Sax In (and out of) the city

She’s made it more than just a careless whisper.

Written by teamCARPE’s Gabrielle Ang / Photography by Gabrielle Ang featuring Michellina Chan (unless stated)

Edited & Proofed by teamCARPE’s Athena & Angel

Michellina Chan, local saxophonist. Shot by Gabrielle Ang

Michellina Chan has never been one to shy away from adventures.

Standing at five feet and two inches tall, 28-year-old Michellina Chan has travelled around the world with her trusty instruments- an alto and soprano saxophone. A graduate of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and the Conservatoire de Bordeaux Jacques Thibaud in Bordeaux, this mistress of music has rocked it out all over the world and even appeared on television in 2016 for Channel 8’s Star Awards. Having trained under the likes of Marie-Bernadette Charrier and Arno Borkamp, both influential figures in the modern history of the woodwind instrument, Michellina found herself at the very heart of her craft in Bordeaux and Amsterdam, surrounded by circles of fellow students from all over the world coming together to study the art of the saxophone, which has enjoyed its place predominantly in jazz and classical music, but has also risen to the mainstream through years of Internet memes which cemented its importance in our current pop culture.

The first time I met Michellina Chan, I was thirteen with the body of a twig and the lacefront of Severus Snape, if he was part of the Jonas Brothers in 2008. Around my neck hung a heavy Yamaha tenor sax- coloured silver, an instrument of shame reserved for the freshmen- like a rosary made out of a heavy metal penance and a sweaty neck strap which had been passed down through generations of teen girl amateur musicians. I felt like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, absolutely miserable at my inability to memorise scales, not break reeds or hold a low B-flat in my first year of learning the saxophone as a co-curricular activity.

For Mich, it was a different time for her as well. She had graduated from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and was sporting thick, brown, side-swept bangs and was often seen carrying a black handbag and a saxophone case that was also a backpack. The first time I met her, I was surprised that a woman of her stature was able to lug around so much baggage on a daily basis while keeping her cheerful, bubbly disposition that she brought to the girls under her tutelage. At the same time, I was struggling to lug my case up five floors of stairs to the band room with my twiggy, weak arms. She had an easy grace and familiarity with the saxophone she held in her hands, I noticed. At that time, she was so good at what she did to us that even if she had practiced a million times, it’d seem so natural that we’d have no idea. Maybe it was because we were all in our early teens, and our general idea of good music was One Direction.

Mich and her students before she left for Europe in 2016. By the way, no one looks like this anymore.

She was very easygoing and sociable, and gave off the vibe of a chirpy, popular musical theatre kid who knew just the right thing to do or say.  She would constantly show us new tricks that we had never thought of in our lives. This was Michellina Chan, a fresh graduate of the Melbourne Conservatorium. Ms. Chan, as I called her at the time, was beatboxing on the saxophone while playing running notes and quick, impressive trills that all of us were in awe of. She could play us any song on command, teach us techniques that we wished existed in our mental spaces much earlier — and she made learning under her so enjoyable and exquisite an experience. I remember everyone being told to say 鱼 – the Chinese word for fish, pronounced as Yú- to maintain a better embouchure while playing. I still do it sometimes at the bus stop, but then I remember I no longer play the saxophone and that people are looking at me weird.

Clearly, my romance with the instrument was a lot more short-lived and lackluster compared to Ms. Chan’s. Like most people who joined the school band to fulfill a curriculum requirement, I couldn’t picture myself being in my twenties doing this as both a passion and as a career. The first-ever concert Ms. Chan had prepared me for was held at the Esplanade Concert Hall, and it was the most serious, legitimate affair I’d experienced with the saxophone. People were coming to watch a bunch of teenagers in heavy blue blazers play music in a world-class concert hall. But once I had graduated, I locked my borrowed saxophone into its velvet-lined case for good and turned my back on the band room. Most of the other girls did the same- no one was going to spend a few grand on an instrument permanently, even if they really wanted it. However, Michellina wasn’t like most people, and it was evident, early on, that she had decided that her and her saxophone were meant to grow older together. Little did she know, she would be on her way to make her mark on this part of her world. 

However, Michellina wasn’t like most people, and it was evident, early on, that she had decided that her and her saxophone were meant to grow older together.

This story, like many coming-of-age experiences, begins in high school. Michellina recalls her first symphonic band rehearsal as a moment where her instrument truly chose its master at age thirteen. She tells me that the girls with longer arms were selected to play the trombone- a brass instrument known for its long slide, and those with thin lips were chosen to play the trumpet. “The conductor looked at me and said “Go play the saxophone,” she recalls. “So honestly, I can say that the saxophone chose me.”

Initially a Jill of all trades before she found her one true passion, Mich dabbled in the arts of ballet, visual art and pottery, but none of these affairs have lasted as long as her relationship with the saxophone. Deciding that she wanted to pursue the instrument as a career in her secondary school days, she attempted to apply for a spot in the Lasalle College of the Arts during her “O” Level year, only for her parents to persuade her to go to a junior college instead.

“I was very upset during my years in junior college, because I knew that I wanted to study the saxophone,” she quips. “So I had to make it happen after.”

It took much persuasion to get her family to agree with her choice of career, but Mich’s parents eventually gave her their blessing to make music as a career. Her long-awaited adventure began at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in Australia, after she passed her an audition in which professors from the conservatory arrived in Singapore to judge. That was the first time she had ever received a formal music education, and it was definitely not her last, either. It had brought her one step closer to a dream, and she decided to work towards and live in that dream.

Inspired by what she had seen in Melbourne, Mich travelled across the world multiple times, living in and out of rented apartments, dormitories and revelling in the cultures that every country had to offer. It was a breathtaking experience, she told me, showing me gorgeous photos of European architecture, famous buildings like the Eiffel Tower, the bluest of waters, the truest of saxophone legends and delightful meals from all over the world, cheekily tagged with #foodporn. She shows me photos of her friends- each and every single one of them represented every corner of the Earth. As cheesy as it sounds, they were all people of different colours and shapes and sizes coming together for their love of music- and for some, specifically, the saxophone. She’s gone to Kuching to teach at a festival after her Master’s, and was inspired by the avid, eager learners there, and has returned to her old alma mater in Melbourne to teach the current batch of students there.

Busking on the Streets of Bordeaux

I remember my time in the band after she flew off for Amsterdam and France- me and the other girls would be in constant awe of where Michellina had went and what she had done, so much that we would squeal with envy- it made some of us aspire to be professional saxophonists, and for a while, we were obsessed as to where she would go and what she would do next.

Michellina teaching in Kuching

It sounds like a classic avant-garde, rose-tinted story concocted by girls with rhinestone nail extensions and velour lashes on Instagram with their oh-so-carefree attitudes, perfect makeup and poke bowls. Those girls living in the age of #instagood and #f4f, flaunting their minimalistic flatlays of lip gloss and rose gold Apple Watches squeezed next to luxury perfume bottles on a marble tabletop along with VSCO-ified Polaroids of medieval buildings that catapults them into the very eyes of envy, and sometimes, contempt for their hedonistic, carefree spirit. 

But the reality of being a foreign student in a couple of exciting, yet unfamiliar countries was far less glamorous for Michellina.  

To begin with, it was definitely not a vacation. Michellina had hustled hard with many jobs to save enough for her studies in Europe- in her early to mid-twenties, she was working as a saxophone tutor in many Secondary schools to prepare teenagers like myself for concerts and competitions, sat in as a relief teacher for Primary schools, became a photographer, gave tuition, along with other freelance gigs that she took on as a musician. When she finally made it to her destination, it didn’t get easier.

“I remember preparing meals almost every day in Bordeaux because I really had to stretch the money that I had saved”, she tells me with a glint in her eyes, when we meet in a retro, old-school diner in Balmoral Plaza. This was our first meeting after four whole years, after she had reached out to me upon her return to Singapore to work together on a shoot. “You can’t afford to eat out in France every day when you live there as a student. I had loads of fun whipping up meals from ingredients I bought straight from the grocer’s. Although I didn’t eat out a lot, I do remember the patisseries they had there!” She said excitedly, putting her waffle fork down. “They had fabulous, buttery croissants oozing with fat, clothed in the flakiest, crispiest skin.” As I looked at her with awe-struck eyes, thinking about indulging in sinful French croissants, Mich laughed and joked that croissants were far from being a health food and that we should just focus on the ice-cream waffles that were in front of us at the time.

Cup noodle fix

She tells me more stories about Bordeaux- how she had landed in the tutelage of saxophone mystic, Selmer artist Marie-Bernadette Charrier, who she tells me is one of the many “strong female role models” she has always looked up to even till now. Charrier was known by her students for having brilliant talents and relentless work ethic, and nothing could ever get her down. Like Charrier, her passion for music was tested multiple times by many unexpected challenges, and some involved uncontrollable elements.

“One time I was staying back in school in Amsterdam and there was a snowstorm,” she recalls. “It was at the dead of night, and literally every bus service was gone and the subway was closed. I wasn’t going to walk all the way home in deep snow, obviously, and I definitely didn’t own a car. I was the last one in the classroom, and I knew I was screwed. I prepared myself for the worst and even planned to sleep overnight in school because there wasn’t anybody to take me home.” Eventually, a friend’s father had rescued her from the icy grasps of winter, and drove her back to her apartment. The school was almost closing by the time he had arrived, she said. It was definitely an adventure to her. Like the snow that fell and flooded the streets of Amsterdam that night, this was something that she knew she would have never experienced if she had stayed in Singapore alone.

“I achieved one of my biggest dreams while in the Conservatorium van Amsterdam,” Mich says to me excitedly, before I could picture how to spell “Conservatorium” in my head. “Basically I got into this super-famous class with a famous professor, Arno Bornkamp. Look, I can’t even put this into words- when I found out I got into the class, I was tearing like crazy.”

“The school has a very different kind of programme.” Mich adds. “It’s not just saxophone- we had a lot of creative subjects. So I did this subject called Creative Performance Lab, where we worked with scenographers, we worked with dancers, we worked with theatre people- all kinds of disciplines. I think that’s where I found like, what I wanna go into – this interdisciplinary direction.”

Her own saxophone superhero

Meeting her heroes led Mich to explore more ground-breaking forms of performance art, and made her even more curious about deconstructing all she knew about the saxophone to make something unique.
Inspired, she performed in a concert entitled “Lost” with local ensemble K口U – the Chinese word for “mouth” – featuring a variety of wind instruments such as saxophone, bass clarinet, trombone and euphonium. Using snippets of video, voice recordings on top of the music they performed, they had featured a man who witnessed a bombing in the Middle East, playing audio and video bits about his experience in the war. It wasn’t just for a hasty sob story or for shock value. This storyline, on top of the performance, had touched the hearts of many and Mich had even spotted tears coming down the faces of audience members. That was when she knew she had succeeded in telling a story waiting to be told, that she had made her impact on the audience.

“I could feel it, the tension there- how everyone was moved by his experience.” she says, telling me about the power music has when combined with other mediums, such as storytelling. “It wasn’t easy to put together. We had to draw upon our own experiences of being lost and form (our response) as artistes – how we could pull something together from those experiences.”

K口U Shot by Chung Ee Yong. From left to right we have Daniel Yiau on bass clarinet, Vincent Tan on euphonium, Don Kow on trombone

She has also experimented on collaborative pieces with her close friend from her high school years, dancer Valerie Lim- during a show entitled “plastiCITY”, which was held openly at the Jubilee Bridge outside the Esplanade. The dynamic duo donned tutus made of bubble wrap and pranced and jammed their way along the bridge as an inquisitive, growing audience made up of members of the public followed, rustling pieces of plastic with their hands.

Left, Michellina, right, Valerie

At that time, I was hired by her and Val to act as a photographer for the event when I was seventeen, and it was my first time being officially hired and paid to capture an arts event by professionals. I had seen nothing like it, and neither did anyone who was there- I was shooting the very brainchild of both Mich and Val, who were twirling around one of Singapore’s most famous bridges on pure improvisation and skill against the signature backdrop of the Marina Bay cityscape. At one point, Valerie lifted Mich’s entire weight with only her legs while lying on the floor, and somehow, she continued playing notes as calm as the river that snaked beneath them. That was the centrepiece of the show, and a crowd from the bridge- even those who weren’t there at the start of the show initially- surrounded them in a ring of admiration. It was surreal, seeing a ballerina lift a musician holding a metal instrument with only her feet against the very face of local tourism. “Two artists on a bridge doing music, dance and acrobatics. Who would have thought of that?” I pondered. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect when I received this invitation to capture the show, and here it was. I was now standing in awe amongst the masses of tourists and old friends who came to watch Mich and Val work their magic on the crowd.

“It was honestly a very mutual thing, PLASTICITY.” Mich says. “Val and I were constantly bouncing ideas off each other, sending each other videos, articles, spending loads of time together to choreograph the movements, putting the music together and making our own costumes.”

“There were a couple of running themes through the performance- the most obvious one is the environmental impact of plastic. We wanted to highlight how plastic is used everywhere- sometimes, it’s necessary, other times not. For our second theme, we wanted to show the plasticity of art and its artists by blurring the lines between musician and dancer.” She says of the interdisciplinary performance. “Val’s creating beautiful music with the plastic sheets that were also given to the audience, and I’m engaging in some pretty epic moves. This links us to our third theme- we wanted to create an awareness of music and dance in everyday life by drawing the connection of what one’s body could do in daily situations. In other words, opening our ears to what is around us, seeing that as music and reacting on that with our bodies.”

On the impact she thinks her plastiCITY performances have made on the audience, she tells me that for some, it was a “teachable moment of how we should use single-use plastic sparingly”, and for others, the show made them reflect on how small they were as individuals against the backdrop of the city serving as the stage for the show.

“This performance held many firsts for me – playing the saxophone out in the hot Singapore sun, dancing/prancing amongst Singaporeans and tourists, playing the saxophone upside down.” Mich says. “For me, I felt the process of putting it all together was the most significant. Discovering more about the different language of music and art but also figuring out the similarities of the two forms. I’m glad I went through it with an amazing partner- I feel that with artists, we all have our own ways of doing things and it’s hard to find that in-between or compromise. It’s like choosing that one direction and everyone needs to be convinced or else it wouldn’t work.” Of her collaborators, she mentions that she feels “very lucky” that she selected individuals that she “respects and works really well with” and fondly quips, “With Val, we were always bouncing off each other’s ideas; for example, she comes up with one and we make it better together.”

Behind the scenes of plastiCITY

“I think music chose me. And I ran with it — I ran so fast and so far,” she says without hesitation. “But the hardest thing for a musician — especially in this time, with the epidemic — it’s the loneliness. Us musicians, we spend 8 hours practising alone in a cube or whatever — and right now it’s ten-folds of that, in this situation.” Mich confesses, pausing for a moment. “I like to play with people so much — chamber music — more than chamber music. Now it’s back to basics, back to practising, I hope the COVID-19 situation passes soon.”

“I think music chose me. And I ran with it — I ran so fast and so far,” she says without hesitation.

But even in her darkest hours of loneliness, the musician constantly finds new ways to entertain and impress. “I have these little goals I’ve set for myself. So these goals– I’ve actually wanted to achieve them for a while already… so right now, I actually have the time to do it.”

On top of her regular Instagram videos of her playing popular songs on request from her followers in quarantine, she teases he teases the release of videos created by her and a dear saxophonist friend of hers from Amsterdam, Deborah Witteveen, as well as a booklet comprising her very own method towards learning the saxophone, while aiming to “try and put a smile on people’s faces”. 

Michellina and her friend, Deborah Witteveen carrying 3 saxophones and 2 bags in winter in Amsterdam

I ask Mich this final question, half jokingly and partly also because I never know what to expect from her, so I decide to press for any tricks up her sleeve. 

“Are you planning for anything we can look forward to?” 

She looks at me with the most deadpan expression that any web camera in the digital age has seen. 

Sardonically, she delivers this witty, yet painfully honest one-liner before concluding our last formal interview together. 

“Everything is cancelled, Gabs.”

Five years have passed, and reconnecting with her on social media to work on promotional photoshoots was not what I was expecting at all. We’re cussing and laughing in front of each other now, I don’t have a sweaty tenor saxophone in my hands and I don’t feel any anxiety. We aren’t in a classroom with a bunch of other girls learning how to have basic rhythm, and we’re talking about musicians who have changed our lives the most. She introduces me to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, “To Pimp A Butterfly” and the Maat Saxophone Quartet. I talked about my favourite artist Marilyn Manson, and admitted that my personal favourite Lady Gaga album was ARTPOP. We talk about incorporating empathy and art into music, and both agree that we like each other’s music tastes, no matter how different they may seem. I confess: I felt a pinch of validation that a professional musician approved of my music taste. 

The author with Michellina in October 2019. She doesn’t dress like that or have blue hair anymore.

I don’t have my stupid haircut and twiggy, adolescent gawkiness anymore, and she’s grown out her bangs and lived in two cities in Europe before coming back home. It’s surreal to think that our relationship has evolved so much and that we’ve grown much older — hopefully wiser, too While interviewing her over Skype, I couldn’t help but think:  “Can I say this? Am I pushing it too far? Should I be calling her “Ms. Chan” throughout? Shit, what if she thinks I’m being insensitive or straight up unkind about this?”

But ironically, as I’ve learnt from her back then, I am learning from Mich now: that everything is a lesson to be learnt, and that everything should be dabbled in at least once if it’s not illegal. That this method of trying, going up and down scales and dipping toes in pools of melody and rearranged notes of a new life, is the only way to truly figure out where one’s interests lie. 

“My advice is that if you find a love for something, just really go for it.” She tells me. “Nowadays, not many people know what they want to do. So when you’re young, try everything and anything.”

It hits home. Me, with my mediocre, albeit terrible saxophone days of learning Fall Out Boy covers and printing badly-arranged sheet music for the melody to “Welcome To The Black Parade” during the mid-2010s’ brief resurgence of emo. Her, with her days of dabbling in poetry, ballet and photography, of trying everything until something worked. Her, finding her love for the saxophone at age thirteen in a band room, like all her heroes before her had.

“Once you find it, hold onto it tight.” 

And so she did. Clearly, she hasn’t let go since.

Catch up with Michellina here , visit her online home here and check out Gabrielle’s photography here.

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