Life Music

Always a glimmer of hope

The Northam 001

The piano teaching field is always unpredictable. Making a living out of it is a gamble, a risk. Like any other job, it has its ups and downs. I’ve had some wonderful students in the past but as my piano professors used to remind me—everything has a beginning and an end. No student, no matter how wonderful he or she is, is going to remain with a teacher forever. It’s a little sad when some students drop out for one reason or another; more so if they do so suddenly and I feel they have potential. Sometimes I click with a student, sometimes I don’t. And yes, at times they surprise me with stuff…like this new student who sent me this text. She was just shy and didn’t have a high opinion of herself, so I tried my best to coax her out of it by reassuring her that her piano playing would blossom and improve, given time. Getting this text from her meant a lot to me…at least I’m helping one student along and restoring her dignity to herself—she thought she’d lost it but it was always there, inside her…waiting to emerge.


The Ripple Effect

What a nice way to start off the New Year. I was chatting with Heather (my friend from Ohio) and she told me this story about her dad. You see, when I was there I passed Heather some CD’s of my own recordings and she, in turn passed them on to her parents. Needless to say, they loved my CD’s and I wish I had the chance to meet them while I was there. Anyway, Heather’s dad had to be admitted into the ER due to a flu epidemic there—his immunity has been compromised due to his cancer, so when the bugs come around, they get him hard. With extra strength Tylenol to lower his 105°F fever and Tamiflu to kill the bug he spent a long ten hours in the ER being tested for all kinds of stuff, including pneumonia.

Finally they sent him home, and he requested his wife to put on “Philip’s music.” When he couldn’t hear it well he asked her to turn it up a bit more, since the stereo was in the living room. After Heather related this to me I was so touched…I’m only a humble pianist, and yet my music has given some comfort and solace to her parents, especially her dad, who is still recuperating from a nasty bug. On another note, I’ve had guests come up to me last night (New Year’s Eve) to say how much my music added to the festivities…truly, I am blessed with a job that allows me to give pleasure to others. I only pray that God will grant me more years to do this…and to expect nothing in return. Just to see people happy because of my music makes me blissful enough.



The reason why I haven’t been blogging as often as in the past is because I’m now going through one of the most painful ordeals in my life, ever. I can only thank God that I haven’t plunged into a depression pit, plus I do need to thank all my close friends and relatives who rallied behind me with all their thoughts and prayers. Hopefully by God’s grace this turmoil in my life will end soon.

Just wanted to share two songs here, which mean more to me than ever during this troubled time. The first one is Smile by Charlie Chaplin. Here are the lyrics:


Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through
for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just

The other song is With you I’m born again. Sung by Billy Preston and Syreeta in 1979 this is a truly remarkable and touching song. Here are the lyrics:

With you I’m born again

Come bring me your softness
Comfort me through all this madness
Woman, don’t you know
With you I’m born again

Come give me your sweetness
Now there’s you, there is no weakness
Lying safe within your arms
I’m born again

I was half, not whole
In step with none
Reaching through this world
In need of one

Come show me your kindness
In your arms I know I’ll find this
Woman, don’t you know
With you I’m born again
Lying safe with you I’m born again

The song remains the same

Somehow or other I’ve been suffering from a lack of blogging juices lately…with the help of a little Diana Krall playing in the background hopefully I can get this post published. The crux of the matter is that this festive season has left me a bit depressed—not to the point where I have to resort to medication yet, thank God. After all I have many things to be thankful for (and I do thank the good Lord for my blessings, every day). However, it is hard to feel upbeat all the time when some treacherous curveballs have been thrown my way. Trying my best to duck out of harm’s way, not 100% successful though.

I’m going through a major crisis in my life—something that will probably get worse before it gets better. I don’t want to elaborate too much yet, but the constant source of support that I’ve gotten from friends and relatives has been very encouraging. Nonetheless, it hurts when I have time to ponder, which is why I’m trying to keep myself preoccupied with anything I can find—my teaching, blogging, reading, exercising. Idle minds do give fodder to the devil and his workshop…it’s a blessing that I can feel that there are people who are praying and genuinely concerned about my well-being.

I know it’s silly, but I wish the beaming technologies of Star Trek could be available now. Instead, I have to get onboard a 747 if I want to get out of here. And that costs money, damn.

Still, all it takes is a little warm encouragement from a friend, who says “Hang in there.” Or the smile of a student when I gently encourage her to play (that happened today!) And whaddaya know, a student gave me an early Christmas present—thanks, Jason and Sue! Little things do matter and mean a lot to me…and that’s what keeps me buoyant, instead of slumbering down and wallowing in a mess of self-pity. And let’s not forget music…that really helps to soothe my troubled soul.

Apologies if this post sounds downhearted—it’s the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ—a miracle of miracles. I’ll just have to shoulder on and hopefully God willing, next year will see better days ahead for me…

Season’s Greetings to all my readers. Have a joyous Christmas and Happy New Year.

Life Music

Someone help me, I’m getting soft!

Alright, I confess—maybe it was that sojourn at the Coffee Bean last week that triggered the sentimentalist in me. After listening to them playing all those Christmas songs sung by the likes of Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, etc. I emerged feeling a wee bit woozy, but it was a nice, warm feeling inside me (and yeah, maybe the Ice Blended Coffee contributed to it too) Anyways, what better way to express it or let it out but through music, and so here’s my own personal recording and arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. This song was first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The lyrics were criticized as being too depressing in its original draft, so songwriter Hugh Martin made several changes. Here are the tweaked lyrics, in case you want to sing along with my playing:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yuletide gay,
From now on, 
our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more.
Through the years 
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.
And have yourself A merry little Christmas now.


I recorded all the backing tracks myself, putting in a sad muted trumpet first, followed by another solo trumpet. And I have another confession to make—I had actually wanted to modulate a half-step higher near the end, from C major to C sharp major. But as I was recording it, I detoured to A flat major instead. It sounded different but I liked it, so I left it in. Hope you enjoy this performance of mine.

If you’d like to listen to my piano-only version, it’s online here.

May the coming Christmas season fill all our hearts with love, peace, and joy.


The ABC’s of Me (G)

G: Gratitude, Gifts

“Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy—because we will always want to have something else or something more.” Brother David Steindl-Rast

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” Eric Hoffer

“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.” Johannes A. Gaertner

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melodie Beattie

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was "thank you," that would suffice.” Meister Eckhart

Because of my Christian upbringing I was always taught to be thankful for all the things that God has bestowed upon us. I am glad for this, because I have found out that when the storms of life hit you at full force, gratitude might not be the first thing you think about, but trust me, it’s an absolute life-saver. Being thankful has helped me sail through those turbulent waters that come my way…and I am stronger because of it.

Yes, no doubt it’s hard to be grateful in this materialistic world that we live in—always wishing I had a bigger car, a bigger house, a nicer stereo, a newer Yamaha Clavinova (hee hee), more money, etc. I’ve learnt my lesson—not to give in to this, because God gives us just what is enough…and then some. Blessings are not tied only to material and worldly things. I am thankful for my health (especially my eyes!), my family and relatives, my friends, etc. I wake up each day and I say a humble thank you to the Lord for another day. I go to bed every night and I say the same thing again. A thankful heart is a happy heart.

I will always remember and treasure this little nugget of wisdom someone told me when I was a young boy: “I used to complain that I didn’t have any shoes to wear, until I saw a person who had no feet.”

This video called The Miniature Earth always has me choked up. Watch it, and be thankful, my fellow readers. God bless you all.


“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.” Anthony Robbins

“God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say "thank you?" William Ward

“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.” Babatunde Olatunji

“Everyone is gifted—but some people never open their package.” Unknown

For me my gift is music, particularly playing the piano. The best part I feel, is when I share this gift out with others. Whether it’s teaching the piano to students, or playing the piano at the hotel…’tis a joy. And there are also many other gifts that we all have…the gifts of kindness, gratitude, and compassion, to name a few. These gifts reside inside us—it’s up to each one of us to decide whether to allow them to come out from within our souls.

I’m also not going to deny not liking physical gifts. After all, I gave myself a birthday present not too long ago. However, the most wonderful gifts don’t require money to buy, and that’s why they are so special—a gift of friendship, a gift of love, a gift of caring…ah, it just warms my heart!


Years in America (episode 3)

An aside: for the benefit of my readers following these series of blog posts, I honestly don’t know what came over me, but for the past week I’ve been swept off by a wave of nostalgia regarding my years spent abroad. It was like the memories suddenly came flooding back, so rather than keeping it to myself I’ve decided to share them as it were, in my blog. It’s a cloudy Wednesday afternoon here (with impending signs of rain) as I write this. Claudio Arrau’s wonderful Debussy Preludes is playing in my CD-ROM drive. Now relax as I take you back in time, way back to January 1981…

If my memory serves me correctly, the following day was the first day of school. I woke up early in the morning, lined up for my shower, brushed my teeth, and got dressed (it’s pretty informal in college, just a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, a jacket, and a pair of sneakers) A sea of humanity greeted me as I left my dorm. It looked like thousands of ants walking everywhere on campus. After a quick breakfast at the Student Union, I left for my first class at the School of Music.

There was a flurry of activity in the School of Music, which was to be expected. I found my way to the lecture hall for the first class, and we were soon briefed by the professor about the class, what he’d be covering for the semester, quizzes and exams, assignments, etc. In other words, the usual stuff. I sat next to a few American students (I was the only Asian there) and we exchanged hellos and introductions.

After that had finished I had to go see my Music Adviser, a Mr. Keith Johnson. He’d be my adviser until further notice so I could approach him for help anytime during school hours. I was told to sign up for a practice room which had a grand piano (Piano majors are entitled to this), register myself at the Music Library, and check out all the facilities the School had to offer (the 544-seater Crowder Hall was very nice, and that would be the venue for my Senior Piano recital in April 1984) But the most important thing I had to do on that day was to meet Dr. Roy Johnson, the director of Keyboard Studies at the time.

I reach Dr. Johnson’s room, give a knock on the door and hear a voice saying “Come in.” I enter and exchange hellos with Dr. Johnson for the first time, and I instantly like him. He had a very friendly manner within him and he wanted to know whether I was doing ok, seeing that I had come all the way from England. I mumble a shy yes, and I notice two other gentlemen in the room. They were both piano professors, one was Ozan Marsh and the other was Nicholas Zumbro. Dr. Johnson casually asked them who would like to become my piano teacher. Mr. Zumbro promptly responded with an affirmative yes. I take a second look at him again—at 6’4” at least, he towered over my 6’1” frame. And he was broader than me anytime! Something inside me instantly told me that I’d better not mess with this guy.

Note: I was saddened to hear that Dr. Johnson was senselessly murdered in a robbery attempt on February 28, 1995 just outside Tucson, after he’d finished giving a recital. The killer is on death row.

To cut a long story short, I stuck it out with Nicholas Zumbro as my piano teacher until I graduated in May 1984. Of course I’ve had piano teachers before, but this guy was the cream of the crop. He was a disciplinarian, and he was very strict. If you didn’t do your practicing, you’d better not attend his class, because he would bite your head off, literally. The first time I entered his studio, I was impressed—there were two Steinway grands in the room. I remember vividly my first encounter with the Steinway when he told me to sit down and play something. I tried to launch into a Schubert Impromptu, and my God, the keys were so heavy! Mr. Zumbro noticed my predicament and soon he launched into one of his many mini lectures about tone production. Suffice to say if it were not for him, my fingers would still resemble jelly now.

Come to think of it, these Malaysian students that I teach nowadays don’t realize that they are dancing on a bed of roses. During my years with Mr. Zumbro, I was scolded, mocked, belittled, humiliated, chastised—you name it, he did it. But he did those things because he really cared about my progress. He did this to all of his piano students; I later heard that many had opted for other teachers after a semester with him, but my gut was telling me not to be stupid—this teacher would kick my arse over and over, but I would become a better performer because of it. And I did. With him, everything had to be perfect. He ingrained into me the use and importance of the metronome. His was a no-nonsense approach to piano playing, it was something to be taken seriously, and if you thought otherwise, you know where the exit is!

The cool thing about Mr. Zumbro was his love for Jazz. I’ll never forget seeing him play parts of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto—he’d just tear through it. And when he did some jazz improvisations with other students and myself, that was truly fun. When he gave me a compliment I’d relish it, because it came straight from the heart, he never dished out compliments just to make a student feel better. No way. And soon, he would be dropping hints about a coffee or a Coke, which I’d dutifully buy for him from a Wendy’s across the road.

There was another lesson I learnt from those early days in the university. I had to meet another professor by the name of Paula Fan (she was the director of Accompanying) My Fine Arts Scholarship was dependent on my doing at least 4 semesters of accompaniment at the university. Now at this time in my life, my sight-reading was literally crap, so I sneakily wanted a way out of this. When Miss Fan told me I had to start accompaniment straight away for that semester, I told her very casually that I had a lot of other classes to attend, and would it be possible to defer accompaniment until the Fall? (I was stalling for time) Till this day I will never forget her reply. She bluntly told me, “Either do it now or I will terminate your Scholarship immediately.” I almost fainted right on the spot!!

Yes, she kicked my arse real hard, but I have her to thank for the amazing progress in my sight-reading. I worked like there was no tomorrow to improve it. And improve it I did, until Miss Fan herself was surprised. But that’s for another post. So if any of my present-day students are reading this, consider yourselves very fortunate!