Being a musician: The side that no one sees

If you hear the story of the prominent home-grown musician, Eugene Pook, one distinct but frequented saying would come to mind: where there is a will, there is a way.

Born and bred in Ipoh, Eugene Pook is one extraordinary individual in the field of music - being a professional clarinettist and a professional music conductor - not just for his accomplishment in this area of arts, but for the story of his personal struggles and determination.

Former co-director and conductor of the Encounter Training Ensemble of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Pook currently holds many other titles, such as co-director and conductor of the Encounter Training Ensemble of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra; artistic director and conductor of Kuala Lumpur Pops Orchestra; music director and conductor of Kinta Valley Symphonic Society in Ipoh; music director of Perak Society of Performing Arts International Ensemble; and even has a toe in education, being the conducting tutor in University of Malaya.

While his music conducting has taken him all over the world, this true-born Malaysian at heart sees his calling in his native land, where he is determined to pass his knowledge and experience down to those pursuing this line of arts.

And so, Eugene Pook, professional clarinettist and music conductor sits down with myStarjob.com to reveal a little bit about his journey to becoming a fine musician.

A lot of people think that music conducting means standing in front of an orchestra and waving a baton. What does this profession actually entail?

Actually, I think conductors nowadays need to play many roles, not just on the musical side. They need to be a PR person to liaise with the media to get sponsors, have educational outreach sessions to children about music, to scout and recruit players and soloist, be the head of artistic development for the music, plan tours, and manage the stage production. They have to play a lot of roles in order to make the orchestra and the performance a success.

What does it take for one to become a successful musician and conductor?

As a conductor, youíll need to have a lot of experience, as you will be dealing with accomplished musicians in front of you. Youíll also need to have a sensitive ear for music to control the tempo of the piece youíre conducting, charisma and good leadership so that your musicians will pay respect to you.

As for being a musician, I believe that you must have these four things on your side: The advantage of starting at an early age, natural talent and genes in musicality, a middle to upper family income that can afford your education, as musical education is not cheap, and a city or urban lifestyle where youíve been surrounded and exposed to different types of music.

I think I had none of this, and so my journey was tough. My mother loved to sing a lot, so maybe I did actually have the musical genes. But I didnít have the rest.

And another thing you need to have is passion for what you do. I really loved what I did and still do.

How did you come to find your passion in music and in conducting?

I think my passion started a little late, during my form three year. At that time, my only friend, a fine pianist, wanted to join the school band. I, on the other hand, wanted to join the boy scouts. I was the type who wanted to do crazy things. If you asked me to sit still and play music, it was definitely not my cup of tea. So, my friend tricked me into signing a form and joining the school band!

In my school at the time, the regulation was you can only quit a curricular activity after one year. So, after a year, I approached my band instructor with the intention to quit.

He refused me. He said that he saw my potential, and insisted I carry on.

Slowly, I started seeing the fun and enjoyment in music. Because, when you are a band member, you kind of take part in a lot of activities like band competitions, band camp, and even during class time, we had to go to play at funerals. These activities got me interested.

Here you are playing an instrument with other people and you donít even know them, but somehow things start to make sense. All the harmony falls into place.

What are the challenges that youíve faced throughout your career?

In the late 80s in Malaysia, music teachers were tough to find. The teacher that I found belonged to the Penang Symphony Orchestra. Every weekend, I would travel to and from Penang by bus and ferry, and at that time there were no highways, so it would take a long time.

Sometimes I would fall asleep in the bus on the way back, and miss my stop at Ipoh, and sometimes I would sleep overnight in bus stops to catch a bus heading back.

Another challenge was the time I supported myself in Canada. I had a scholarship to study music in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. But, as I didnít come from a wealthy background, I had to work a few part time jobs to support my living.

Sometimes, between classes, intensive practising, and several part-time jobs, I wouldnít have time to sleep. But it paid off in the end. Now when I look back, I donít know how I did it.

Also, in this line, I faced a lot of pressure to be as good as others. The other students started at a young age, and were far ahead of me. One of my college teachers, a renowned musician, even told me that I was not cut out for this. He told me to try and fall back on something like plumbing, as it could make me a decent living, rather than something I was not going to succeed at.

That was a big slap in the face for me. But my two choices were to give up or push through. I believed that if others were doing better than me, I would just have to practice five times harder. And I did. And sure enough, I reached the par that everyone else was on.

What are the prospects of such a career? Is there much stability?

People always wonder how much a musician is paid, whether they can survive.I always tell them, musicians are overpaid. First of all, we get flexibility. I donít believe in the typical 9am-5pm job. In this industry, you get paid according to how much you contribute, and not an hourly rate.

Secondly, we get to do what we are passionate about. We get to make friends and social circles that form around this passion. We donít discuss figures and business, but we discuss music. We get to travel all over the world for our music, and make friends at the same time.

But realistically, if you want stability, youíll need to be versatile. Youíll need to learn a few instruments, not just one. The market is very competitive, so you canít just stick to one thing. You need to be a little business minded in that way to make yourself invaluable.

What would your advice be to those who want to pursue this path, or to those who are contemplating of switching to this path?

For those who want to switch and already have a profession, I would advise them to stick to that path and pursue music on the side. The industry is very tough for them to breach it at a late age. I have many friends who have a full-time career, but pursue music very actively on the side. They play very well!

I think it is a wonderful thing, being able to feed your passion, while creating a stable life for yourself. They can afford to buy their instruments, support their family, and find a balance between their career life and their creative life. Itís great!

For youngsters who want to pursue this line, I would say again, youíll need to be versatile to beat the competitive market.

Not just that, the younger generation these days need to be more hardworking. With the Internet and YouTube at their expense, everything is so accessible these days. Get as much knowledge as you can, and get as much experience as you can.

I used to volunteer to do a whole lot of things. From driving musicians around, to designing posters and brochures for an upcoming show, it all paid off in the end. It added to my knowledge of organising a performance.

And donít worry about whether you are being paid or not. Passion comes first. And I believe you should always give in first; when you start out, give more that you get, whether or not it seems fair. Eventually, you will start getting back.