Music

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In L.A. again

Filed in L.A. (June 2008), Music, TravelTags: , ,

It has been a very busy past week or so, and I haven't had time to update the blog. I apologise for that.

The big news is that I'm now in L.A.. I arrived on Monday afternoon. I'll be studying singing with Peisha (she has a new technique to teach me), and scoping around for an agency to represent me too.

In addition, I'll be performing at one of Peisha's Cabaret showcases. I'll be performing with three other cabaret students this Saturday evening (June 21, 2008), at the Gardenia Restaurant and Lounge in West Hollywood. If you'd like to come, you can probably buy tickets at the door. If you want to be sure, then send me an email and I'll hold tickets for you. The fees will be $15 for the show and a minimum cover charge of $10 for food and drinks (note though that you don't have to order a meal if you don't want to; a couple of drinks would be fine).

Show times will be at 7pm and 9pm. If you plan to have dinner, be there by around 6pm and 8.30pm respectively.

The Gardenia Restaurant is located in West Hollywood at 7066 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90038.

If any of you would like to meet with me, please send me an email. I'll be here until July 3.

cheers.

Interview on 萬王之王, RTHK Radio 2 (20061116)

Filed in Entertainment Ind., Music, Music: My Songs, Press

Last week was busy; well not quite, but still interesting anyway. In addition to the interview with Alyson at RTHK Radio 3, I also talked with Shirley 曾淑儀 and Lu from the 「萬王之王」 King of Kings show on RTHK Radio 2.

When Shirley heard about my singing studies in L.A., she liked the idea of interviewing me but wanted to make it special. What she came up with was really fun. 「洋人中文歌」 is a three-part series; approximately fifteen minutes per part; with yours truly teaching (we're truly stretching the meaning of this word) listeners to sing ;-)  Shirley and Lu were wonderful and lots of fun. I think you'll enjoy the series.

The series will begin tomorrow; Thursday, November 16, 2006. I'm not sure of the exact time of my interview but the King of Kings show runs from 5pm to 7pm (i.e., UTC 9.00am), Monday to Friday. The second and third parts will be broadcast next Thursday (November 23) and the Thursday after that (November 30) respectively.

If you miss the show, the archives will be available from the King of Kings archive pages: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Interesting and perhaps confusing; I don't really sing very much Chinese during the interviews, but we explain that later on in the series. And for all of you who care, I promise to sing more Cantonese in the future.

I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed recording it with Shirley and Lu.

A Few Extra Days

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), Music, Music: My Songs, TravelTags: , ,

It was Peisha's idea. Almost from the beginning of our time together, Peisha strongly recommended that I have a 'product' to take home with me. She meant that I should record a couple of songs, if only to show the folks at home just how much I had improved.

I wasn't totally sold on the idea at first. It was the potential financial cost of doing the recordings that kept me from committing to the idea, but as time went on, as my voice continued to improve, and as I discovered more and more songs that I loved, I grew more attracted to the idea. After three weeks of being with Peisha, I made the decision to record the songs. It's a decision that I'll never regret, and I'll forever be grateful to Peisha for her encouragement and insistence that I do the recordings.

Peisha knows people. That shouldn't come as a surprise. She has been in the music community for many years, and she's a highly respected member. Many of the people that she knows are very talented, and so I could only be optimistic when she chose someone to record my voice and arrange the music. His name was Chris Hardin.

Chris is probably as busy as Peisha. Most exceptionally talented people tend to be busy most of the time. They're always in demand. Chris' schedule was tight but we found a slot of time that we could spend with him after one of my lessons with Peisha. Unfortunately, half way through my lesson with Peisha, it was quite obvious that I was far too tired to go to a recording studio. Without questioning me in any way, and quite aware of the reality of the situation, Peisha called Chris and we were fortunately able to organise another session time.

Remember how I said that those few extra days that I stayed in L.A. turned out to be invaluable? Now you know why.

Our first session with Chris was on Monday, the day after I had originally planned to leave L.A. Monday was a great time slot because it allowed me to rest my voice over the weekend. I did a little warmup with Peisha at her studio and we then drove over to Chris' home studio.

On the evening of Monday the 20th of October, we recorded my first song: "This is the Moment". We recorded this song first because we knew it was going to be the hardest vocally. By the time I had sung through it four or five times in Chris' studio, I was worn out. It's a very tough song to sing with lots of high sustained notes, but, it turned out fine.

In the studio, Chris recorded a very basic piano background while following the sheet music. I then recorded my voice to that background.

On Tuesday, Peisha and I went back and recorded two more songs: "For Once in My Life" and another that I'll keep as a surprise for you. With "For Once in My Life", Chris again recorded a basic piano background to which I recorded my voice. He added many of the other instruments while we were there. It was incredible to watch him work. His musical talent is amazing. And I think he was really enjoying himself arranging that song. He was obviously having fun with it which made it fun for us too.

The third song was a little different. I recorded my voice first, roughly, without music, so that Chris could hear it and analyse the chords. That's because I didn't have any sheet music for the song, and I didn't want him to hear the original so that he would have to create something new. Chris then listened to my voice recording and in real time wrote down the chords on a sheet of lyrics that I had printed for him. In real time! The man is astonishing. What else can I say? Chris then used the chords to play a basic piano background for me to which I then recorded the final voice.

Over the next week, Chris added instruments and finalised the arrangements for each the songs.

…    …    …

One week after returning to Hong Kong, I received mp3 versions of the songs in my email. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I have now listened to them so many times that I've lost count. My wife said that the songs were simply 「百聽不厭」. They're understandably already on her iPod.

Peisha was so right in insisting that I record the songs. Without the songs, I might have gradually over time forgotten what I had learnt in L.A., but the songs have shown me what I can do and they've given me renewed confidence and enthusiasm, something I desperately needed. These songs are without doubt one of the many miracles in my life.

Now it's your turn. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do. Links to the three songs are listed below. The last song is a surprise. It's also one of my all-time favourites. Even Peisha and Chris loved it. Once you've heard the song, you'll understand why that's so special.

Have fun.

All songs:
Sung by Gregory Charles Rivers 河國榮
Arranged by Chris Hardin of Chris Hardin Entertainment
Directed by Peisha McPhee

Song 1: This is the Moment from the stage musical Jekyl and Hyde, written by Steve Cuden and Frank Wildhorn.

Song 2: For Once in My Life written by Stevie Wonder

Song 3: Should I? (a surprise ;-)

Living the student’s life in L.A.

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), Music, TravelTags: , , ,

I came to L.A. to study singing, nothing else, and the studies are coming along wonderfully. I have one-on-one lessons with my teacher once a day from Monday to Friday. Additionally, I attend one Cabaret workshop with other students on Tuesday nights and another singing workshop on Saturdays in a totally different place.

My teacher is simply amazing. Her knowledge of singing is so broad and extensive that I would never be able to learn everything from her even if I stayed here a whole year. For the workshops, she has a friend and partner who acts as the musical director. He is also incredible and I feel incredibly lucky to have met both of these people. Sometimes, you get lucky!

Other than my lessons, I have very little to do, so my days are relatively relaxed in spite of the small hiccups I've encountered along the way (which I'll describe in a later article).

I live approximately fifteen blocks away from my teacher's studio. When I planned this trip, I used the internet to find the accommodation closest to my teacher's studio at the lowest price. The motel I'm staying is not quite the cheapest but it is the closest, albeit fifteen blocks. But I don't mind the fifteen blocks. When I stayed in Hollywood two years ago, I walked everywhere and quickly discovered that walking for an hour or so each day at a medium pace with seven to ten kilos in a backpack is a great way to get fit. So I decided to the do the same thing this time. Besides, I don't have a lot to do so walking for two or three hours each day is definitely not going to hurt me (although my beloved Birkenstock sandals are suffering). So my motel location has turned out to be excellent for my needs.

Coincidentally, my motel is just two minutes walk away from a shopping mall with a Starbucks store, so my coffee and internet needs are also provided for.

So basically, I get up in the morning, walk on over to Starbucks, have a cup of coffee and a raisin bagel, check my email, surf the internet for a short while and then go back to my motel. These days, I'm drinking a grande 4-shot 2% latte in the morning and another tall 3-shot 2% latte in the afternoon. I was drinking whole milk lattes but I soon realised that they were probably slowing my weight-loss in spite of all the walking, so I've switched to 2% milk which still tastes great nonetheless. At night, because there's nothing better to do, I come back to Starbucks for one last latte and a final email check before watching a little local tv and retiring to bed. Unfortunately, that night latte was causing sleep problems for me so a few nights ago, I started drinking the decaf version and my sleep is now much better.

Funny thing about Starbucks: They use less coffee here than they use in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we have the Short, Tall and Grande sizes. The Vente size was only introduced a month or so ago in Hong Kong. In the U.S.A. where food portions are usually extravagantly large, Starbucks doesn't have a Short size. What is intriging though is that they use less coffee in their drinks. While in Hong Kong, the Tall and Grande sizes have two and three shots of coffee respectively, here in the U.S.A., they only have one and two shots of coffee. I remember the first time I tried a regular Tall Latte here. It tasted more like milk than coffee. I have subsequently remembered to always order extra shots of coffee. Conversely, Starbucks' primary competitor, The Coffee Bean, seems to use more coffee. Their regular Medium (ie, Starbucks' Tall) lattes taste just fine without adding any extra coffee.

It feels as if I've been here forever. I can hardly remember getting off the plane two weeks ago. It's been an excellent adventure though. My teachers are fantastic and I'm learning a lot more than I could have dreamed. And I've met new friends (hello Mandy and Michael ;-). In fact, it will be difficult to leave my teachers and go back to Hong Kong. But I miss my wife and family and it will be wonderful to see them again.

11 days of this fun adventure remain...

On vacation?

Filed in L.A. (Sept 2006), Music, Travel, TVB (H.K.) 香港無線電視, WorkTags: , , , ,

It's been a while since I've posted any articles here, but you can be sure that I'm still here, and you can be absolutely sure that I've read every one of your comments, even if I haven't responded. And I appreciate the comments. Even if it's not obvious, your comments are important to me and provide an important source of support.

In the time I've 'been away', I've filmed a new series at TVB. The name of the series is 寫意人生 and I'll talk more about that in a later article. It was a pretty busy part, including two sessions of five nights of continuous studio filming involving nine to eleven hours of filming each night.

Strange and interesting things have happened in the least few months. Perhaps the most important event is my decision to go back to Hollywood for more training, this time for singing ;-)

From September 21 until October 15, I'll be in Hollywood, taking daily singing lessons with a teacher who I have come to know by chance. I'm nervous, apprehensive and excited all at the same time. Daily lessons will be tough. It's also difficult to know how much I'll learn during my stay there, but it's possible that I'll make a break-through in my singing technique (two break-throughs would be better) and that would make me the happiest guy alive, if only for just a short while until I begin fighting for the next break-through.

In my lifetime, I've known a few singing teachers. I had two teachers in Australia when I was small but those teachers did nothing for me. I had another teacher here in Hong Kong and she did nothing for me either. I even had a few lessons with the incredible Roman 羅文 but learned very little even though I enjoyed my time with him.

Not every teacher is right for every student and finding the right teacher for you is normally hit-and-miss. I was lucky. After having had so many not-so-helpful teachers, I finally met one who helped me a lot. 鮑老師 took me on as a student after I was introduced to her by another of her students/fans. She took me on even though she was retired. After teaching for more than 20 years, she just wanted to relax and enjoy herself, but she took me on anyway, and I learnt more from her than from any other teacher I'd had. I only had the occasional lesson with her but every lesson was full of information and techniques which required time to absorb, understand and practise and over the three years or so that I studied with her, my singing improved immensely. I'll never be able to thank her enough.

But you can't learn everything from one teacher and a few months ago, I decided it was time to take the next step and find my next teacher.

It was difficult. Finding the right teacher is a case of chance. Only one of my friends has ever had singing lessons and she wasn't enthusiastic about the teachers she knew. Historically, I feel that there are many 'self-qualified' teachers in Hong Kong who either developed their techniques themselves or became singing teachers because they themselves were successful singers. Neither qualifies these people as real teachers and I felt that it would be difficult to find what I needed here in Hong Kong.

I should emphasise though that this situation of 'self-qualified' teachers exists all over the world, ironically possibly more in Hollywood than anywhere else.

In any case, I was considering finding a new singing teacher; possibly in the U.S.A.; when out of the blue, I received a phone call. A director in Hong Kong wants to stage an English musical here next year, and he wants me to star in it!!! As far as I was concerned, that was the sign that my decision to go to the U.S.A. to study singing was the right one. If I was going to do well in the musical, my singing would need a lot of work.

I have more than a few problems with my singing. My biggest problems are that I know very few songs, that I get extremely nervous in front of an audience, and that my voice gets raspy after the second or third song.

I have been working on the first two problems by going to a local karaoke three times a week. The more I sing and rehearse the songs, the easier I'll remember them, the better I'll sing them and the more confident and comfortable I'll be in front of a crowd.

My karaoke sessions are very unusual. People often ask 'how can you sing by yourself for 2 hours?'. It's easy actually. I love singing and when I find a song that entrances me, I will sing that song four, five even eight times before moving on to the next song. I do not get bored repeating the same song over and over again although I'm sure anyone else in the room would. Some of the songs on the top of my list are 你把我灌醉, 該不該, , , 愛如潮水 and 愛如刀割. One day, I'll have enough for a concert ;-)

The karaoke sessions have also helped with the raspy problem. Singing for two hours three times a week helps to strengthen the voice but I'm also looking forward to my lessons in Hollywood where my technique will be further improved and I'll be able to sing better for longer.

Anyway, you can look forward to more updates on my blog. While in Hollywood, I will probably have lots of free time, time that I'll use to learn more about the basics of music and music theory, work on a pet proposal of mine, and write more for my blog ;-)

In the meantime, I've encoded and uploaded my guest performance in the Teresa Tang 50-year Memorial concert, held at the Cultural Centre in Hong Kong in 2003. I hope you like it, and hopefully I'll have more clips for you in the future.

Nature’s Darf Vader

Filed in Music, Photo of the DayTags:
Hong Kong's black and yellow cicada

Exceptionally attractive, our local cicada looks a little like Darf Vader from Star Wars.

For a closer 340x510 version, click here.

Two days ago, I turned 41. I'm now officially what I consider to be over the half-way mark. It's not a bad thing and it's not a good thing. On average, I may still have forty years left with which to accomplish more goals, learn more languages and learn to enjoy my life and my family more.

Growing up in the countryside of Gympie Australia, I was always aware of the cicadas clicking away in the trees, leaving shells behind clinging to the trees when they morph, but I never actually saw a live cicada. A few weeks ago when the cicadas in our neighbourhood became active, buzzing all day long, I decided to see if I could actually find one. Finally, after being on this earth for 41 years, I saw my first live cicada. Once I knew what they looked like, I was then able to quite easily see them in the trees within a few minutes of hearing their buzz.

I've now taken many photographs of the local cicadas (there are more than 2000 species worldwide and they have an interesting life cycle) but up until yesterday, the photos were less than great. Yesterday, I joyfully managed to get a couple of really nice photos. This is one of them. I hope you like it.

(By the way, all of my nature photographs are shot using manual focus. It's the only way to get total control of what's in and out of focus.)

You can read more about cicadas here.

A new age of video begins

Filed in Music, TechnologyTags: , , , ,

iTunes changed the music landscape around the world, even in places where people were unable to purchase music from the iTunes store because their address was not within an authorised country. Before iTunes, people only had two choices for music; buy it at a music store, or download it from an unauthorised source on the internet. Once iTunes proved to the world that people would legally buy digitised (and medium rip quality at that) music if given the chance, other companies began working out how they could join the bandwagon and divert some of that new money into their own bank accounts.

iTunes allowed people to buy music from a corporately condoned online source. It allowed people to easily search for and sample music before buying it, and in the process allowed consumers to expand their music horizons, discovering new musicians and new genres of music, including those not affiliated with the big record labels. Most significantly perhaps, iTunes has also had a permanent affect on the music business itself.

The strongest controller of any market is the distributor. Distributors are dictators. They are the filters and the bottle necks of any market. If the distributor doesn't make a product available, you won't be able to buy it. If the distributor doesn't advertise a product, you probably won't know about it. For the most part, the big record companies were the distributors of the music we heard and bought. As such, they controlled who became successful musicians, and were even powerful enough to be able to turn singers with no music sense into successful money-making objects. They controlled whose work was marketed, whose work was broadcast over the radio how often, and since air time is a limited commodity, they also indirectly restricted non-affiliated musicians from getting their work heard.

Aspiring musicians for many years looked to the big record labels as the key and singular hope to becoming world renown musicians, to becoming stars and for many, to becoming rich. All of this has now changed; significantly. No longer do musicians need to sort out the big record companies. They can join a growing number of internet sites whose sole purpose is to expose the public to as many musicians and music as possible. Smaller record companies are popping up everywhere except that they're no longer record companies per se; i.e., they no longer need to make records, just record and sell the music directly over the internet without the extraneous manufacturing costs of printing physical product. Consequently, there are now more musicians getting their work heard than ever before.

Since musicians no longer need the big record companies to succeed, distribution is no longer their biggest obstacle. The biggest obstacle for today's musicians has become one of exposure and marketing. If people haven't heard your work, why will they buy it?

Just a few minutes ago, I stated that people can search for and listen to any music they like on the iTunes store. It therefore probably sounds contradictory to first say that and then say that musicians will continue to have problems with exposure and marketing but it's true. The underlying problem is numbers.

When the iTunes store first began, there were only a few hundred musicians available from the store. This meant that people browsing the store had a fair chance of finding and sampling an unknown musician's work. Today though, the store probably has thousands of musicians. That being the case, new musicians may never get noticed.

Marketing is extremely important and despite the power of the internet, traditional advertising methods are still essential today. For most musicians not signed up with the big record labels, radio, TV, outdoor, magazine, newspaper and other print media advertisements will be unaffordable. Consequently, the music market is still skewed in favour of the big record labels and will continue to be so for the near future. On the positive side though, the internet is a very big place, big enough that the big record labels will never control all of its available marketing space. Independent musicians will therefore still have a chance to get their music heard, if they can find the right places on the internet to exhibit their work.

Just as the music world has changed forever, the year 2006 will perhaps witness similar changes in the world of television and video. During January, you will hear multiple announcements relating to the selling and renting of video and television over the internet. At least four big companies have already announced IPTV plans including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Intel. Additionally, many expect Apple Computer to announce their own new IPTV products early this week when Steve Jobs gives the keynote at this year's MacWorld. IPTV is about to explode.

There's just one downside. For the moment, those of us in smaller countries don't have access to the iTunes store. We probably won't have access to the upcoming video stores either. Unfortunately, the big companies are still trying to control what and where music and video is available. They're setting up virtual boundaries to protect their traditional distribution partners, and for the moment at least, those of us in smaller countries will consequently continue to be second class citizens in the world of online music and video.

Hopefully, the content producers will soon begin to skip the middle man and lose their traditional distribution partners, instead distributing their content directly to the consumer over the internet. Without the middle man, they'll no longer have a reason to use virtual boundaries and we the consumer will finally step into a world where we have almost complete freedom to watch what we like, when we like, no matter where that contents comes from. No longer will we in Hong Kong be forced to watch the first season of LOST while people in the U.S.A. are watching the second season.

Much sooner than previously anticipated, the television and video markets will soon begin to change in a big way, and as long as manufacturers don't begin implanting pin cameras into their television sets and video monitors (i.e., 1984's "big brother"), I'll accept those changes gladly.

iTunes began the revolution in how we get our music, and iTunes was also one of major factors in making IPTV a reality, but can you guess the true precursor of internet music and internet video, the real reason the big corporations are scrambling to make music and video content available over the internet? Two letters: BT. Think about it.

The debasement of pop music

Filed in Hong Kong, MusicTags: , , ,

The other night, I heard a professional singer recording for a music show. He was really good but I couldn't help but wonder if he was singing a song or singing a vocal exercise. The vocal range of the song was extreme with rapid movement between real voice and falsetto notes.

Popular music in Hong Kong has lost any sense of feel. In an effort to differentiate themselves, singers have moved to songs making heavy use of falsetto. First there was one singer, then another and then another. Even Jacky Cheung was persuaded to follow suit. The apparent opinion is that if you can't sing falsetto, then you're not a professional singer.

Listen to the Hong Kong pop charts today and you can't help but get the feeling that all the music came from the same computer program. It's monotonous and boring, and it's therefore no wonder that the singing program 名曲滿天星 on TVB Sunday nights m.c.'d by Miss Wong 汪明荃 is getting such high ratings. It's the only place in 'broadcast' town where you can hear real music sung by real singers.

Unfortunately, this is just one symptom of today's society of mass production, mass distribution and unjustly elevated corporate profits, and it's happening in all fields of life, not just music. People are being conditioned to accept lower quality product while thinking that it's better and sometimes even paying more for it.

What used to be solid wood tables is now cheap particle wood with thin laminate. What used to be metallic cups and bowls that lasted for years without wear and tear are now plastic cups and bowls that scratch, bend, melt, fade and may even indirectly cause the extinction of mankind via lower sperm counts caused by the man-made oestrogen used to make most of today's cheap plastics. Where we used to have a huge variety of tasty fruit and vegetables to choose from, we now; thanks to huge supermarket chain profiteering; only have access to a small variety of food which supposedly looks perfect but tastes like cardboard (except in Europe where they insist on only buying food that tastes good regardless of how it looks). Yet we are told that the standard of living is improving, and that we're better off than we've ever been before.

There's not much we can do about it, except perhaps to wherever possible refuse to buy product of lesser quality. Unfortunately, people in general are weak and easily moulded to do the bidding of the corporates so I have no idea where this will all end except to help the rich get richer while the poor continue to get poorer.