Head of Academic, Sabah Institute of Art
Music has its science, and it takes talented people to understand it, and what more to master it. I think musicians are gifted and rare people. We must educate parents that our children can also have a good career in the music field. A career in music doesn’t restrict you to only becoming a music performer. No. With discipline, sense of organisation and passion; good musician can also be a good manager.
Jessel CP Yansalang, Director cum Head of Academic, Sabah Institute of Art. Guitarist and Jazz trumpeter, SIA Jazz Syndicate.
HEY KIDS! Do you daydream about telling your parents, ‘I wanna be a musician,’ but know their faces will drop? Well, meet 28-year old Jessel Yansalang. Head of Academic at SIA.
Jessel believes that music education can offer an exciting, realistic career path for young people. He sees a generation of music graduates going out and becoming teachers in schools, bringing beautiful melodies into classes instead of turgid songs.
Jessel, who comes from Tambunan, says, “Musicians have the advantage of using both sides of their brains. Part of the reason why parents ask for their children to learn piano is because piano gives the capability of using both sides, practising bass clef and treble clef. Playing different things at the same time really improves children’s intelligence.”
Jessel was in the first batch of graduates from UMS’ pioneering Music degree programme. He also ran the Music diploma qualification at SIA, and is a guitarist and jazz trumpeter. All this, simply by following his heart.
“I need to have passion. For me, this cannot die, otherwise it will all be just work. My mission is to help the younger generation, by educating parents that young people can have a good career in music.
“They need to choose the correct pathway, and it’s definitely through education. Why not? Why not have your child be called Doctor, and have a PhD in Music? Some parents even ask me, ‘There is a PhD in music?’ Yes! Our professors have PhDs in music. Why not be good at the things you love?
“There are some students with 7As who audition here. We hit a note – ding! – and when they sing they are totally tone deaf. I have to reject them. They say, ‘How can you do that? I have 7As and I cannot go into this small institute?’ I say, ‘No. Music is not as easy as other subject because it requires talent and gift to cope.’ I think musicians are gifted and rare people. If you don’t have it, maybe you are meant for other fields.”
Jessel went to SRS Datuk Simon Fung primary school. “In Simon Fung, they taught the value of music and how to sing lyrics properly. They taught evergreen songs which your parents loved. I went seriously into (the school) choir, and learned that musicians need discipline, especially if you are going for competition. We won competitions, and to me, it was a real achievement. Our teacher was Filipino and we were taught how to maintain a high voice, with a special kind of breathing. They really taught you how to express yourself in music.”
For secondary school, Jessel moved to a half-government school. All Saints. “Oh man! That was another world. There were now 50 people in the class, when I was used to 20. But I am thankful that I moved to this government school because I learned another level of independence. It was like, you’re on your own.
“Government school taught songs more towards Malay folk songs oriented. I thought, why are we forced to sing these kinds of songs? Later I got to understand, this is the syllabus. It is what the government wants the younger generation to know. Although the school had a choir, I lost interest and didn’t join.
“Then, in Form 2, I saw a band. They were senior boys, playing Beatles, and I thought, ‘Wow! This is so good!’ I heard some simple voicings, and thought, ‘This is like a choir but people are playing instruments at the same time!’ I sang with them. They said, ‘Hey you have a good voice, man! We’re having a competition (Bakat Interact) come and join us.’ They were in long pants, already driving a car. They played Hendrix. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I’m in a band with boys like these!’
Jessel’s life at All Saints was characterized by bands and sports. But by Form 4, his parents stepped in. They were worried about his studies, although he managed to get the grades in the subjects he needed to go to university.
After exams, Jessel was lost. Although he loved music there seemed no right path for him to follow. “During that time Information Technology was THE subject. The government said, ‘The next era is IT. We are going to do MultiMedia, we are going to do Cyber City.’
“I thought, even though I love to play music, this is the real world. So I started Computer Science at Informatics, a UK franchise with a college in KK. It was fun doing html, websites, security programs and animation. I got good grades, and my parents were happy with me. But I would go home and look at my textbooks and think, ‘Why am I learning all this?’
“Then, I met some guys who play the guitar! (Laughs) Here we go again! Band competition, COLLEGE LEVEL! We won and started seriously composing our own songs. My grades were still good, but I loved playing music the most.”
Jessel’s family drew his attention to a degree programme at UMS, in Music. Everything connected with Jessel from primary school to secondary school was attached to music. Why didn’t he consider it as a career? Could he see himself in computers in ten years time? What about in music?
“I thought about being in computers in ten years time, and competing with all these genius computer kids. My classmates were already programming GAMES! They’re already that good! I could not do that! I could only be as good as what the textbook told me to do.” He decided to give UMS a try.
“I went to UMS to register, there were 50 students there auditioning, and they would only take 20. Some were practising songs, some were playing simple chords. When it was my turn to go in, I tried to be aware of what they were trying to test.
“They gave me a guitar, and said, ‘Play a song.’ I strummed the guitar, it was out of tune. So I tuned it and then played. They said, ‘How did you know which strings to tune? We only untuned three strings. How did you know to tune those ones?’ I got full marks for that. They auditioned me on rhythm and other things, and I got everything correct.
“Then one of them said, ‘For a bonus, tell us why we should choose you?’ I said, ‘Because I have nowhere else to go. This is all I have ever dreamed of, and it is the only thing I want to do with my life. If I don’t make it for this audition, if they have another audition, I will come back. This is the only opportunity we have in KK, to come to university to make a career of music.’
“He said, ‘Of all the students here today, no-one is as sure as you are. Some said: Just want to give it a try. Others: If I don’t end up here I will just try somewhere else’.
“I needed a second instrument, which I can play in an orchestra. They chose trumpet for me. I said, ‘If I say Yes to trumpet, will I be in?’
“They said, ‘Yes. Because we don’t have a trumpet player now, and no-one’s willing to take trump-’
“ ‘OK I’LL TAKE TRUMPET!’ I shouted. So that’s how it all started.
Jessel didn’t drop his Computer Science courses at once, he intended to go back during the holidays to complete papers, but there was an expiry date on work due. He had no choice but to quit Computer Science completely.
“So, the UMS music adventure starts! Wow! I have my first guitar lesson with the best teacher, Ronald James, head of the combo at RTM at that time. I’m so excited that people will actually teach me the proper way to play guitar! How to hold the fret, how to use a pick. I practised day and night and was doing theory, and having the time of my life.
“We played for the Asian Festival, for the National University of Singapore, we played in KL. I was the luckiest guy on Earth! I got to hear all this ethnic music, and we bring in ethnic music fused with modern, and people said, ‘Oh, this is totally brilliant!’ We made friends. Personally my favourites were Indonesians and Filipinos. I hear their gentle talk and I think, ‘Their culture has a very close bond with Sabahans’.
“But there was the other side… I totally hated trumpet. It sounded like, Barp! Barp! My trumpet teacher was from RTM and was an ex-police marching band educated trumpeter. My friends teased me, ‘Oh Jessel, why don’t you march around with your trumpet?’
“I was playing the Patriotik songs, Rasa Sayang, using old textbooks. It was not developing me. So…I failed!
“My parents said: ‘Nooo! You cannot be like that, Jessel! You cannot just do things you like. You have to do reverse psychology and learn to like your trumpet.’
“My professor said, ‘Jessel, you’re talented, but priority-wise, you are immature. The things you don’t like, you don’t put a balance to it.’
“I knew they were all right. But how can you like music which sounds like Pfft-pfft-pfft!
“Then a new lecturer came to UMS. His name was Vincent Chin and he was teaching saxophone. He said to me, ‘Oh, you play trumpet.’ He was a Sabahan, and had made a living being a jazz sessionist in KL. He said, ‘Well, trumpet, I tell you, is BIG deal in KL.’
“He said, ‘Haven’t you heard of Louis Armstrong? He’s the father of jazz.’
“He said listen to Chet Baker, Chuck Mangione and these people. Wah! I thought, ‘What have I been doing all my life? This is an instrument that most of my friends find hideous. I must take my time with it.’ That’s when I started to love my instrument.
“The rest is history. I was playing classical, duets and always being the first trumpeter in the orchestra. It would be, ‘OK, we’re going to play Latin songs. Jessel! Make sure you hold up the high notes.’ ‘Ok boss! I take care of the high notes!’ I was back in the degree programme!
“But, the question which never leaves you is, ‘What do you want to do after that?’
“After I graduated, I went to KL for my practical. I always wanted to check out the music scene there. Finally, it was time! I thought I could be at par with them. No! I was totally wrong. We arrived there holding our bags, the band conductor came up and said, ‘OK, put your bags in. Later we give you a few scores, we go to Ipoh tomorrow for a concert.’
“You see these old trumpeters, sitting there smoking and looking at us. One said to me, ‘I hear you guys are from university’. That sounded like a big deal! You cannot say you are from university! It looks like you think you are higher than them, when this is your opportunity to look for new knowledge from them. I asked him since when did he take up trumpet. He said, ‘I played for the Merdeka in Malaysia.’ He played the trumpet on Independence Day! His name was Jimmy Lee, he’s a Singaporean, but was hired by Telekom orchestra. I learned a lot from him. It was an honour.
“Jimmy said to me, ‘Jessel, I’d like to bring you to the club.’ He brings me to the parking lot, and he was driving MERCEDES BENZ, OK? (Laughs) In the club all I can hear is this trumpet inside. I think, ‘Oh my God, that sounds like Arturo Sandoval!’ I got to hear people playing those high notes in front of me often when I had the chance to drop by.
“Returning to KK, I realised that university teaches you about 40 per cent of what you need to know as a musician. That whole experience was another level for me.
“So how did I get to teaching? Well before I graduated, a lot of places had already started to hire me.
“My very first experience was when I got a call from MusicMart. ‘Are you Jessel? Someone here recommended you to help us teach electric guitar for a student. I hope you can help us.’ Then I find out a lot of teachers was afraid to take this student. I don’t know why.
“So I turn up, and wait for this student. Then this guy came in. He’s very friendly. He’s like, ‘Ah! This is my new teacher? Great! Hi, my name’s Datuk Uzair.’ But I didn’t know who he was until I was told he was a high profile man in politics. So I just asked him, ‘Right, first I need to know what your expectations are.’
“This is my first experience teaching, but I already feel I know what to do. It was natural. I just needed to know what the student wants. The Datuk wanted to play blues. Later he just comes to class for jamming and doesn’t want technical lesson, so I just teach him some licks, and he’s very happy.
“Then I started to teach small kids. That was like, ‘Ok! Let’s tune the guitar!’ Before you finish tuning the guitar you see the kid get up, go to the wall, crying, ‘Boring boring!’ So I re-design my lesson to teach them for just 15 minutes, anything over that is just games. This way they want to come back to the next class. Otherwise they will just say, ‘I hate this!’
“When you get a new student from ground zero, and they start to play exactly how you play, and even better eventually, through your teaching, that feels so good! I have a lot of students who started from Primary 2, and it’s an amazing feeling seeing them develop, until you actually get to jam with them.
“I still play in clubs, in festivals, doing my songs and recording a session, but I want to give something back. Not many people want to do that. They want to take everything and then go further. I want to go further too, but through education. I want to find out what is the best way to teach, say, to get RESULTS.”
Jessel Yansalang has made a career as a musician, a teacher and now a leading educator. Like everyone, he had to instil discipline and balance into his life. Parents and young people here should take heart from his success, and be positive about the potential future for young musicians in Sabah.
“Teaching is a beautiful experience for me. You can reach higher level in mastering certain subject simply by being a teacher. You really can have a great music career within education. It’s definitely a good path to choose.” Jessel Yansalang.
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