Rit Xu on flute, classical music, jazz, advice for younger musicians

1. How old did you start playing a musical instrument?

I was five when I first touched the piano; six when I had my first piano lesson; seven when I quit piano lessons and almost drove my piano teacher nuts; nine when I was introduced to non-classical music and eleven when I finally got in touch with the flute which took me on an exhilarating journey. I never looked back since.

2. When did you realise you have extraordinary talent in playing the flute?

As a child, all I knew was that people will start clapping and I see smiles on their faces whenever I start playing the flute, so that got me really interested to play it more. The traditional belief is that having a sense of perfect pitch equates high musical talent; I would have failed so badly if that was true. I do not have perfect pitch from young; but somehow I was able to play back any melodies on the flute after hearing it once.

3. In the same vein, when did you decide to seriously pursue a career in music?

I was very lucky; since my debut performance on an actual stage at age 9 (it was an old folks home at Bukit Batok), I have never stopped performing–thanks to my musical parents who worked hard to find every opportunity for me to step onto the platform. The performances that  I get (ranging from community shows, weddings, corporate dinners, Seventh Month, cruise ship etc.) were at least once or twice a week–that was how much “work” my parents had found for me–not too bad for a boy who is still in primary school. My parents were like my managers; until my father passed away in 2009. My late-father is my biggest inspiration and the number one reason why I decided to embark on this path professionally. As a professional pianist and musician himself, he instilled in me at a young age, the values which he held so dearly in his work—diligence, industry, punctuality, and a never-ending quest for constant improvement in the craft.

4. What are your top three musical accomplishments so far?

I won the United States National Flute Association’s Jazz Artist Competition in 2014 and gave a winner’s recital at Chicago, IL. In 2015, I represented Singapore and performed with Orchestre des Continents at the Paleo Festival Nyon in Switzerland. This year, I recorded three jazz albums at Germany with renowned local jazz icon Mr Jeremy Monteiro.

5. Is jazz flute your personal favourite style of playing the flute? What draws you to this particular style?

In a previous interview, I have answered a question in the same vein so allow me to reiterate it from before: “ I guess it is purely a personal aesthetics choice. Jazz—its language, idiom, structure and freedom—provided me with a solid vehicle to express my musical identity through improvisation. That being said, it is the classical foundation that gave me mastery of my instrument, which allows me to perform written and/or improvised music at a high level.”

6. What are some of the greatest challenges you face as a musical prodigy in Singapore?

I was fortunate that I could spend my formative years being really focused on the craft of music itself; performing, practicing–working on flute tone, technique, learning new repertoire, developing my musical aesthetics–while the economical and practical side of things are being taken care of by my parents. As a result, the inner workings of making music a career; that I did not know how. Right now, I am learning the ropes–and that is a totally different ball game, and tough. However, the satisfaction I get being able to shape a musical project the way I want it to be; developing it to its final outcome from scratch and finally reaching out to engage audiences and touching their hearts through my music; that satisfaction is irreplaceable.

7. Having performed in various stages around the world, what are your thoughts on the local classical music scene?

Our classical music scene has matured immensely in the last decade and slowly developing to an even greater force. We have a world-class national symphony orchestra; a couple of top-notched ad-hoc professional orchestras and an array of state-of-the-art performing venues such as Victoria Concert Hall and the Esplanade. We have well established music institutions that are attracting the best talents from both locally and overseas–such as Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS. This year alone, some of my local colleagues have won major classical competitions in Europe and a handful of composers are getting their musical works premiered outside of our shores. I’m optimistic of our classical music scene and looking forward to make it even more vibrant through presenting new and exciting works with the Lorong Boys as well as bridging the gap between classical music and jazz through my work as a flute performer and educator.

8. What kinds of pressure do you face at times and how do you deal with them?

The kind of pressure I face today is to ensure that I make time for the craft, the enterprise and personal relationships on a daily basis. For me, it is easy to fall into either categories and unknowingly neglect the others. Moreover, I could never find my way around multi-tasking–that thing just does not work for me.

The way I try to overcome this is to consciously plan out my weekly and monthly activities down to the hour and I try my best to stick as close to my work plan as possible. As a self-employed musician (or any other vocations for that matter), working around a self-imposed schedule is imperative. I still struggle with that at times, but I’d like to think that I am definitely better at it now than I was years ago.

9. What would you say to aspiring classical musicians?

Devote yourself to your chosen instrument; spend as much time as you can practicing, and practice smart! Work closely with an experienced teacher on that, and actively seek feedback on your playing from your teacher and from other more experienced musicians. Find every opportunities that you can to perform for friends, family members or any other social events. Get more in touch with chamber music; put together your woodwind group, string quartet or brass ensemble and play some music together–I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to develop ensemble listening skills especially from an early stage on. Attend masterclasses; pay attention to how other musicians play and observe how the masters would approach the same pieces.

All of that being said, pay equal attention to your future enterprise if you intend to make music a career: be nice, be punctual and always show up with a positive attitude and ready to play the best music that you can with whoever that is present. Your enterprise is important, but know that it is ultimately your craft and how good you are at it that will set you apart from the rest, eventually.

10. Are you able to share some of your upcoming musical projects for 2017?

I’m slowly getting more involved with music education besides the regular local and overseas performances, and I intend to put together a rigorous curriculum that is shaped by my continuous exploration into the most effective flute teaching methods combined with my real-life experiences as an active classical and jazz performer - more information will be up on flutelessons.sg shortly. I may eventually venture into online teaching for the international community; I have had multiple enquires in the past few years from flutists all over the world who are eager to pick my brain on the subject, but for now my focus is solely on children and adult learners in Singapore. I hope that my private flute lessons will inform, inspire and prepare both the flute beginner and intermediate to advanced player for a wider variety of musical enjoyment through the flute as much as I did; and still do.

Horus Studio, "77DAYS", my thoughts on recording

Every now and then, I get called to lay down some flute tracks in the studio - mostly for motion pictures and as a sideman to other musician’s commercial projects. This was taken at Horus Studio:  a cosy, simple but power-packed recording room with state-of-the-art technology; check them out if you are in Singapore and looking for a high quality, one-man overdubbing recording room.

Most producers and music directors today will send the music and scores (if any) to you a week or two in advance before the recording so as to allow time for individual preparation; it’s a fair procedure. However, it is also common practice to provide the scores only at the recording session itself–which means that musicians will have to sight-read and be ready to record at a moment’s notice; such was the case on that day.

Most music are pretty straightforward to read; but sometimes you are given the most difficult thing you can imagine playing to record on the spot, and that’s the petrifying part! It can turn out to be the longest two or three hours of your life–or not. Having done this for the last 18 years, I have figured out how to stay consistently at the latter.

My secret? Sight-read some music everyday–be it only a few bars. The idea is to keep the connection between the eyes and fingers active, sharp and ready to function at any level. I know; it is a boring answer, but just like any other vocational skills in life: use it or lose it!

I was playing (picture above) the chinese vertical flute; also known as the Xiao. Besides the Boehm flute, I pride myself on my ability to paint wondrous soundscapes through various traditional flute-related instruments that brings out the particular emotion of the movie segment; or just a tune. I would say that my influences are a combination of: 1) a sense of awe with Hollywood’s musical treatment on period films, especially where flutes can be heard; 2) having ears for traditional/folk music interpretation; 3) having ears for jazz improvisation.

I am generally always excited for every recording project and look forward each time to add further emotional dimension to the movie/music through the sound of my flutes. Anyway, more details on this upcoming movie can be found here.

Have a blessed week!