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Meet Summer Swee-Singh

Today we’d like to introduce you to Summer Swee-Singh.

Summer, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
At a young age, my parents enrolled me in group music lessons to, of all things, help make me more social and encourage class participation in school. An introvert by nature, being outgoing was never my strong suit. Pretty early on in my music studies, I realized I had affinity for ear training, music theory, and performing emotively on the piano.

These, along with a handful of fantastic teachers, contributed to me excelling in piano, leading to several early and exciting musical achievements: at age twelve, I became the youngest person to pass Yamaha Music School’s Level 5 Piano & Theory Examination, which is the level all aspiring piano teachers must pass to be able to teach at Yamaha Music Schools. The following year, a slew of small, volunteer performances at various banquets led to my first paying gig–performing as a hired soloist for a crowd of 10,000 at the 2003 ACSI National Teachers’ Convention, earning me a grand sum of $75. Unlike other serious music students, my parents never enrolled me in piano competitions, instead, choosing to focus my studies on the more academic, theoretical side of music. With the encouragement of Dr. Mark Nelson (my high school orchestra conductor and mentor) during my senior year of high school, I competed in my first and only music competition, the Dan Stover Instrumental Music Competition, earning a 2nd place finish in the Southern California region, performing Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. Go figure, my parents seemed to get much more satisfaction from my academic achievements like when I qualified for and competed in the ACSI National Spelling Bee in junior high.

While never excelling at violin, I continued to study and practice both violin and piano until I graduated from high school. Dr. Mark Nelson tried to persuade me to study music in college, but my conservative Asian parents would not allow this, as they wanted me to pursue something more “academic” such as a career in law, medicine, or finance. I kept myself very busy with a variety of activities during my undergraduate years and ultimately went on to receive my B.A. in Legal Studies with a Music Minor from UC Berkeley in 2010.

Back in 2011-2012, immediately after finishing my college career at Cal, I’d established myself as a small-time YouTuber thanks to Skrillex having reposted three of my instrumental piano-and-strings Skrillex medleys. These arrangements I wrote for fun, and recruited musician friends to play violin and viola, accompanying me on piano. We recorded them—audio and video—using only my little digital camera, balanced on a horizontally-turned music stand (for the lack of a tripod), in the practice rooms at Berkeley. I would spend hours listening to Skrillex’s rhythmic, bass-heavy dubstep, weaving his melodies into a classical medley format—transcribing those hallmark dubstep wobbles that other arrangers had previously avoided.

At the time, however, I was not prepared to take advantage of this viral momentum and leverage it into a music career, as I was still, albeit half-heartedly, on the legal professional path. I began working full-time as a Recruiting and HR Assistant at the San Francisco office of Jones Day, an internationally-known law firm. All the while, I was studying for the LSAT, researching law schools, and playing gigs at in-office happy hours, local wineries and restaurants on weekends and evenings.

With the encouragement of a handful of people close to me and confidence gained by my past success with my Skrillex arrangements, I soon realized that I wanted to—needed to—take a chance on a music career. During my contemplative transition from the legal field to the music industry, I moved abroad to Eastern Europe with my now-husband for a year. While there, he showed me a YouTube video of Metallica performing with the SF Symphony in 1999; this collaboration wowed and inspired me, believing that I could one day work with artists in the same capacity that Michael Kamen had worked with Metallica—I loved the idea of melding orchestral instruments with rock bands and thought all my favorite artists should collaborate with a composer in that capacity at least once. This was also the first year I began composing original piano pieces without any formal composition or harmony training.

Upon returning to the US and moving back to SoCal, I landed myself a solo piano residency at the Balboa Bay Resort, established myself as a piano teacher and performer, and became re-inspired to pursue my collaborative composer goals after reading Mindy Kaling’s book “Why Not Me?”. I finally decided to record and self-release my first original album and also actively worked towards my goal of posting as many of my own cover medley arrangements to my YouTube channel as possible.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, I started working with small pop/alternative artists including a few live performances with singer-actress Alexandra Shipp (X-Men, Jexi, Straight Outta Compton, Love, Simon) and a collaborative studio release with Until the Ribbon Breaks. Teaching and gigging at weddings, corporate events, the Marine Corps Ball, etc. also kept me busy, and between it all, I was writing piano and string arrangements of my favorite songs. I uploaded videos to my YouTube channel as often as I could afford to, which usually worked out to about once a month.

I always strived to maintain a high level of professionalism, and from the very beginning, my musicians were always paid for their work, even if it was initially just with the dresses that I bought them to wear in my videos. In the process, my catalogue on Spotify and iTunes as a solo artist began to expand with the live recordings of both covers and original music that those videos produced.

One fall day in 2017 while waiting for a flight out of JFK after a recording session at the legendary Premier Studios NYC, Colin Frangicetto from Circa Survive hit me up after finding one of my piano and strings medleys on social media. This led to him asking me to write a keys and strings accompaniment to their song “Flesh and Bone” to perform with them live at The Shrine in LA.

The show went incredibly well, and one thing led to another—I was asked to write another piano and string arrangement, this time for their song “Frozen Creek”, and perform both songs with them for a handful of East Coast shows the following week. So, after a whirlwind of a week, I was flown cross-country to play even more shows with Circa Survive along with my NYC-based string players to wrap up my first ever touring experience. It was a dream come true.

2018 found me collaborating with Anthony Green (Circa Survive, Saosin, The Sounds of Animals Fighting) on a couple of songs for his solo project, formalizing bases of my piano and strings ensemble, “Summer Swee-Singh & the Heartstrings” in LA and NYC, upgrading my audio and video recordings for a handful more YouTube videos, collaborating on a YouTube video with Tim Henson / Polyphia (“New Levels New Devils Medley”), playing piano on Chief Keef’s Trap Symphony video series, and touring with Chon in the capacity of their touring keyboardist, ensemble leader, string arranger, string contractor, and backing vocalist.

So far, 2019 has seen me expanding my ensemble to include a base of musicians in Austin, Texas (in addition to LA and NYC), the release of my collaborative album with Anthony Green, titled “Would You Still Be With Strings”, a couple small studio releases with the likes of Clayton Stroup and Psychic Barber, playing piano with Bebe Rexha (“You Can’t Stop the Girl”) live on The Ellen Show, the conception of my first band (coming soon!), and another couple of unreleased studio collaborations with artists whom I greatly admire; I feel really lucky to have several projects in the works that I can’t wait to release—please stay tuned!

Has it been a smooth road?
Haha, it’s been a constant struggle. As with anything worth pursuing, there have been bumps in the road–from gradually weeding out unreliable/unprofessional/entitled ensemble musicians, to dealing with disorganized management, to being subjected to varying degrees of racism, sexism, and ageism (that many female, minority musicians have to deal with), to my own crippling self-doubt–but there isn’t anything I’d rather be doing.

I do not always enjoy dealing with the “LA-ness” of the industry–the narcissistic people obsessed with social status, follower numbers, and appearances–which can be just as frustrating as the traffic on the 405. However, I have been fortunate enough to have met and worked with a ton of genuinely great people who bring out the best in me.

If I had to start over, I would have monetized my early viral YouTube success and used that money and momentum to help launch my musical career several years earlier than I did. This hopefully would have led me to begin composing earlier on as well—it drives me crazy sometimes thinking about where I could’ve been if I had known what I had wanted to do from the beginning.

As I have accomplished more throughout my young career, I’ve learned that it’s very important to speak up and advocate for myself, to not be afraid to ask for what I believe I am worth, and not take shit (#sorrynotsorry) from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

I would also always get everything in writing.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
I love being able to be involved in the process of making music in various capacities. With my ensemble, “Summer Swee-Singh & the Heartstrings”, I serve as it’s composer, arranger, music director, contractor, and pianist/keyboardist. I specialize in composing and arranging for piano, strings, and other orchestral instruments to accompany bands/artists both live and in studio. I love having artists approach me with a song and ask me to “do whatever I believe is best” with it, giving me little direction and allowing my creative voice to shine.

I have a strong melodic sense in my composing and arranging (counterpoint/harmonies) that is influenced by both classical composers and modern artists alike (ranging from Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Mendelssohn, to Muse, Thrice, Circa Survive, Polyphia, Beirut, Deftones, Brand New, Justice, Sufjan Stevens, Albert Hammond Jr., Billie Eilish, and Des Ark); additionally, I have full faith in the musicians I contract to perform what I write—my musicians meet and exceed my expectations by adding their own specific flavors to my arrangements.

While I enjoy working with artists of all genres, I particularly enjoy working with progressive rock, electronic rock, alternative, and indie artists, as they are my preferred genres to listen to. I most recently released a collaborative album with Anthony Green called “Would You Still Be With Strings” (available on all digital platforms) of which I am particularly fond.

I am proud to have a diverse group of talented, hardworking women on my roster and I strive to contract them in a way that caters to their strengths as players—some have magnificent tone, others are incredibly accurate sight-readers, others are phenomenal improvisers, and they have diverse musical tastes. I’ve learned that there is a detrimental one-violinist-fits-all mentality in the industry, and it shouldn’t exist; just like any other musician, string players/orchestral musicians have different strengths which lend them to sound better in specific genres or contexts for different reasons.

I believe I have worked with enough players to know which instrumentalists would best fit a particular gig or a particular genre. I am additionally proud that my ensemble has bases in LA, NYC, and ATX. I am gradually expanding it to include woodwind and brass players and I am currently developing a fourth (mid-west) base as well.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
I love that Orange County is a bit removed from the pandemonium that is Los Angeles. However, because almost all of my musician friends live in Los Angeles, and about half of my gigs and sessions are in LA, I find myself there multiple times a week for work; so, I dislike how horrible the traffic can be up the 405 and 5 throughout Orange County and LA.

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Image Credit:

Jeff Young, Mark Dershowitz, NVS Photography, Jake Johnston, Rodji Munoz, Adam Bialik, Trish Lowe, Frank Zio

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