How a Chance Encounter Led to a World of Opportunity for This Millennial Musician

How a Chance Encounter Led to a World of Opportunity for This Millennial Musician

by Jesse Lai

I was doing well in Sociology at NTU, but after a year, something shifted in me. After some deliberation, I left to pursue music at LASALLE. Now I’m in my final year studying Composition and Arranging, writing orchestral pieces and playing jazz on the side.

Why the big switch? Well, it began with a chance encounter.

A growing love for music

But first, a little background. I’ve always loved piano and have been playing since the age of two. After passing the Grade 8 exams at ten, I left classical music behind and started to pick up pop and jazz.

My dad used to play Kenny G’s Breathless – the only CD we had back then – on loop in the car. This became my window into the genres of jazz and blues. At home, I imitated the keyboardist until I could play the entire album, mimicking every detail and nuance.

Over the years, my repertoire expanded. Punk rock bands like My Chemical Romance and Boys Like Girls dominated my teenage years, but eventually I returned to my love for jazz when I entered the army.

Nowadays, I’m inspired by various artists and musicians. I admire the arrangements of Kitaro, the improvisational prowess of Hiromi, the modern film scores of Hans Zimmer, and the classical works of European composers Mahler, Bruckner and Dvořák.

A chance encounter

#LetsTalkMillennials pursuing a career in music - Jesse Lai holding a phone

When I was a sergeant in NS, I met a clerk named Wang Congyu and discovered that we had a shared interest in piano. One day, he brought a few of us to the Steinway Gallery in Orchard. Turns out, Congyu was a Young Steinway Artist, a high honour for a pianist. He was a musical prodigy. But you could never tell because there were no airs about him.

A couple years later, when I had entered uni, I attended one of his concerts and told him how happy I was seeing his great success. Congyu’s reply was casual but struck me in a profound way.

He said, “If you want this, you can have it too.”

I don’t want to become that person who dislikes what he does for the next 30 years of his life. That kind of regret is not something I can live with.

His words haunted me as I returned to my university hall that night. Just that single sentence coming from somebody who has achieved so much means a lot to somebody who is, frankly, a little bit jealous. It was the jolt that got me rethinking my life.

Within two weeks, I decided to make the switch to music. What drove me wasn’t who I wanted to be, but who I didn’t want to be. I’ve met people who say, “Aiya, I wish that when I was younger, I just followed my dreams and did what I wanted to do.”

I don’t want to become that person who dislikes what he does for the next 30 years of his life. That kind of regret is not something I can live with.

A world of opportunity

#LetsTalkMillennials pursuing a career in music - Jesse Lai
While at LASALLE, I started teaching at a school called Hark Music. I’m very thankful that they gave me a chance and hired me despite my lack of qualifications. The best part was that meeting the other teachers led to gig opportunities, such as playing in Red Dot August at Esplanade.

And when I’m offered a job I’m not particularly confident at, I take it up anyway – because the smallest opportunities could lead to something huge.

Last year, Congyu founded the Piano Island Festival and, to my surprise, engaged me to be the festival manager. It was largely a hospitality role in which I receive students and artists from around the world. I didn’t really get to apply my musical skills, but I got to meet many renowned international artists. In future, if I want to work overseas, I’ll have contacts that I can reach out to.

I won’t know when lucky breaks may come my way, but I’ve learnt to be prepared for them, working hard at my craft and building a portfolio. And when I’m offered a job I’m not particularly confident at, I take it up anyway and learn how to do it well – because the smallest opportunities could lead to something huge.

A clear road ahead

The freelance artist’s life gets stressful at times when I’m owed payment for months. But this was a risk that I took up willingly. I love to play music, to go out and meet people, so I’m not complaining. Right now I’m in school so it’s hard to play at hotels, bars and lounges; or pick up a studio writing job. These are definitely avenues I will explore over the next few months before I graduate.

Playing music is no longer a guilty pleasure for me. In the past, it was an after-school hobby, sometimes accompanied by pangs of guilt for not having done my school work. Now, playing and writing is my work and my career. I’m doing what I love, and I can think of no greater joy.

For more millennial stories, visit the #LetsTalkMillennials page.

#LetsTalkMillennials pursuing a career in music - Jesse Lai

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