Campus Life

Musical odyssey takes Chee Meng Low around the world

At the age of three, Dr. Chee Meng Low had no idea about the role music would play in his life. All he knew was that going to the Yamaha Music School in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was fun.

“It’s like going to a playground,” he says. “Rather than learning an instrument, you just go there and sing, dance and meet new friends.”

Now, after travelling halfway around the world, Low is an assistant professor in the University of Lethbridge Music Department and director of the U of L Wind Orchestra. He’s preparing his students for a trip to Asia to participate in the Chiayi City International Band Festival in Taiwan from Dec. 14 to 20. A few foreign bands are invited to participate in the festival and this year, the U of L was among those chosen. And all these years later, he’s still involved with Yamaha Music.

Dr. Chee Meng Low started music lessons at the age of three and chose to focus on the saxophone when he was a middle-school student.

Low’s parents didn’t play musical instruments themselves but they wanted their three children to learn to play an instrument. The first few years at the Yamaha Music School were more about exploration of rhythm and melody, with teachers guiding the process. By the time he was six or seven, Low was ready for an instrument and he chose the Yamaha Electone.

“It’s an electric piano but then you have two different keyboards and another one that you use your leg to play; they call it the pedal,” says Low. “What attracted me to the instrument was that you can do so much with it. It’s almost a full-orchestra instrument. It gave me a lot of flexibility. I did that until I was 16 years old.”

Low continued his musical education throughout high school, finishing an advanced diploma and teaching certificate on the Electone when he was 17. In addition, he had joined the after-school band program in middle school and started playing saxophone like his brother before him.

“I just loved the sound of the instrument,” he says. “At the same time I was doing the A level (pre-university) in school, I started formal training on the saxophone with a local musician. We were playing a lot of events outside the performance schedule.”

Low eventually left the Electone behind, convincing his parents to sell theirs and buy him a saxophone instead. He continued playing in the school band and also started learning about conducting. By the time he finished the A level, he was convinced his future was in music. He started a formal degree program at University Putra Malaysia in music performance in saxophone.

“Because the instrument was so new to the Asian market, we did not have a formal saxophone professor and I had to take lessons from the national symphony’s clarinet or oboe player to learn the instrument,” he says. “In my second year, Yamaha Music Malaysia brought in a saxophone artist, Nobuya Sagawa, all the way from Japan. I did a master class with him and he opened up my mind. I said ‘That’s it; I’m going with the saxophone.’”

During his final year at university, the College of Music at Mahidol University in Thailand was organizing the Southeast Asia Youth Wind Ensemble. As a participant, Low was amazed by the conductor. With no common language among the participants, the conductor had to communicate using only body movements and gestures.

“I thought ‘That is cool. I want to be that person,’” he says. “You can show so much with body language. There’s leadership and artistry in it; you can show what it sounds like just by moving your body.”

While there, Low met the dean of the College of Music and was subsequently offered a scholarship. He moved to Thailand to complete a master’s degree, majoring in saxophone and minoring in conducting and chamber music.

“You have to make yourself useful,” he laughs and says when asked about his numerous subjects of study. “Since I was at the college, eventually I started to organize the youth wind ensemble event.”

In the years leading up to 2010, the college was reorganizing and one its focuses was to expand the study of saxophone in Thailand. Experts were brought in, one of whom was French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix. Londeix brought William Street, now Chair of the Music Department at the University of Alberta, along as a translator. Low got to know Street and they talked about Low completing a doctorate at the U of A.

“When I told my wife ‘let’s move to Edmonton’ she was a little bit confused,” he says. “She asked if I knew where Edmonton was and if I’d ever seen snow before. When we first arrived, I had no idea what layering meant. In Thailand or Malaysia, you just walk out the door. Every day it’s the same thing, maybe an umbrella, but that’s it.”

In August of 2010, Low and his wife, Yukari Sasada, whom he’d met when she was the principal bass with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and he was assistant manager, moved to Edmonton. Sasada is now bass instructor at the U of L and freelances with several Alberta symphonies.

Low completed a Doctor of Musical Arts at the U of A and was in his third year when Street told him that the U of L was looking for someone with expertise in saxophone and conducting. Low applied and was offered a nine-month contract. As an assistant professor, he still lives by the adage that he has to make himself useful.

He works with school bands as part of the music department’s band retreat program and, at the annual teachers’ conference, with band teachers. During the summers, Low performs and conducts research in Canada and Asia. He’s also affiliated with Yamaha Asia and is a Yamaha Canada Sponsored Artist Educator.

“I signed up to be a Yamaha trainer and my current research focus is looking at how geographical differences affect music education, especially the band-instrument learning process,” says Low. “I also have an ongoing project with Yamaha China to go in and do workshops.”