Andre Watts. Lang was a crowd pleaser, a dramatic performer who loved nothing more than conveying his love of the music. He was the biggest and most exciting keyboard talent encountered in many years.

Another account that was slightly different from Lang Pa’s acccount was the choice of two recording contracts. At the agte of 18, Lang made his first release, a live performance in Seiji Ozawas Hall at Tanglewood under the Telarc label.

Lang Lang was slow in adjusting to the rhythms of success. He was meeting interesting people every day. Whe he started earning good money, the best thing was that he finally got to see his mother! He had not seen his mum for three years. The first time she walked through the customs at the airport, Lang Lang started to cry like a little boy; and when she held him in her arms, he felt like one. For the next two days, he didn’t let her out of his sight. This was something very crucial and Lang Pa did not make any mention of it in his book. I really hope Zhou would pen a book one day writing about her perspectives. She is the single most important source of his sanity and his love for her is boundless.

Another important milestone for Lang Lang was playing at the Carneige Hall because it meant being in the living presence of Horowitz and Rubinstein, masters who had performed there countless times. It also had by far the best acoustics.

Playing music is not rocket science. It is poetry, romance. The pianist’s interpretation must be the genuine manifestation of the human emotion. Lang Lang has been written about as a technical wizard but a self-absorbed interpreter: too personal, too undisciplined, too subjective, too schmaltzy, too romantic and too self-indulgent. But, ironically, the controversy was helpful. It made lang Lang controversial, and, funnily enough, controversy sells.

In 2002, depression loomed over Lang Lang (whicxh Lang Pa also did not mention). He felt constantly unmoored, always completely alone in spite of the crowds. He began feeling shaky and afraid and worried about injuries; the biggest fear concerned the arm and hands. It happened in 2003. His hand was injured because he didn’t “live a normal life”. This was a chance for him to find balance in life. Among other things, he studied Chinese philosophy (Confucius and Lao Tsu) and looks back on this time as one of the greatest moments of his life – a time to learn that he could live life without the piano. He learnt that balance is what matters most. The world was now a totally different place, and much more interesting thatn it had been just a month earlier.

Lang Lang’s first solo recital at Carneige Hall was a spsecial experience. When he and his dad held hands and bowed as they received a standing ovation, Lang Lang couldn’t help but think how far they had come together: it was a moment of great triumph and reconcilation.

Life was now a whirlowind of constant travel, excitement and even glamour. The reality of it went beyond what he had dreamt of as a child. He now lived in airplanes… It was crazy and non-stop, but he loved it. The downside was that his life was confined to airplanes, hotels and concert halls.

In 2004, Lang Lang was appointed Internationl Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF. The unforgettable experiecnces made him cry and he felt confused that the human condition could be so wondrous yet so appalling. Kofi Annan, US secretary-general said: “Lang Lang, your responsibility as an artist goes beyond music. Your art must serve people and peace”. Yes, music is the true connector; the world of music is truly a world without borders.

Lang Lang wrote this book (with David Ritz, a bestselling music writer who has written autobiographies of many musicians) when he was 26 and much have happened since. I wonder when he will write the next book. Perhaps when he is 40, or when he has a family of his own? I would love to read his perspectives of his own family – like whether his wife would have the qualities Lang Pa mentioned in his book, whether his own children would be subjected to the kind of training he had, etc). Perhaps, before that, his mum would write a book from her point of view? I look forward to both books.

My 30 Years with Lang Lang

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It was such an unexpected surprise when I spotted this book on the shelves of the library@esplanad that my heart went a-fluttering for a few seconds before I pulled it out. Written in Chinese by Lang Guo-ren (known as Lang Pa) and published in 2012 (Lang Lang turned 30 on 14 June 2012), this book is a father’s account of the story behind the phenomenal success of international pianist Lang Lang.

This book tells of the special relationship between father and son and the unforgettable early days of struggle, unsurmountable courage and immense hardwork. Their experience shows that there is no short cut : success only follows after much hard work and nobody can realise their dreams through sheer luck.

Lang Lang comes from a musical family: his paternal grandfather loved music and played many instruments and was most proficient in accordion, flute, violin, organ and harmonica (which he played for the baby in his crib). Lang’s paternal grandmother loved music, especially singing. Their five children all played musical instruments and Lang Pa was partial to the erhu. His plans to turn professional was thwarted; and the biggest turning point in his life was the birth of Lang Lang. Both parents had agreed that the child (whether girl or boy) would learn the piano (because it’s a Western instrument and king of all musical instruments and is known internationally), so they bought one in 1981.

The name Lang means ‘very bright’ and he was nicknamed Liang Liang (also meaning ‘very bright’). He was always alert and loved colourful things and was sensitive to music. When he was 9 months old, he could finish a song pitch-perfect, and was the first child in the neighbourhood who could sing Shanghai Bund. He began learning the piano when he was about 2 (from Lang Pa). His motivation included chocolates, story books, comics and transformers.

Lang Lang loved the cartoon Tom & Jerry and would not allow any adult in the room when he watched it (sometimes with his friends) but would make a lot of noise shouting, yelling, clapping or stomping his feet. He surprised everyone one day by playing the theme on the piano. (He was only two-and-a half!) Lang Pa was even more determined that Lang Lang would be trained in the piano and they would aim for the world stage.

Much of the anecdotes have been recounted by Lang Lang in interviews and his book, Journey of a Thousand Miles (2008) but Lang Pa offers his own perspectives. Lang Pa also wrote about other matters, such as how to choose a teacher, how the parent works with the teacher and why it is best for the parent to learn together with the child as a partner. Lang Pa’s 10 Principles include cultivating the child’s concentration, nurturing the child’s memory, efficiency, competitiveness, vigorous training, communicating/working with the teacher and getting their support and encouragement, how the child must be passionate about learning, must learn to compete, run, chase, help and surpass, not letting the child be distracted by worries or influenced by negative vibes and working with the teacher.

From the time Lang Lang was 11, Lang Pa’s account was more detailed and elaborate than what Lang Lang had written in his book. For example, I was surprised to note that T’sung Ye (conductor/director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra) played a part in introducing Lang Lang to Gary Graffman! I also did not know that Graffman spoke good Mandarin or that Lang Lang’s first CD was recorded under the IMG label (when he was only 15).

Perhaps only a father with Lang Pa’s mentality could fully appreciate the unease he felt when Lang Lang began to fall in love with American culture and started rebelling. The story of how Lang Lang became an overnight sensation is history, but I discovered Andre Watts also replaced Lang Lang once, many years later, when the latter fell ill.  Lang Lang made no mention in his book that he asked his father to return to China in 2007 because he noticed Lang Pa was getting old and tired. When Lang Lang’s Music World (based in Shenzhen) was established, Lang Pa became the CEO and felt a sense of satisfaction.

The lessons Lang Lang learnt from Lang Pa include: being a good person, respecting the elders, be compassionate and easy-going and never forgetting where he came from no matter how successful he becomes. Lang Lang also picked up strong work ehtics from his father;  an example is how he went ahead to perform a concert despite a fever of 39 degrees Celsius in 2009 and needed a crew member to help him off stage. On another occasion, Lang Lang cancelled all interviews when he thought visiting his granny was more important.

There are five places in the book that I was moved to the core : the incident where Lang Pa ordered Lang Lang to commit suicide (which is too painful to repeat), the time when Lang Lang’s mouth was full of ulcers because he missed his mum too much, the time when Lang Lang bought his mum a present (when he won a piano competition in Germany) and asked for a present in return (“a real, good hug”), the time when Lang Pa got a SMS from Lang Lang that simply said ‘Love you Pa’ and the surprise 30th birthday celebration for Lang Lang after his concert at O2 in Berlin.

The relationship between Lang Lang and Lang Pa is unique: they are not just father and son, but also friends, brothers and buddies. Reading this book, I gained a new insight into Lang Pa’s world. I admire his dedication and sacrifice for his son and I could empathise with him. There is little mention of Lang Lang’s mother, and I hope I’ll get to read a book penned by her one day, offering her insights too. Before that book, or Lang Lang’s next book comes to fruition, I’m going to re-read Lang Lang’s Journey of a Thousand Miles very soon.

50 to 1

I was attracted to this 2014 DVD because it is another movie based on a true story. The opening scene of a fight in a bar in New Mexico in 1998 sets the tone for the movie about a misfit group of cowboys who find themselves on the journey of a lifetime. Ten years later, their racehorse qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. It is totally unbelievable to see this horse come from so far behind and win the race.

Maybe because I’ve never attended any horse racing events (and have no interest to), I was not really impressed by the footage of races, or the real-life jockey who played himself in the movie. (I was more impressed by the horse that could “act”!) Perhaps this movie would appeal more to people who understand horse-racing. What I understand though is that everybody can go out and take a chance and grab every opportunity there is.

The drama and the humour came through, though. There were scenes that made me laugh, and others that made me feel weepy. There are about two dozen country songs, but I recognised only one : Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”.

Piano Masterclass by Toh Chee Hung

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Toh is a renowned Singaporean pianist who has performed and taught in London, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the Far East. She is a regular visitor to Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Malaysia (home country of her husband, acclaimed pianist Dennis Lee, who is also an adjudicator at the Performers’ Festival). She mentored two students on Wednesday afternoon:

1. Seven-year-old Chu Ziming played the complete Clementi’s Sonatina Op 36 No 3. This is a very nice, smooth piece of music that is like breathing, like a concersation. Toh reminded the boy that he must remember to express his feelings through his touch, matching the action to the beautiful tune as playing the piano is not just doing the action. With each change of touch, tension is added; so it must be musical and gradual and not everything at once, like a punch. Toh had a way of explaining to this little boy what is meant by dolce, or a warm tone, or a marked staccato, or a legato, encouraging him to use his “secret weapons” more to make appropriate sounds. Ultimately, a pianist has to be his most attentive and severe teacher! Just trust your musical instincts and listen to yourself. Music must be natural and sincere and never go beyond what is musically reasonable. One must be really sincere talking to the piano; befriend the piano. (For eg, there are 12 E’s consecutively, but all are different: listen to the nice movements and story lines underneath the different E’s.) All actions that you have and that you do to the piano will have results. Inside the music is a whole new world to discover, just like reading: there are different ways of making a note happen; it’s what you think that’s important.

2. Loh Jia Wei gave Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 5 in C Minor Op 10 No 1 (2nd movement: Adagio Molto in A flat major) a warm glow. When Toh found out the it was Jia Wei’s 11th birthday, she started to play Happy Birthday’ on the piano and got him to continue while she sang the last two lines. Jia Wei’s father was grinning from ear to ear. (He might have been thinking: what a good choice of a birthday present for my son.)

The first thing Toh said was to quote Mozart: A lot of music is used in my rests. She then went on to explain that this is because rests are also music. Silences are the beginning of music. Special care must be taken when pedalling; this is difficult to do but it is mind over matter and intention. A lot of planning is needed to know where the journey is: the longer the line, the deeper the vision/music. The secret is to listen attentively to the balance. There are several ways of playing a legato:

  • using a pedal wisely;
  • matching one tone to the next (a constant gradation of tone);
  • listening for the tail of the tone and match it to the next (technically very difficult);
  • legato fingering (therefore planning is necessary to get the best legato);
  • quality of touch, much like portato (from the Italian portamento meaning the carrying of the sound from note to note smoothly and without any break, hence very legato and momentarily sounding the pitches in between any two indicated by the notation);
  • with the right touch, there is no need for pedalling.

Then, there is also rhythmic pedalling and syncopated pedalling; but what is important is the interesting message being conveyed. Whenever the music is in semitones, pedalling has to be used with much care.

Toh then went on to talk about the Art of Piano Playing. (The theory of how the music is put together is always interesting.) She also explained at length how Beethoven spent a lot of time on figuring out how to teach his pupils to play, how to change the quality of tone, how to articulate the touch with the control of fingers, how ornaments and  legatissimo are to be played, popular oversight of pianists, how the study of what muscle to use and what muscle not to use makes a difference to having a good temperament, how to ensure sound carries and matters of pedal skills and touch.

I felt Toh really packed a lot into her 30minute lessons. I look forward to attending more masterclasses by Toh.