SNYO SPOTLIGHT – ALEXSALMA HERBERT
2 May 2023
Natalie Ngai (SNYO Flautist) speaks to Alexsalma Herbert (SNYO Double Bassist) about her time in the SNYO.
Alexsalma (back row, right) after an SNYO rehearsal at the Esplanade Concert Hall in March 2023.
Natalie: How did your music journey start?
Alexsalma: I started learning music at the age of 5. I learnt the violin with my siblings, then my older brother and I decided to pick up other instruments. On our own, we learnt how to play the electric guitar and acoustic guitar. We also learnt classically how to play the piano and because of that, we decided to form a band – a duo – to sing and play together. But we couldn’t find a bassist to accompany us, so I decided to learn the electric bass on my own. And because the 4 strings of the bass are actually the same as the acoustic guitar, it’s not that hard to learn. So that was my first entry point into bass playing.
Natalie: What led you to audition for the SNYO?
Alexsalma: My older brother, Bryan, was already in SNYS a year before I joined. I watched him prepare for events like the SNYO performance at the MOE Appointment & Appreciation Ceremony for Principals at Shangri-La Hotel. I also went to see him perform at the Science Centre Singapore as part of a workshop for SNYS members organised by students of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and another performance at the Victoria Concert Hall. At first my reason for auditioning for the SNYO was fear of missing out, but I later realised that I wanted to experience being in an orchestra and that I also wanted to play in those events.
I had heard about possible lesson subsidy for new learners of the double bass, and that gave me the idea to learn the bass classically. And the reason for this was because I knew of a lot of rock musicians who also learnt their instruments classically beforehand. An example is Brian May from Queen – he learnt the piano classically then classical guitar as well, and from there he transitioned into playing electric guitar. So I thought, why not learn the double bass? And also because lesson fees might be subsidised by the SNYO. So I auditioned on the violin and I told the audition panel that I was interested in learning the bass, and after the audition they offered me the opportunity to learn the bass.
Alexsalma on the bass guitar at her brother’s graduation recital in 2022, LASALLE College of the Arts.
Natalie: What was your transition from violin to double bass like?
Alexsalma: At first it wasn’t easy. Because there’s the physical aspect – the bass is a hard instrument to play. My fingertips would just hurt for a good few months and there wasn’t a good sound. But after a while, I developed the strength to play and it became slightly easier. Techniques-wise, because I used to be a violinist, some of the techniques overlapped. So vibrato, bow arm movement, all these things have some similarities, so in that sense it wasn’t as hard. But there were still hard things, like for the double bass we have to hold using a German bow hold (at least that’s how I learnt it), and that’s a different way of holding the bow from the violin. And then also there’s register. The violin is super shrill and the bass is super rumbly so intonation-wise it was very hard for me to hear that my intonation was inaccurate at the start because I was so used to very high pitches. But overall I’d say it’s manageable.
Natalie: How was it when you first started to learn the double bass?
Alexsalma: I was assigned a teacher under the SNYO’s Individual Instrument Tuition Scheme as a New Learner on the double bass. My teacher was Mr Wang Xu (SSO Double Bassist). We started off with basic techniques and scales first. Our lessons mainly focused on solo repertoire, so I would work on solo pieces in lessons and learn to play the orchestral parts on my own. I saved time by splitting the orchestral and solo repertoire so that I could start developing my solo skills in lessons then apply them to the SNYO repertoire.
Alexsalma (right) participating in a masterclass at the SNYO Bass Day 2022, SNYO Studios.
Photo: Brandon Koh
Natalie: When you first started learning the bass, did you have your own instrument?
Alexsalma: Fortunately, SNYO had generously allowed me to loan a double bass for my time here! So on my own, I just had to purchase bass bows, strings, a double bass stand and rosin.
Natalie: Can you talk a little bit about what you like about playing your instrument?
Alexsalma: I like that our repertoire is so diverse. In violin, our repertoire is strictly classical, from Baroque to 20th century max. But with the bass, I was learning walking bass, jazz, pizzicato techniques, and skills like improvisation. Previously, I only knew how to improvise melodies. Learning the bass has helped my brain move quicker in terms of improvising a bassline. I also like the bass’s timbre; how the bass can sound like a cello but expand the register, you know. It can go really low, it can go really high. And it sounds really good – when I know how to play it, of course. (laughs)
Alexsalma’s performance during one of her school’s concerts in 2019 at Methodist Girls’ School (Secondary).
Natalie: Speaking of genres, what music do you like listening to in your free time?
Alexsalma: For classical music, I like Prokofiev. I stand by Prokofiev and Debussy. But for mainstream music, Coldplay, Ariana Grande, and I also like K-pop (like EXO, NCT). And Queen, too.
Natalie: How long have you been in the SNYO?
Alexsalma: I’ve been here for 6 years. Since September 2016.
Natalie: And what do you like about orchestral playing?
Alexsalma: I like that I get to experience orchestral music firsthand. I get to be within the ensemble and hear every instrument and their timbres. I do MEP (Music Elective Programme) in school, where music composition is part of the syllabus, so SNYO sort of gave me a wider outlook towards music composition. Before this I was only composing for string instruments. I didn’t dare to touch woodwinds or brass. But after playing a lot of orchestral works and ensemble pieces that heavily involved woodwinds, for example Appalachian Spring by Copland, this opened my mind towards different sounds. And I appreciate being in an orchestra because it showed me compositional styles and techniques, which expanded my understanding of timbres from the orchestral instruments.
I also like finding out how an orchestra works towards a concert, specifically their rehearsal process. I like learning what conductors listen out for and what they nitpick on. Like focusing specifically on violins and their clarity, or disassembling and reassembling small sections of the piece, and just what goes on in managing an orchestra. It’s quite interesting. I used to just watch the orchestras play and I’d always wonder, how long do they take to get to that standard? And now I know. So that’s very fun. That’s why I like being in an orchestra.
Natalie: What makes being an SNYO member so exciting?
Alexsalma: I’ll talk about the musical side first. I think our repertoire is really good. Like Holst The Planets, the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 and the Elgar Cello Concerto. All these things are super fun to play. There’s also Piazzolla who uses experimental string techniques like “Bartok pizz”. It’s pieces like these that are super fun to play. Also it’s nice for the audience to listen to as well. Our pieces are showy and technical, and that makes coming for rehearsals exciting because every rehearsal we get to play something really fun. I remember during one rehearsal for Scheherazade, we just played through the whole piece. That is my favourite type of rehearsal (although it’s not the most useful because we’re not working on anything) but it’s times like that, being able to play repertoire of that scale and have other really good musicians around you to play with you. So that’s what makes coming for SNYO rehearsals super exciting.
Then on the social side, I get to meet a lot of bassists. As you know, that doesn’t happen often. And all these bassists are like me – well, most of them converted from piano. A few converted from violin. So I meet people who understand my situation, unlike in school where the teacher just chooses the tallest kid to play the bass. So to see people that actually come here to learn how to play the bass because they want to, that’s nice. That’s what makes SNYO fun to be in.
Alexsalma (centre) chilling with the bass section at the Esplanade Concert Hall backstage.
Natalie: Which SNYO event was your favourite?
Alexsalma: My favourite event is the Ray Chen concert (SSO Gala: Ray Chen Plays Sibelius was a side-by-side concert where the SSO and SNYO performed together in 2022). Mainly because I was playing alongside my teachers. I was playing beside Mr Yang Zheng Yi, who was my school conductor. And then my own tutor Mr Wang was behind me. My SNYO sectionals teacher Ms Karen Yeo was beside me. So having all of them, professionals and my teachers as well, perform with me was super fun and it made me feel my growth as a musician. Because it’s so rare, you know – one, to play with a professional orchestra and two, to play with your teachers. So it’s very memorable.
But a special mention is the SNYO Bass Day, because I get to meet other bassists and we get to play ensemble pieces. I met a lot more bassists, and that’s fun because you rarely get to see bassists get together like this in Singapore because it’s such a small, unknown community.
Natalie: Is there a funniest story/memorable moment that you would like to share?
Alexsalma: Yes. Before the Ray Chen concert, the bass section had an idea to prank everyone by replacing the sign in front of our dressing room. From DOUBLE BASS, we changed it to RAY CHEN, SOLOIST. We were inspired by the violins, who were next door, because they started playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. And then we were like, oh is that Ray Chen? That’s when it clicked, like, we should do that, we should prank them back. I mean, no, they didn’t start by pranking us but we just decided to do it. And because Ray Chen is a YouTuber, you can find his warm-ups easily. We just looped it, and played it out loud. And soon enough people started knocking on our door, and they were like, is Ray Chen here? We jokingly told them he was hiding in the toilet, and they were like why was he there and we told them, oh because his flush was spoilt. I mean, it was believable only because our room was closest to the stage. He actually signed his autograph for us afterwards on that piece of door signage that we meant as a prank!
Fun fact: The Ray Chen-autographed signage has since been displayed at our SNYO Studios. Now you know the *inside joke*!
Natalie: For the next part, could you talk a little about your experience with juggling schoolwork and SNYO commitments? Do you have any words of advice for our friends who have just newly joined the SNYO?
Alexsalma: I would say it would be challenging to commit if you have a lot of things going on in your life, like tuition, other CCAs, or if you have an important role in CCA it can be tough. Because SNYO does take up a lot of your time, not only because of the rehearsals, it’s the practice before rehearsals to get ready for the piece because we need to be prepared before rehearsals start. So it is indeed time-consuming, and you have to make choices. Maybe don’t take up so many other activities on SNYO days, that’s what I do. I usually leave Thursdays and Saturdays free so that I have time for self-study, those kinds of things. Especially during A-levels, it’s really hard to juggle. So it’s really important for me to just clear the days, and just leave them for SNYO. I guess you need to prioritise.
Natalie: And lastly, describe SNYO in 3 words!
Alexsalma: Really good music!
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The Singapore National Youth Orchestra organises auditions regularly throughout the year! Audition details and guidelines can be found at www.snyo.org.sg/audition.