“I’ve always felt close to music, that it was the most natural form of expression for me.” —Mario Serio
Partnered with Steinway Gallery Singapore, we brought six of Singapore’s top Jazz pianists—Jeremy Monteiro, Chok Kerong, Mario Serio, Mei Sheum, Tan Wei Xiang, and Aya Sekine—together with Jazz singer Joanna Dong to reinterpret several Mandopop favourites of our time. The event was filmed and recorded live at the Steinway Gallery at Palais Renaissance. The video series is scheduled for release in April.
mario serio, Joanna dong, and alexandra
The night began with a Jazzy rendition of GEM’s《泡沫》. The melancholic power ballad was reinterpreted by Mario Serio and Joanna Dong, adding an elegant touch of Jazz to the popular Mandopop hit. Audiences will also be in for a visual treat as we invited Alexandra, a local contemporary dancer, to improvise to the music as well.
a conversation with Mario
Joanna: When was the first time you ever played on a grand piano?
Mario: On a grand piano… okay, the first time I ever played on a grand piano was when I was 6 years old. I was on this cooking show, and for some reason they had live entertainment. I was so small they had to put telephone books on the stool so I could reach the keyboard (laughs). So yeah, I couldn’t reach the pedals, but I could reach the keys.
Joanna: This was back in New York?
Mario: Yeah this was back in New York. And that was a baby grand piano. Since then that was the launch of my public career (laughs).
Joanna: So at 6 years old you were already proficient enough to play?
Mario: Nah, I wasn’t playing anything difficult, just simple songs. But maybe because of my age, and the fact that I was playing classical songs, they thought it was sort of a novelty item (laughs).
Joanna: When did you realise that you were going to spend the rest of your life doing this seriously?
Mario: I think I’ve always had an affinity for music, and my mum says I used to imitate things that she would sing. At age 4 was when she got me to study properly, with classical lessons. There’s no real moment where I sort of made the decision. I’ve always felt close to music, that it was the most natural form of expression for me.
Joanna: Ever since I knew you, you were already so advanced and comfortable with the instrument. I can barely imagine if you ever had to struggle with it. Was there ever a time where you felt like you wanted to give up?
Mario: Oh all the time. I went to a performing arts high school where you study academic subjects in the morning, and had your music classes in the afternoon. There were times I felt so unprepared that I thought of jumping out the fourth story. But of course, that was in my fantasy mind. I just went through the horror of auditioning, and doing my jury unprepared. But yeah, stuff like that. Even when I was in college studying classical music, my heart was in Jazz. I never felt like I wanted to quit, and I never did quit—even when I was working a day job for 11 years at a hospital, Saint Luke’s Hospital in New York. I never really quit, I was always involved with music in the day, listening or doing other things, if not performing anywhere.
Joanna: You mentioned working in the hospital, that’s a very difficult job from playing music. How did you feel at that point?
Mario: Well, it was good because it was higher paying than what I was doing previously, which was waiting tables. The hospital job, although it was a clerical job—was relatively easy, but long. Because it was a day job, a 9 to 5, which became 10 to 6, then 11 to 7. So those hours of the day were taken up, and any musical involvement could only be in the night time, or on my days off. Whatever gigs I could get would be after 7 or 8 pm. It came in handy because at that point my kids were born so it was good that I was working in the hospital. I had networking for that particular aspect, insurance coverage. They (the kids) were covered in all aspects, so that was very good.
Joanna: So that’s life as a musician in New York. What’s it like to be a pianist in Singapore today?
Mario: For me it’s great because I mean Singapore has all the amenities, infrastructure, everything. But it is much less populated. The amount of killer musicians per square kilometre would be considerably less than that of New York. So the competition is much less, so your chances of working are that much greater.
Joanna: I always feel like if I went to New York I would struggle to survive there just because of the sheer competition.
Mario: Yeah, I used to go to Jam sessions. And you know, the level of ability on these no-name guys that were just jamming, were the same—if not better than the people you would be buying CDs for, all the recorded artistes. And these were just jam sessions, they were just honing their craft. New York’s like that.
Joanna: I wanted to ask if you had any fond memories of yourself playing on the piano over the years, maybe when you were little or when you became older?
Mario: Fond memories and growing memories would be with my dad. My dad was blind shortly after he had me, and he was considerably older, he was like 50. When my friends came over they thought he was my grandfather, but he was my father. But because he was blind, we had more of a connection through sound. He played the guitar, and I played the piano. He used to look for particular chords as he was playing, and I would play them for him on the piano. So that way he trained up my ears to explore the myriad of possibilities that could fit in a particular moment—chord wise. Because he was much older, he knew all these standards, which came in really handy for Jazz.
Joanna: Thank you Mario!
Mario: Thank you!
A conversation with Alexandra
Joanna: Alex, what’s your earliest memory of wanting to dance?
Alexandra: My earliest memory of wanting to dance was the first time I felt like I really wanted something for myself. I was at the community centre and my mum was carrying me. I could see through the window of a dance studio, and there was a typical ballet class taking place. They were all kids of same age as me, I was 4 at that time. I wanted to be in there, dancing. I think over the years my love for dancing really matured, because it doesn’t come easy. Ballet demands a lot from you.
Joanna: I’m guessing this was your first time dancing to a live piano and vocals?
Alexandra: I think on record yes, but sometimes my brother plays music, and I jam along with him. My mode of jamming is movement, and I really enjoy it. It’s my first instinct you know, probably like how singing comes to you first.
Joanna: If you weren’t dancing, what do you think you might be doing with your life?
Alexandra: I don’t know man. I have a lot of interests but dancing is like, the top off my head now. Other than that, I really enjoy writing and conveying fiction and non-fiction, just learning about people and their frame of mind.
Joanna: So the lyrics of this song that says ‘love is like a bubble’, does that match your personal philosophy?
Alexandra: That’s funny because I was just thinking about how memories and thoughts are not tangible. Over time when they become more and more faded, does that mean they were never real to start with? It’s so difficult to imagine that what was real then is now no more. I think it is coming to terms with that again and again, that is how you establish your newer self, your better self. So I think it is very much like a bubble.
Joanna: In some ways it is also like your dance and our performance together as well. It is so ephemeral. It’s like after this time is over, we’ll never be able to repeat the exact same thing again.
Alexandra: Yes, but I think when we danced and performed, we had something in our minds and we conveyed it. We got the message across, and I think it is a very beautiful message.
Joanna: Thank you for being part of the beautiful message!
Alexandra: Thank you so much for having me! (hugs)