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Interview with Summer Swee-Singh, May 2017
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You might not (yet!) be familiar with the name Summer Swee-Singh, but I don’t think that will be true for very long. Summer sent me her debut album, Summer Swee-Singh and the Crazy 88, in January of this year. I wasn’t familiar with her name, but the album cover was intriguing! Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I was in the Kawai piano area of the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, and I kept hearing bits of beautiful and powerfully emotional piano music coming from the back of the room. I walked back to see who it was, and it was young woman who looked a lot like the woman on the CD cover I had recently received. I walked up to look at her name badge, and it was, indeed, Summer Swee-Singh! After she finished her piece, I introduced myself, and an instant friendship was born. I started listening to her album when I got back home, and it blew me away! So, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you Summer Swee-Singh!

KP: It was so much fun to meet you at the NAMM Show this past January and to see you play live! It was an odd coincidence, but I’m so glad it happened! It sounds like you did quite a bit of performing at NAMM this year. Tell us about it.

SSS: It was so wonderful to run into you—a very pleasant surprise! That Shigeru Kawai was such a delight to perform on as well. I was at NAMM with my singer-songwriter friend Alexandra Shipp (she’s also a marvelous actress) and we performed as a duo—Alex singing with yours truly backing her on keyboard— at three different booths for 64 Audio, OWC, and Audix Microphones. 
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Summer at NAMM

KP: From reading the bio on your site, it sounds like you perform all the time. Tell us about that. 

SSS: I earn most of my income from performing — I perform for private events ranging from celebrity and luxury weddings, to corporate events, the Marine Corps Ball, and family holiday parties or birthday parties. I also perform publicly for events at luxury hotels and restaurants. I had a 2+ year residency playing weekly at the Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach (11/14 - 1/17), but they suddenly ended all live entertainment at the beginning of this year due to budget cuts. I’m now the first substitute for Steve Siu of Montage Laguna Beach, but that just means I fill in whenever he has other obligations or wants to vacation, which is not very often. I’m looking to find a new residency at an upscale restaurant or hotel in Orange County or Los Angeles County. There are very few establishments who make live music a priority, and sadly, of those establishments, only a minuscule percentage are looking for instrumental piano players. 

KP: That’s really a shame! Believe it or not, I know Steve Siu! He did a concert at my house in Hercules quite a few years ago! 
     On a brighter note, I absolutely love your debut CD, Summer Swee-Singh and the Crazy 88, and am quite sure it will be one of my Favorite Albums for 2017. My favorite piece on the album is “JFN.” What inspired it?
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Working on video for "JFN (with Prelude)."

SSS: I’m so thrilled and flattered that you enjoyed my debut album so much!
  The letters of the song title “JFN” are actually my boyfriend’s initials and that song is dedicated to him. I wrote this piece in early March 2016 while visiting my parents, sitting at the same piano on which I grew up learning and practicing, with Jeff (my boyfriend) laying on the floor listening to me play around with different chord progressions and melodies while I recorded everything with voice memos on my phone. I was not a music major and never took any formal composition or harmony theory classes, so my composition “JFN” is the culmination of my learning to compose by ear through trial and error and listening to and analyzing all kinds of music. “JFN” is the only piece on the album that I wrote the same year I released the album (2016) and is the most recent of my compositions on the album. 
     Some exciting related news is that I composed a string trio prelude to “JFN” and also added strings to the final reprise of the theme. I recorded this new audio on my birthday this year and then shot a music video for it the following day with a handful of marvelous, female string players. The new version, titled "JFN (with Prelude),” is currently being distributed to over 50 platforms worldwide via Symphonic distribution. I will release the music video on my YouTube channel and the track will officially be available on those 50+ download and streaming platforms (including iTunes, Beatport, Amazon, Spotify, Google Play, Deezer, YouTube Red, etc.) on Friday, May 5th, 2017!!! 

Here’s a link to the video: 

KP: The video is incredible! That’s the piece I heard you playing in the Kawai piano room at NAMM, and even though the music was coming from the back of the room, it immediately grabbed me and I had to see who was playing it! The strings are a very beautiful addition!
     Where did the other music on the album come from?

SSS: “Hello, My Name Is Summer” is a short intro piece I composed initially to accompany a vocal line for a play with music. Parts of “Berkeley” and “Seabird” were my first ventures into the world of composition. I wrote them while in a band during my sophomore and junior years of college. I expanded upon "Berkeley" in 2011, and added more to both “Berkeley” and “Seabird" in 2016. As I mentioned, I composed “JFN” in early 2016. “Selina & Dil,” “Mikael (For Irina & Sarkis),” and “Apples and Tea” were all fully improvised and recorded live in one take (at the Ravenswave studio) while thinking of the people each song was named after. I wrote “Alexandra y Servando” while I was living abroad in Serbia in 2014 as an engagement present for my friends from college—it was my first attempt at composing a theme song. I wrote “Samina” in 2015 as a potential theme for a middle Eastern documentary. It wasn’t chosen and I did not end up scoring that film, but I was proud of that short piece as it was one of my first attempts at composing a theme for film. I included it on my album and dedicated it to my best friend from high school. Finally, I wrote part of “27” as the opening theme for a short documentary titled “Inside the Mind: Keith Matsumura” and expanded on the theme (improvised) when recording the piece. 

KP: Do you have any sheet music available yet?

SSS: Not yet! I wrote all of my music by ear. I would have to learn the four songs that I improvised and then transcribe them if I wanted sheet music for those songs! If I ever tour the album, I will have to listen to those pieces and learn to play them. I have recently been debating taking the time to transcribe some of my music with Sibelius and then selling the sheet music on my website — so hopefully, there will be some available in the not-so-distant future! I did compose the string parts for the soon-to-be-released “JFN (with Prelude)” in Sibelius, so I do have sheet music for violin 1, violin 2, and cello that I might release. 

KP: You could always have someone transcribe the music for you, but that is definitely another expense! 
     Tell us about the idea behind the album cover itself. It certainly is different!
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Click on album cover to go to Kathy's review.

SSS: While it is true I could hire someone to transcribe my own music, I would definitely not want to pay someone else to transcribe for me what I could transcribe myself should I find the time to do so. I also find it in my best interest to ensure my transcription skills are kept in check by treating my own compositions and arrangements like dictation exercises. 

In regards to the album cover, it is a reference to my favorite character in the Kill Bill movie series—O-Ren Ishii (portrayed by Lucy Liu). If I could re-write that series, O-Ren, with the help of her personal army, the “Crazy 88,” would triumph over The Bride (portrayed by Uma Thurman), which is why I am wearing a cream-white gown and am wielding a copy of O-Ren’s samurai sword from her famous fight scene in the snow, poised intensely in front of my own crazy 88. 

KP: I never would have guessed that, but I haven’t seen any of the Kill Bill movies!
Are you working on a second album yet?
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SSS: I have started composing a few songs for a sophomore album, but have not yet decided how many tracks I want or an overarching theme for the album. I will surely plan on recording and releasing my next album either later this year or in early 2018. 

KP: I’m looking forward to it! 
     Okay, let’s learn some more about your background. Where were you born?

SSS: I was born in Southern California. 

KP: When did you start playing the piano?

SSS: I started playing the piano when I was about 7 years old because a school teacher informed my parents that I was too shy in class and suggested having me join some type of group extracurricular activity. My parents took this information and decided to sign me up for group piano lessons. 

KP: I read that you were the youngest person ever to pass the Level 5 Yamaha Music School’s piano performance and theory examination. What was that like?

SSS: It was a thrill! I absolutely loved theory and ear training / dictation—they were always my favorite sections to tackle because they came pretty easily to me. However, I always love a challenge and become more determined to complete a task when someone tells me they do not think it’s possible for me to complete it. So, when I heard that most teachers at Yamaha (who were all over 20-years-old) had to retake that test two or three times before they passed, I wanted to see if I could pass on my first try. The toughest section for me was performance, just because performance and classical technical playing were always my weaknesses. It was the longest test I had taken at that age (four-hour exam with multiple parts), but I felt pretty good walking out of the testing center and couldn’t have been happier when my teacher told me the successful results. Actually, my teacher was probably more shocked than I was! It definitely was exhilarating to realize that, at age 12, I had conquered an exam that many people over twice my age had to take multiple times! It was a huge confidence boost to me then, as I was still quite shy and definitely a socially-awkward pre-teen. After taking and passing that exam, the rest of the Certificate of Merit  examinations were a piece of cake for me and I passed the Advanced Level CM exam at age 14. With that theory knowledge and examination experience, I was able to earn a 5 on the AP Music Theory Examination without taking the AP course before testing. 
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KP: Impressive! Are any of your family members musicians?

SSS: No, nobody in my immediate family is a musician, and no one in my extended family plays an instrument or sings other than as a hobby. I come from a pretty conservative Asian family and they have a hard time considering my profession as a pianist and composer a “real job.” They decided for me at a young age that I was either going to be a doctor or a lawyer, so it was definitely tough for me to break it to them that I was going to leave my 9-5 position at a big law firm in San Francisco to pursue a career in music and that I would not be applying to law school any time soon. Going to law school is a fall-back plan for me when I turn 32 if my career in music does not prove to be financially stable by then. 

KP: When did you start composing?

SSS: Well technically, I first started writing back in college while in a band, but I honestly did not take writing at all seriously back then since it was just something fun to do. I started composing with the intent of trying to become a composer in 2014 while living in Serbia. “Alexandra y Servando” was the first song I wrote with that intention. When composing that piece as an engagement gift, I envisioned what I had known of their relationship as a film for which my composition would be a theme. It was during the process of writing their song that I realized I wanted to begin composing in addition to my work as a pianist and music arranger.  
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KP: Did your piano teachers encourage you to improvise and compose?

SSS: I had to learn some very basic improvisation skills to pass the Yamaha Level 5 examination, but beyond that I was never encouraged to improvise or compose. I would say that very few classical piano teachers encourage their students to improvise or compose—and some even actively discourage it. It is definitely something I would urge teachers to consider encouraging and even try out themselves, as many classical piano teachers do not know thing one about composing or improvising—it truly opens the door to a whole new world for a classically-trained musician who never believed he or she could be a composer. 

KP: Yes, my own piano teacher didn’t like me improvising, so I stopped and resent it to this day! When did you start performing?

SSS: I am pretty sure I had my first recital (through my music school) at age 7. I vaguely remember performing for the annual Father-Daughter banquet held by my elementary school starting probably in 4th or 5th grade. However, my first paid performance was when I was in 8th grade, when I performed for a crowd of 10,000 people at the ACSI National Teacher’s Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. 

KP: Wow! That’s a huge audience! Was your training strictly classical?

SSS: Yes. I started arranging by ear during my high school years and beyond, aside from my classical training. I took a few beginning jazz piano lessons during my senior year at Cal (UC Berkeley) with Frank Martin whom I deeply admire, respect, and adore; it truly is a whole new world and I wish I had taken jazz as a child as well. I think it would have helped me be a much more well-rounded player. I am hoping to take some jazz piano lessons and jazz theory to help with my playing and composing in the near future. 

KP: Did you consider becoming a professional classical performer?

SSS: Absolutely not. That would be pretty much impossible, haha! While I definitely have a handful of classical pieces that I’ve mastered (mostly Chopin Nocturnes and any song you would hear me perform at a wedding), I would categorize myself as an “OK" classical performer, as I sometimes play technical classical passages “sloppily” and improvise on a motif with my own embellishments. Even though one is “supposed to,” I do not prioritize playing each and every correct note in classical music or any other genre—I am pretty sure that alone disqualifies me from being a “good” classical musician. I absolutely love to embellish melody lines with other notes I hear in my head when performing. This might have worked well if I had been trained in jazz, but generally, classical is performed exactly as written, so I was never a top classical performer in my group classes. My strengths lie in my ear, my creativity, and my ability to apply my knowledge of music theory in analysis of others’ songs as well as my own compositions. I believe these strengths are what make my cover arrangements and “Piano DJ” performance style so attractive to other musicians and even audience members who do not have any musical background. 
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KP: It sounds like you had a lot of music in high school. Did you go to a private school?

SSS: Yes, I attended a private prep school called Vivian Webb School (of The Webb Schools) that was both a day and boarding school. I was a day student. I absolutely would not have considered ever becoming a professional musician if Mario Flores and Dr. Mark Nelson (my orchestra conductors from Webb) had not so positively impacted my explorations in music during high school and beyond. Dr. Nelson still acts as one of my mentors and I am eternally grateful to both him and Mr. Flores. 

KP: Where did you go to college? What was your major?

SSS: I attended the University of California at Berkeley. Go Bears! I majored in Legal Studies and minored in Music. According to my parents, I was NOT supposed to be a musician. I was told that if I became a musician I would be “homeless, living in a cardboard box on the street,” and that music was just an extracurricular activity I excelled at and that looked good on my college applications. I definitely regret not double-majoring in Legal Studies and Music, as I only minored in Music at Cal. However, I was lucky enough to be able to take multiple classes with Professor Nicholas Mathew, Professor Myra Melford, and Professor CK Ladzekpo even as a music minor, and would not trade those experiences for the world. 

KP: Southern CA is so huge! How do you go about becoming known in such a huge area with so many professional musicians?
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SSS: SoCal is indeed a huge area. Approximately 80% of being a professional musician is the hustle if you’re like me and currently don’t work with agencies or contractors. Most agencies take significant percentage cuts that I am staunchly against. I currently get all of my gigs through my own research and networking and through services such as Thumbtack and GigSalad. I’ve learned to be very proactive about gaining performance opportunities. I aspire to one day be as well-known and business savvy as the incredible Tina Guo. She’s certainly a virtuoso at her instrument and I hope to one day have a mastery of the piano that she has of the cello. Equally as important, she is an extremely intelligent businesswoman and I admire her handiwork in both business and music, as well as her willingness to share her knowledge with the rest of us musicians. Hopefully, my music video release will help circulate my name around the local community and on social media internationally. 

KP: I’ll post a link! Do you teach piano?

SSS: Yes I do! I have to supplement my gigging income with teaching since I’m no world-famous performer. I currently have students ranging from age 5 to age 75. While I do enjoy teaching piano, music theory, and ear training, I am hoping to cut down my roster of students to only a handful of my most dedicated students in the future, as I hopefully transition towards more creative work (composing, performing and hopefully touring). 

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

SSS: Oooh, this is a tough call. I guess I would have to say that my most exciting musical experience was recording my first professional music video for my composition, “JFN (with Prelude).” “JFN” is the composition I am by far the most proud of on my debut album. I decided to make use of my purchase of Sibelius to compose a string prelude to the piece for two violins and a cello and also added a string accompaniment to the final reprise of the theme. I am a planner and an absolute control freak, so I did almost everything on my own from contacting the string players, to writing contracts for everyone involved, purchasing wardrobe for everyone, setting up the rental of a Steinway B for the music video shoot, booking the audio recording and video shoot locations, and, with the help of my boyfriend, I recorded and did all of the mixing and mastering of the audio on my own in Logic Pro. I also sent the music video director long editing notes to ensure the audio and video clips lined up as perfectly as possible, and I will be setting up all my online marketing campaigns and giveaways related to the audio and video release on May 5th on my own. 
     A close second is probably a tie between the first time I realized that Skrillex had reposted one of my arrangements on his Facebook artist page, when I performed for TEDxCambridgeUniversity2014, and when I met Dustin and Teppei of Thrice who told me they enjoyed my instrumental interpretations of their music (Thrice is my favorite band of all time). 

KP: Do you still play much classical music?

SSS: There are a handful of Bach Inventions and Chopin Nocturnes that I can play very well still, but I rarely perform much other classical music aside from portions of pieces I performed when a young(er) classical pianist (e.g. Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria, Pachebel’s Canon, The Wedding March, Lizst's Lieberstraum, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, etc.). However, I recently took an online class for intermediate classical piano to brush up on my sight-reading and classical playing. I certainly was a much better classical performer at the age of 15 than I am now, but I am slowly working on getting my classical chops back up to where they were ten years ago (age 18 then) at the peak of my classical piano playing. I often enjoy trying to figure out classical pieces I like by ear (vs. learning them with sheet music) which makes things much more fun for me.

KP: It sounds like you have arranged and performed a lot of cover songs as well as your originals. About how many songs have you arranged?
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Summer and JFN

SSS: Haha wow, I haven’t kept a running log of my repertoire in years. Back in 2009 it stood at a little over 1,200 songs. With that said, I can safely say I have arranged about 2,000 songs. This is a good reminder that I need to take the time to type out my repertoire.

KP: Are any of those songs available for sale?

SSS: Yes, many of them are available for sale or streaming, but I haven’t recorded all of them. As of this interview, I have 20 albums (many of which are singles) of cover arrangements available for download or streaming on iTunes / Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Play. You can find these albums by searching “Summer Swee-Singh” on your preferred music-listening platform. My most recent set of arrangements was recorded on a Steinway B and I’ve titled these single and LP releases “Piano DJ” albums. There are currently six volumes of these. “Piano DJ, Vol. 6” was released on April 20th, 2016 and includes my solo piano arrangements of fifteen modern hits including M.I.A.’s "Paper Planes,” Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” Avicii’s “Levels” and “Wake Me Up,” Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” a Daft Punk medley, The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and more.

KP: You also have an extensive YouTube channel. How many videos are on there?

SSS: I have 85 videos of my arrangements of various songs. Many of those date back as far as 2010 (at least 20)! There are also some videos of me not performing, but I didn’t count those.
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KP: Who and what are some of your musical influences?

SSS: I think it’s too early in my composing career for me to have honed in on my “sound,” but some of my influences thus far include Chopin, Mendelssohn, Ratatat (and therefore, J.S. Bach). 

KP: Who are some of your favorite composers?

SSS: Frederic Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn, Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Claude Debussy, George Gershwin, Matthew Bellamy, Teppei Teranishi of Thrice, Albert Hammond Jr., Sufjan Stevens, Zach Condon of Beirut, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ratatat, Daft Punk, The Rapture, Wolfmother, Deftones, Brand New, Pink Floyd, M.I.A., Justice, Lovedrug, Justin Hurwitz, Hans Zimmer, Raiju, Cyborg Octopus, and my friend — Alexandra Shipp. I wish there were more females on my list… 

KP: Yep, it’s still a very male-dominated industry! Favorite performers?

SSS: My favorite performers are Thrice, Muse, Ratatat, Yuja Wang, and Simon Trpceski. 

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

SSS: 1. Wish for a new residency at a local luxury hotel or restaurant where I would perform three of four days a week, so I would not have to constantly be hustling to search for more one-off gigs or teach any whiny students who do not like to practice. 2. Wish for a lifetime of good health for me, my boyfriend and my family. 3. Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton would suddenly become the POTUS and would replace the rest of the current administration with sane, fact-checking people. 

KP: What do you like to do in your free time? Or do you have any free time?

SSS: Haha, I do not have much free time, but some hobbies of mine are photography and watching movies to specifically listen to how the movies’ soundtracks complement their visuals. I also make time to attend shows to both enjoy an artist I adore performing live—this could be anyone from Yuja Wang (my favorite pianist) to attending a Thrice, Ratatat, Muse, or Justice show—and also to learn as much as I can from those performers about what makes a great performance and show. 

KP: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

SSS: I think we’ve covered plenty for now. Thank you so much for this interview opportunity, Kathy!

KP: Thanks so much for taking time to chat, and very best wishes with your new video!

For more information about Summer Swee-Singh and her music, be sure to visit her website and her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
May 2017