Watching Summer Swee-Singh perform re-imagined rock and pop medleys on the piano is a delightful treat. But the arranger, composer, and pianist didn’t always hug the spotlight. Summer originally began piano as a way to conquer her shyness. Today, she’s an accomplished artist who has performed at TedX, The Ellen Degeneres Show, and with many acclaimed bands.
For this episode of the Pianote Podcast, Lisa sits down with Summer to talk about her classical roots, trusting your ear, and beating anxiety with music.
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Summer Swee-Singh was a shy kid growing up. She was so shy that a teacher recommended to her parents that she try a group activity to conquer her shyness. So, at age seven, Summer was “thrust” into group keyboard lessons at the local Yamaha Music School.
It was through these lessons that Summer discovered she had a knack for music. While she didn’t like reading sheet music much (Summer recalls coming home crying because she struggled with reading notes), she excelled at her ear training exercises. Then, at twelve years old, Summer became the youngest person at the time to pass the Yamaha Music School’s Grade 5 examination. Which is a pretty big deal for a pre-teen, considering this level allows her to teach at Yamaha music schools.
Despite her musical success at a young age, Summer’s didn’t intend to pursue music professionally. At UC Berkeley, she majored in legal studies and took a job at a law firm after graduating. With the goal of getting into law school, Summer spent her free time playing and arranging music. And unintentionally kickstarted a music career as a result.
It all started with uploading covers of her favorite songs to YouTube, which she did purely for fun. Early on, Skrillex reposted a few of her piano and string medleys which gave her the confidence to continue posting her work to YouTube.
At one point, Summer made the realization that she would never be as young as she was. The opportunity for a music career was there if she took it now, and law school would always be available later.
So, Summer took the plunge, quit her office job, and chose music. She started with freelancing by playing weddings, teaching piano, and ultimately landed herself a solo piano residency at a local luxury resort, all the while arranging cover medleys for piano and strings for her YouTube channel.
If there’s one takeaway from my career and life up to this point . . . it’s “trust your ear.”Summer Swee-Singh
Then in 2017, Summer wrote a four-song medley of two Thrice and two Circa Survive songs. As luck would have it, Circa Survive discovered the video and reposted it. Then, the band reached out to Summer and asked if she could write a keys and string arrangement and accompany them as a keyboardist for the song “Flesh and Bone” on the L.A. leg of their tour.
And that’s how Summer landed her first professional touring gig.
Through performing with Circa Survive, Summer discovered the math rock band Chon, who were “incredibly virtuosic at what they did.” The following year, she arranged for strings and played keys with Chon on tour and worked on a piano and strings medley arrangement for Polyphia, and her music career started taking shape.
Today, Summer Swee-Singh is most well-known for her arranging work, which completely re-imagines existing songs. “I want people to digest the music they like in a slightly different way,” she says. She has also accompanied Bebe Rexha on Ellen and performed at TedX.
While her music occupies the pop and math rock spaces, Summer’s roots at the Yamaha Music School are classical. In fact, with few exceptions, she was only allowed to listen to classical music as a child. It was not until her high school years that she discovered other genres. Summer credits Hybrid Theory by Linkin Park as her “gateway album.” She then fell in love with Thrice, but it wasn’t until 2017 that she learned about math rock.
Summer credits her classical training with helping her quickly grasp complex math rock concepts like polyphony, polyrhythm, odd time signatures, and quick key changes. When asked on whether she counts everything, Summer shares that she does — at first. Once she gets the feel of a song, though, she relies on her intuition. “If you focus on counting, you’re going to mess up, 100%,” she says. “You just have to get the feel. Once you listen to it enough and get the feel, then it kinda locks in.”
Summer is, undoubtedly, very skilled at music. And for her, it’s all down to a well-practiced ear. “If there’s one takeaway from my career and life up to this point . . . it’s [to] trust your ear.”
Summer originally learned how to play piano as a way to treat social anxiety. And while she may look calm in her performances, she admits that she still struggles with anxiety. In fact, she credits having to deal with a constant baseline of anxiety for giving her coping skills. (That, and therapy.)
And when it comes to imposter syndrome — something all competent pianists seem to suffer from! — Summer has some poetic advice: “You are not here to be ‘the best,’” she says. “You are here to contribute what your brain — specifically, uniquely — has given you.” After all, “no one else can be you.”
🎹 Author’s Sidenote: I, too, was a very shy kid. Yet strangely, I’ve never been afraid of public speaking. I think this is because I was playing piano recitals from a young age and got early exposure to the pressure of performing. So…piano works!
So, say you want to play piano with the grace and confidence of Summer Swee-Singh! Well, lucky for you, Summer shared some tips with us:
Practice, practice, practice. Summer prepares for performances by “over-practicing” at times. But this doesn’t mean practicing six hours a day, every single day. Summer says her practice sessions last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours a day, depending on her gig schedule. But practicing more does boost her confidence.
You are not here to be ‘the best.’ You are here to contribute what your brain — specifically, uniquely — has given you . . . No one else can be you.Summer Singh
Focused practice. More important than putting in the hours is being focused on what you want to accomplish. Summer is no stranger to intense focus because juggling so many parts as an arranger requires her to be present.
Ear training. Finally, Summer advocates for ear training practice, such as transcribing. Easily 90-95% of what Summer does, she does by ear. And it’s a skill that can be trained like any other.
In summary, Summer prioritizes three things: technique, ear training, and allowing yourself to be creative. She started by arranging the music of artists she admires, and she has gradually branched out from that to create original music.
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