The process is simple: log in to the school’s information website, key in the ideal Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) of our choice in the online form, and before we know it, we find ourselves in a CCA for the next few years. This short but sweet process is a life-changing decision for many of us in Dunman High, throwing us into a whole new environment that can make or break us.

When we enter a new CCA in Year 1 or Year 5, our expectations towards the CCA experience may be vastly different – those who are unable to get into their desired sport, club or performing arts may believe they can only try their best to get by, while others who secure their spot in the CCA of their dreams may be even more motivated to work harder.

But for the majority of us in DHS, when it is time for us to step down from our CCA, it is often with a sense of fulfilment, a dash of happiness, but also with a tinge of reluctance and sadness. A bittersweet parting, of sorts – because it is in the most difficult times in our CCA that become the most meaningful memories, making our journey in our CCAs truly worthwhile.

As a Year 5 that has spent my four years in the Dunman High School Chinese Orchestra (DHSCO), my journey has been filled with fatigue, challenges and hardships, but also joy, satisfaction and meaningful relationships.

DHSCO has given me a shot at becoming a musician and will continue to do so — this is my story.

Photograph taken in 2018, Annual Concert in Dunman High School

The first time I watched a DHSCO concert was in 2014, during their annual concert – I’d been told regularly that the orchestra consisted of talented, hardworking students and instructors, and that I should aspire to try for the CCA if I join the school. While I had been aware of their prestigious reputation, I felt skeptical on what exactly made DHSCO special out of all the school orchestras in Singapore.

I walked into the school’s Performing Arts Centre wants to see what exactly about DHSCO awed the people around me, and I walked out inspired by the students’ love for music. It was not the quality of their performance that moved me; rather, it was the way they delivered their music: with passion, sincerity and hard work.

Ever since that concert, I made it a personal goal to join them on stage one day.

While I managed to secure a spot in the CCA through the Direct School Admission (DSA) Exercise, I was initially uncertain of my future in the orchestra. What if I wasn’t competent enough? What if the next few years in DHSCO become meaningless in the end? It was a roller-coaster full of uncertainty, fears and insecurities, but it was also a mix of joy and childhood innocence.

A tinge of excitement, a glimmer of hope, cheers from the audience while I stood on the stage I longed to belong on.

I was not disappointed.

Photograph taken in 2017, Overseas Concert in Penang, Malaysia

When I had a dream ten years ago, I called it my biggest aspiration. It was something I had expected to be one full of hardships and disappointment, but a goal I wanted to achieve regardless.

The life in DHSCO has always been a slice of the life I’ve once dreamed of – to experience the life of a musician. Led by Dr Tay Teow Kiat, a founding father of the Singapore Chinese orchestral scene, our experiences in DHSCO had simulated the lives of musicians in a professional orchestra.

But being part of an orchestra always has its highs and lows, and having to live up to DHSCO’s high expectations was an endless struggle. From our personal difficulties such as lagging behind in musical standards, to collectively enduring the long, grueling hours of practice, the hardships in the orchestra almost felt like we had been training to become skilled professionals.

The memories of our difficult times are still fresh in my head: I can recite the seniors’ weekly lectures by heart, that emphasize on how we needed to improve our musical standards drastically. I can still feel the frustration of being stuck in an eight-hour rehearsal. I can still feel the growing, but crushing feeling of burnout weeks before a performance.

I can still feel the disappointment when I hear our audience credit our successful performances with ‘talent’.

I am a realist and it is facts and truth that ground me. I do not believe in sugar-coating my words, nor am I lured in with idealistic goals. That is why it upsets me the most when expectations are sky-high without knowing the effort put in behind the scenes – to say that our success was due to our innate talent would be an extreme dismissal to all the effort we put in.

Talent may be helpful in a CCA, but it is not everything. It is the encouragement you give yourself, and the strength and courage you find with others, that truly helps you walk down this long path.

Photograph taken in 2019, Overseas Concert Trip in Hainan, China

To be in a CCA is to complete a goal with a group of people who turn from strangers to lifelong friends. These are the people that celebrate your achievements with you, comfort you in times of need, and stay with you through the most difficult times.

I’ve always had a difficult time making friends – opening up to others had been something I never really did due to my lack of self-confidence. This was the reason I initially distanced myself from many of the people in DHSCO, offering help when needed, but refusing to seek help or talk to anyone even in the lowest of times.

But despite my insecurities and flaws, these were the friends that never hesitated to reach a helping hand out to me, and accepted me no matter what.

Our bonding sessions always occurred during the long practices, where we would vent together about our frustrations and encourage each other throughout everything. Rehearsals became easier to handle when we were together, even with the extreme fatigue. As we spent years together, through the small events such as getting bubble tea together, and the important events like our overseas performances, I eventually found a place where I belonged.

They were friends who stuck with me through thick and thin; who changed me from someone who could barely believe in myself, to a person with more self-confidence.

There is a habit I consciously practice: each time I struggle to find the light or wish to do some self-reflection, I open up a box full of memories and read every single encouragement letter given to me by my DHSCO members. Each night before our annual concert, I write back – to the people that have helped me out, to the people I’m close to, and the people who have always stayed with me.

I tell myself that I can find strength, and I have gotten through tougher times with their help.

Photograph taken in 2019, SAP40 Celebrations at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC)

There is a tradition that all of us in DHSCO must follow – before every piece, all of us have to spend at least five minutes to “培养情绪”, referring to the time we take to genuinely reflect on the meaning and emotions of the piece we are about to play.

I am familiar with the way my section takes time off to reflect: all of us gathered in a circle, eyes closed, finding a sense of comfort and peace among one another. Some feel a little more comfortable with our instruments, mimicking the movements of plucking the strings. Occasionally, one or two of us will hum the piece before the rest of us slowly join in.

Every year, at least one of us will shed tears before walking up the stage.

I’ve always felt the deeper meaning of the pieces I had to play, but I could never understand the reason why at least one of us would always be moved to tears each year. It was only when the weight of my final performance rested on my shoulders that I finally understood the reason for my seniors’ emotions.

From having the stress of having to perform overseas, to the panic caused by the overrun of the final rehearsal, I had made up my mind that this would be my final performance before I moved on from DHSCO. These four years of a fast-paced life in the orchestra had initially convinced me that it was a worthwhile experience, but not something that I want to continue in Senior High.

But it was those five minutes of peace that had changed my mind – the stark contrast to the overwhelmingly negative emotions finally allowed me to reflect on the reason for wanting to experience the life of a musician. I thought about my achievements and the relationships I’d formed with the people here, and how I have never regretted getting to know everyone here.

Section photograph taken in 2019, Annual Concert in Dunman High School

All of us have different reasons for joining the CCA. All of us have different opinions or feelings towards the orchestra and the people here. But it was through one common goal that united all of us: to seize that one chance on stage, to create the best memories for us and the audience that we were all playing our hearts out for.

The time where we play on stage is the time where I see the full extent of all our blood, sweat and tears – it is during the practices, or the scolding sessions from our seniors where I see the technical side of music, but it is during the five-minute tradition and the time on stage where I truly see and feel the emotion of the piece.

Seeing that despite our differences and flaws, we can all work together to form a perfect harmony, and seeing that our music has moved even just one person, makes all our hard work finally worthwhile.

To many, music is the universal language of mankind. To me, music is a living being, its complexity found in its duality – the sense of order and stability that I found comfort in through its technicality, and the vibrant soul that moved me through its musicality. To be a musician is not only to have a strong sense of both, but also to plant the same desire I have: to move others, just as it has moved me.

My four years in DHSCO has made me a musician, and I know it will continue to make me one.

Photograph taken in 2019, Overseas Concert in Hainan, China

To be in a CCA may sound like a daunting task – and it is! This is why it is so important to choose wisely, so that you will have little to no regrets in your four years of CCA life. Whether you are a new student about to select your CCA, or currently stuck in one that you may not like now, it is always important to make a positive impact to the CCA and your own life.

Here’s how to make the best out of your CCA:

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. It is only in hardships and discomfort where growth occurs, and trying out new things will allow us to gain the best experiences.

Tip 2: Make new friends – whether it is your seniors, batch mates or even your juniors, make a conscious effort to understand and know them better. You may forge some unexpected friendships that may last a lifetime.

Tip 3: Recognize the importance of teamwork – the people in your CCA will be there for you in your highs and lows. Be helpful and kind to others and offer help when necessary, and also remember to seek help when needed.

Tip 4: Have a goal in mind. What do you want to achieve from your CCA and where do you see yourself in a few years? Even if the CCA feels mundane or something not to your interests, try to find purpose in the things you do and your time there will be much more enjoyable and meaningful.

Tip 5: Remember to smile. Things will get hard, but the pain only lasts for a while, and everything will eventually be worth it.

This article was brought to you by Charmaine Leow Shu Yan, a Year 5 student from Dunman High School. She was an intern at SNCF from 7 to 24 January for her Work Experience Programme. Her hobbies include creative writing, playing the piano and café hopping.