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07 Apr 2021

CSS Composer of the Month for Apr 2021: Belinda FOO

Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month!

The fourth CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Belinda FOO! Belinda FOO is a Singaporean composer, arranger and orchestrator. She has been in the music industry for over 30 years, and is a music lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts.

Belinda FOO

Interviewer: GU Wei

Tell us about yourself and what led you to pursue the career of a composer.

Well, I did not make it to Law School. My mother was very disappointed; she had always wanted me to be a lawyer. At first I felt lost, but also relieved: Law was not my choice, but now that it was out of the equation, I didn’t know what my options were.

Long story short, I began to work by teaching music and playing the piano at hotel lounges (thanks to piano lessons and hours of noodling on the piano). I was spotted and approached to join a ‘Top 40s band’. After 2 years of playing and singing 6 nights a week, I was asked what I wanted to do for the rest of life. The performing scene was draining – physically and mentally; I realized it wasn’t for me, even though I loved music. It was then when I seriously considered writing music as a career.

A friend/ mentor suggested that I should further my music education at the Grove School of Music (GSM) in LA. I was very fortunate to have had ‘angels’ sponsor my studies at GSM. There, I studied Composition and Arranging, and Film Scoring.

The Grove approach to music education was both vocational and inspirational: students were taught and prepared for the music industry by a faculty comprising professionals working in Hollywood. There was also a regular stream of guest lecturers such as Henry MANCINI, Lalo SCHIFRIN (composer of the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme), Bill CONTI (composer of the ‘Rocky’ theme), to name a few.

Upon graduation, I returned home and worked as an arranger/ composer at a production company with the late Cultural medallion recipient Iskandar ISMAIL, film composer Ricky HO and veteran sound engineer/ guitarist Shah TAHIR. The local and regional music industry was thriving then: I was kept busy with pop song arrangements, jingles, as well as writing music for our National Day Parades.

You have worked extensively across various genres including commercial music, musicals and concert music. How do you navigate the working process with these vastly different genres?

Thanks to my training in Film Composition, which involved composing and orchestrating in different genres, I am open to writing and working on a variety of musical styles. The ‘working composer ethic’ that was promulgated in GSM was, “Just say yes [to the project], then figure it out as you go”. The film programme was demanding: cues were due every week, and they varied in genre, locale, period and instrumentation. We were compelled to research, analyse and compose a piece or film cue every week.

I enjoy writing and working on music in a variety of genres, it enables me to communicate (musically) with various types of audiences. I think it helps that my interest in music spans across genres and styles: from Art music to Jazz to Metal; they all ‘speak to me’ in different ways.

How has teaching music influenced or shaped the way you compose?

According to Joseph JOUBERT, “to teach is to learn twice”. My students keep me honest and on my toes. Knowing something does not always translate to knowing how to teach or impart it. Also, different students learn differently. Just because an explanation worked with one, does not mean it will work with someone else.

Sometimes, students will raise a topic that I am not familiar with, and that provides a great opportunity to learn something new, or review something that I had forgotten about.

Teaching is never static: I am constantly learning, and discovering new strategies, new music and means to engage students.

I learn a lot from my students: they keep me up to date with current musical and extra-musical trends. I think it is vital to stay abreast of the music/ arts scene, especially since I am supposed to equip students for the industry/ scene. I may not like or agree with everything that is new, but I think it is important to know what is trending and what current tastes are. Apart from the nuts and bolts of theory, aural and compositional devices, I enjoy discussions (often animated) with students about current aesthetics of popular music, and/or the direction of post-genre music.

Students hold up mirrors, so I have to ‘walk the talk’. Everything that I have taught, musical values that I have espoused come back to haunt me when I write.

From your wealth of experience working in the music industry, what are some advices for younger generations of aspiring composers?

  1. You have heard it before, but it needs to said again: Do not stop learning and exploring. There is SO much music out there: keep your ears and mind open.
  2. Do not limit yourself to music. Expose yourself to all types of good art: visual art, literature, poetry, dance…
  3. Write everyday. Just as performers practise several hours a day, composers should practise writing everyday. Stravinsky wrote everyday.
  4. We live in difficult times. No matter what you have do to make a living, you are a composer as long as you write music.