You’re not alone if you recognise a familiar face rocking it on stage behind the keyboard with his band— it’s Associate Professor Mark Chong from the Lee Kong Chian School of Business! In SMU, Prof Mark teaches corporate communication and runs the Master of Science in Communication Management. But on stage, he performs an electrifying and eclectic blend of jazz funk, R&B and soul with his band Melting Pot.

Living up to its name, Melting Pot is a 15-strong band made up of students, alumni and of course, Prof Mark. Come July 2016, the band would be performing at the ASEAN University Games. What brings a band of 15 together as one to make music? What’s it like managing and leading such a larger team? Prof Mark tells us more.

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We’ve very excited to be performing at the ASEAN University Games and representing SMU at this historic occasion. The organising team at OSL wanted to use this opportunity to encourage greater collaboration between student and faculty members, especially when it comes to student life. Our band fits right in. We have 15 members made up of one faculty member — that’s me — current SMU students and alumni, and a few non-SMU musicians as well.

For the ASEAN University Games, we wanted our songs to reflect ASEAN’s music and culture. Being a part of ASEAN and as the hosts, we thought why not pay tribute to Singaporean composers and share their work with our audience? We’ll be performing a song composed by Liang Wern Fook and made famous by Kit Chan. We’ll also be performing songs by Charlie Lim and Dru Chen, both well-known local musicians today. Together with three jazz funk songs arranged to suit our instrumentation, we’ll be paying a tribute to our local heritage, while playing to our strengths and showcasing who we are as a band too.

Also we’re very excited about performing with SMU Chinese Orchestra (SMUCO) during the SMU Arts Festival because this is the first time we’re collaborating with another outfit, to create something brand new. We’ll be combining instrumentations from a Chinese orchestra and a big band like ours, to bring Chinese music and Western jazz funk music together. This represents a challenge, but also an exciting opportunity. Looking to the future, we’d love to perform on an outdoor stage as well, perhaps Baybeats at the Esplanade.

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Melting Pot at Starry Nite 2015

We see ourselves as a collective of like-minded individuals who are passionate about playing the same kind of music. The best way to describe our style is jazz funk, with some R&B and soul thrown in. One thing that we’re quite proud of is the fact that we have a large horn section. We have five horn players and two percussionists adding a different dimension to the sound.

Free-flowing. Very collaborative and open-ended. That’s how I’d describe our dynamics and culture as a band. Different people step up to lead for different things. There are times when we need to rearrange certain parts of a song to better fit the instrumentation we have as a band. Someone would just say, “I’ll do this; I’ll lead this.” During rehearsals, I’m glad I’m not the guy who always says, “We need to fix this”, or “Let’s do this differently.” Everyone chimes in and point out areas for one another to improve on.

I like it that we’re learning from one another, as we go along. It’s always nice to work with young, passionate and like-minded people. Leadership grows very organically in the band.

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If you look at the current 15 members of the band, most of them were invited by existing band members. They’ll go, “Hey, we should really think about inviting this person. Not only is he or she technically proficient, he or she loves this kind of music, and is a great team player.” That’s one of the key ingredients in building a healthy, open and collaborative culture. You don’t want big egos coming in and thinking that they know everything. This spoils the harmony in the band because we’re very egalitarian.

We really enjoy being with one another a lot. I’d like to think this shows in our performances as well. Music is such an emotional and subjective activity. If you don’t enjoy playing with one another, it shows. When you have fun playing together, it really comes across in the energy, the life and chemistry that you bring and portray on stage.

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I don’t believe in having a heavy-handed approach. It’s so much more effective to persuade and motivate others. Even though I’m kind-of the overall-in-charge, I often step back, when I recognise that someone is stronger in another area, and let him or her take the lead for that. We have several CEOs in the band in that sense!

We each bring our strengths to the band. I see myself as the overall orchestrator. I’m the one who keeps the communication going. I liaise with the event organisers and get everyone’s schedules in order. I’m like the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of the band.

I’ve been really fortunate to be able to play and perform with this bunch of great students and alumni, who are now part of Melting Pot. I highly encourage all current and future SMU students to be more involved in student life. At the risk of sounding clichéd, university life is not just about taking classes and getting a good grade. Those things are important, but you realise that you learn so many things about life (and even management in general), especially while you’re not aware that you’re learning about it. By doing, by getting involved and living life.

The dynamics of playing in a band, in many ways, mirrors what goes on in the real world.You have to be sensitive to interpersonal dynamics. You have to demonstrate commitment to goals. You have to be proficient in teamwork and taking on responsibilities. You have to manage time especially well, with fifteen members and fifteen different schedules to work with. These are skills that you pick up along the way.

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I’m really happy and quite proud that I’ve developed a deep relationship with several of my students, some of whom are in the band. I derive a lot of joy from the fact that I can mentor them in their professional lives. This kind of opportunity is not something that can be developed so quickly or easily in just the classroom setting. 

At the heart of things, what’s most satisfying is the sheer joy I see on the faces of the band members, during and at the end of each gig or even jam session. We always leave the studio on a high, because we’ve spent two or three hours together. These are two or three very intensive yet immensely relaxing hours, creating something together, that we would not have been able to create as individuals.

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I’m really happy and quite proud that I’ve developed a deep relationship with several of my students, some of whom are in the band. I derive a lot of joy from the fact that I can mentor them in their professional lives. This kind of opportunity is not something that can be developed so quickly or easily in just the classroom setting.

At the heart of things, what’s most satisfying is the sheer joy I see on the faces of the band members, during and at the end of each gig or even jam session. We always leave the studio on a high, because we’ve spent two or three hours together. These are two or three very intensive yet immensely relaxing hours, creating something together, that we would not have been able to create as individuals.

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Catch Prof Mark and Melting Pot at the Closing Ceremony of the ASEAN University Games 2016 on 19 July 2016.  Also watch out for the band performing at the next Starry Nite or SMU Arts Festival!

 

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