[特约 Contributor James Woo 英译 Translator 刘大人 摄影 Photographer James Woo 部分照片官方提供／Images by SeasonOnTrain]
Piano and organ: to change or not to change?
Loving music and enjoying it is something that runs in every human being’s blood but learning it is something different altogether. While my parents may hope that enrolling the 4 of us in a music program will make us a better student, it never occurred to me that I would embark on this lifelong journey, albeit via a detour.
When I was young, my heart would fill with envy whenever I heard the tunes of great composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Bach filled the air, and secretly wished that I could one day emulate my elder sister and play the piano at will. My dream actually came true, but in an unexpected way, when I was enrolled for the organ instead of the piano. At first glance, the 2 instruments looked the same, with both keyboards consist of seven white keys, a double set of black keys and a triple set of black keys per octave; but the organ came with a split keyboard, some cool button controls and more pedals. I thought I had the better deal but little did I realised that the similarities end there and my dream musical voyage was about to take a different turn.
I’m no stranger to Monday blues as the dreaded organ lessons began to take its toll on me. Every practise session felt like an eternity and I was about to call it quits until I was given《Soldier of Love》by Alan Tam, my first Cantopop song that rekindled my passion for music. But the real turning point arrived unexpectedly as I was flipping the piano scores of《Für Elise》and for some unknown reasons, my fingers were actually playing freely on the piano keys, although it took me ages just to master a third of the song.
For the foreseeable few months, my mind and heart were set on mastering 《Für Elise》, much to the surprise and “annoyance” of my family and neighbours. While my rendition of the Beethoven’s classic was far from perfect, my achievement has given me the conviction and courage to finally admit my secret affection for the piano, which also spelt the end of my on-off relationship with the organ. It was a tough decision but one I’ve never looked back. Before long, I could play any decent tunes by hearing and sight-reading simply became a thing in the past.
The road less travelled: to go or not to go?
Music composition was the “in thing” during our college days, and I was particularly impressed with Xiaobai’s talent of putting words together that vaguely resembled some of the famous lines from great Taiwanese lyricists such as Adam Hsu, Yiu Him and Eric Lin. I couldn’t forget that fateful day when Xiaobai insisted that I put music onto his verse and we managed to put two and two together to come up with our first song. The second and third pieces soon followed, which led me to realise I may be a music composer in the making after all. However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing as I have the tendency to mince and “modify” his words but that’s what made us a complete package, so much so that we grew in confidence and actually sent our works for the annual graduation song audition for a chance of glory. We were adamant and persistent with our works that not even a constructive (on hindsight) suggestion by our Chinese teacher cum mentor was heeded.
Our first song was a sentimental piece that was missing something, and we came to the conclusion that we were lacking the right vocal. By coincidence, our classmate Xiaoshi proved to be the missing link, even though our audition did not go according to plan as we unknowingly set the pitch too high for her comfort. Nevertheless, our entry received one of the loudest ovations from the school crowd.
While Mandarin pop hits such as Jacky Cheung’s《Blessing》or Nicky Wu’s《Bon Voyage》have long been the preferred graduation theme songs, our convocation was looking at original compositions from aspiring talents. Needless to say, our power trio decided to try our luck with《Farewell》, only to be disappointed again, this time for the sorrow melody which didn’t go down well with the teachers’ panel.
Upon graduation, everyone went their separate ways in pursuit of their dreams and I was no different. Music was my only choice but I was ultimately persuaded to look elsewhere and ended up in the ever-popular computer engineering courses.
The detour: destination in sight or heading nowhere?
My mind may be writing computer algorithms but my heart was still penning tunes whenever inspiration strikes. 《Yestanight》was composed soon after a song by Jim Brickman’s《Starbright》struck a chord within, but there was no lyrics as Xiaobai was sorely missed. How I wished I could also pen my thoughts at will but the best I could muster was to “modify” or copyedit the works of others. Soon I was also pursuing my degree overseas, but the musician within has never quite left me. On many occasions, I was attracted by the sound of the piano from the music room in the basement of my hostel, and I couldn’t help but sneak in just to quell my music hunger, often uninvited, mostly alone and sometimes with my girlfriend just so that we could pretend to be students from the music school having our regular practice.
Even before the internet and blogging started to gain widespread popularity, I had already set up my personal blog (albeit trial and error) just to pen and share my thoughts as the days of composing seemed so distant. My mind was filled with “1”s and “0”s, lines of computer code and nothing else. Eventually, I became a lecturer and life kinda became mundane, day after day. It was pretty much reminiscent of the “Monday blues” of yesteryears that I could hardly look at myself in the mirror…
Time flies and over a decade on, and the centennial celebration of our high school in 2013 finally brought us back for an unlikely reunion. Incidentally, our school was looking to for a theme song to commemorate the occasion and I was asked to send in my composition. However, I insist on having Xiao Bai on board or it’s no go. To my surprise and delight, Xiaobai agreed and I was finally reunited with my partner-in-crime (I mean composition) 15 years on!
《Our Song》, the title says it all…
Not much has changed, as the lyrics were written almost effortlessly by Xiaobai, while I was still making myself a “nuisance” even after all these years. However, things were much more “professional” as we made the step up into the recording studio. I got acquainted with Andrew, a music producer in my early days of producing commercial jingles for corporate clients. It was then that we missed the voice of Xiaoshi, and my eyes were welled with tears as we witnessed the completion of the demo in no time at all
Our minds were frantically scrambling for a vocal replacement, and like any fairytale drama, along came Lorraine to the rescue. Incidentally, she was our distant junior from high school, but her stage experience actually belied her tender age. Her voice was so gentle and soothing that we knew she was the one! The recording session was a first for most of us and it looked like chicken feat from the music videos (MV) we saw on screen, with just a few presses of the buttons and singing into the mic. Boy how wrong we were!
We probably got more than we have bargained for from our first proper recording session, given that the rental was calculated by the hour. Anxiety started to creep in as we strive for perfection, until another unlikely hero in the form of Izzy, a sound engineer cum mixer who after a few attempts managed to put our progress back on track. Thanks to all the help we could get along the way, 《Our Song》was finally completed and made its way to be the theme song of choice!
To ensure only the best for《Our Song》, we enlisted the help of seasoned and well-known local music producer Chow Kam Leong for the group vocal recording. Chow was pretty much larger than life even during our secondary school days, and it never crossed my mind that I could actually collaborate with him one day. I was very much overawed by the occasion during our first encounter but he proved to be very friendly, approachable and ever ready to dispense any advice for aspiring musicians like us. I couldn’t be more grateful that the entire process from start to finish was accomplished without any major hiccups, and I really drew comfort at seeing the tears of joy when the song was sung during the centennial celebration. Even my nephew in primary school couldn’t hide his pride at his uncle’s achievement, except that none of his friends really took him seriously. Poor boy, I was really clueless as to how I could soothe his hurt feelings…
Season On Train: a ride down memory lane
Under normal circumstances, many would look to continue the momentum and go on with their second recording soon after the first, but instead, I chose to carry the bags of Chow and learn the tools of the trade from the master. However, the fire within me still burns bright and after some inner reflection and soul searching, I re-approached Andrew to work on my childhood dream on a commercial basis. Instead of responding to my suggestion, Andrew actually questioned my commitment and objectives which came as a huge surprise and set me thinking all over again. Why was I doing all these?
My thoughts were immediately set to motion, as I explored my inner self deep down on what music really means to me. Was I fulfilling an inner call to live my childhood dream, to showcase my hidden talent to make the world a better place, or simply sharing some noteworthy works just so that my offsprings have something to be proud of? In hindsight, life was really busy without many purposes and all I had to show was a working calendar jam-packed with activities just so that I could put some bread on the table. Do I even have a life at all, let alone living it?
I guess after all that dialogue with my inner self, I was really waiting for that big break that I could justify all my actions and sacrifices. I owed it to myself to succeed and I was willing to give it a final shot. It was a case of great minds think alike when Andrew returned and gave me the confidence booster I was looking for: Let’s do it! After countless hours of exchanges and doing our groundwork, we were finally ready to challenge the norm and embark on this journey less travelled. What an amazing turnaround that came right out of the blue, from enquiry to delivery, now we are really talking!
It was like another match made in heaven, as our general consensus saw us taking up our respective roles and responsibilities, with Andrew focusing on the production (apart from music composition which I still do best) while I undertook the marketing communications and external liaison. We looked at all our pool of finished products and work-in-progress over the past two decades before we narrowed down our selection from hundreds to seven and to the final two. To my extreme delight (but no surprise this time), my maiden composition《Yestanight》made the final cut!
I was blessed with a very good team that complement my strengths and more than made up for my weaknesses. I couldn’t imagine my team without Lorraine or Xiaoshi (vocal), Andrew (production), Xiaobai (lyrics), Dabai and Junyang (graphics and illustration). Everything from conception to post-production was achieved through teamwork, and I was wearing multiple hats, from composing, storyboarding, planning, coordinating to post-production, animation, design, marketing, publicity, creating our website to even chauffeuring people and stuff around, nothing unfazed the “Superman” in me by now!
A typical song probably last 4 to 5 minutes, but the work behind the scenes from start to finish would easily take a month or two for our listening pleasure. Add in the amount of resources that went into the strive for perfection, we could easily be looking at “eternity”!
It’s almost imperative that a good song would come with an equally decent music video for widespread promotion, but given our technical and budget constraints, I decided to put my limitations to the test yet again and produce my own motion graphics. Having come this far, “impossible is already nothing” and through sheer grit and determination, no amount of joy and tears could hide my satisfaction when the final product was shown to the whole wide world!
Since 2015, Season On Train has seen our debut single and subsequent release《So far, so close》gained widespread popularity, culminating to the latter being selected as the theme song for 8TV’s latest drama《Growth Behind The Sun》. We couldn’t be more proud and really felt that all that we have put in (and given up) along the way was worthwhile. Two decades it may have taken us to come this far, but it’s still better late than never!
For those of you who only recently came into the picture,《So far, so close》was actually derived from our secondary school’s graduation song entry that didn’t make the cut. Who could have imagined that a song that was nearly forgotten could one day make its way to the top, with a stroke of good fortune and new lyrics breathing life to the original work?
Indeed, life has its ups and downs, and our journey was never plain sailing. Like sunshine after the rain, I was glad we persevere and stay true to our vision, and I couldn’t express my heartfelt appreciation and gratitude towards everyone who has helped us in one way or another.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and that’s just me! Thank you for joining me on this journey down memory lane!
詹姆斯 James Woo
A Scorpio in his forties
Computer-engineer turned web programmer
Amateur musician turned music composer
Lecturer turned marketeer
Non-cartoonist turned illustrator
Complete novice turned animation producer
James of all-trade, master of none LOL!