Gerard Salonga started out as Lea’s unexpected pianist at 7

By: - Reporter
/ 08:55 PM October 10, 2013

HIS DREAM, as a child, was to be a veterinarian or a journalist. GRIG MONTEGRANDE

Gerard Salonga said he never thought about going into music professionally, although it was part of his life growing up.

He started playing the piano at age 5. When he was 11, Gerard’s dream was to become a veterinarian; in high school, he wanted to be a journalist.


It was not until college at Ateneo de Manila University and after he started joining musical theater groups that he realized a career in music was what he really wanted all along.

Salonga said it was composer Ryan Cayabyab who suggested that he explore the possibility of studying music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States after he earned his bachelor’s degree.


Salonga admitted he was quite reluctant because he knew playing music for fun was entirely different from making it his area of study.

But, as it turned out, he did like it very much, graduating summa cum laude in 1998.

On his return to the country in 1999, he started working on various musical productions, eventually becoming one of the most sought-after musical directors and conductors and collaborating with singers like Martin Nievera, Lani Misalucha and Regine Velasquez.

Of course, the list includes his own sister, internationally acclaimed singer-actor Lea Salonga.

The Salonga siblings have been working together practically since they were children. He said they recorded the song “Happiness” for Lea’s first album “Small Voice” and cohosted the musical television show “Love, Lea.”

But, as a pianist, Salonga recalled that their first collaboration was rather unexpected.

“I tagged along with Lea to Chicago for an Aliw Awards Foundation trip in 1981; I was 7. She was to perform in a show there and sing the songs ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘I Am but a Small Voice,’ but her minus-one tape malfunctioned.


“Fortunately, I could play the piano. So I ran to the piano near the stage and became her impromptu accompanist,” recalled Salonga, now the music director of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. “From then on, I remember joining Lea in her performances at state dinners at Malacañang.”

Saturday and on Sunday, Salonga will once again join Lea for a concert that also features prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and renowned classical pianist Cecile Licad. “The Legends and the Classics Encore” will be held at the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Here are excerpts from the Inquirer interview with Salonga:

How big a factor was Lea in your musical career?

She was encouraging, very supportive, but not imposing.

Do you share the same taste in music?

We like different styles… but we have the same aesthetic. By that, I mean sensing or discerning what is good or bad performance. Whether it’s hip-hop, R&B or classical, we are likely to… find the same artist good, or not-so-good…

 Do you still sit down to discuss how you are going to handle a particular song with Lea?

Yes, it doesn’t stop. We always think about what else we can do, especially if we’re doing a song we’ve been doing for a long time.

I know what Lea likes, more or less. However, you can’t be on autopilot because things can get boring and repetitive, and we don’t want that. Getting out of our comfort zones makes working more meaningful and each performance, unique.

What is it like working with her?

People always ask me if she’s strict. And no, she just has high standards of what is good. What people perceive as strict is naninigaw. But you can have uncompromising standards and still not make it difficult for everybody else.

Do you have a favorite collaboration with Lea?

No, because each one is better than the last. More than the collaboration itself, it’s the unexpected instances that make it memorable.

Is there anything that stands out?

We did a show once with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. Lea got an infection and was in the hospital the night before the show. No sound came out of her mouth when she talked but, thankfully, her voice would return whenever she started singing. I was powerless; I was conducting the orchestra and my sister was losing her voice. But we got through it. I think those are situations that bring us closer together.

You also arranged the songs for contestants of “The Voice of the Philippines.” Did you work closely with them?

Yes, I did Mitoy Yonting’s “Help” and “Anak” and I think I also did about three songs for Klarisse de Guzman… I actually didn’t attend rehearsals. I just wrote and sent all the arrangements and instructions. Then someone taught the songs to the contestants. Pati ‘yung mga kulot at backup vocals sinusulat ko.

Would you consider doing something like that?

I actually sat as a judge in the singing contest “Star in a Million” for about four episodes early in the season. That was where I infamously gave zero to someone who sang an entire song in the wrong key. There was no way [the rating could have been different]!

Has classical music always been your background?

Actually I’m more about pop and musical theater. That was where I started—doing concerts with Martin Nievera, Regine Velasquez, Lani Misalucha, etc. And then I shifted to classical.

What is the difference between working with pop and classical musicians?

It’s pretty much the same in the sense that the greater the artist is, the easier he is to work with. Then there are some who are not that good, tapos may problema pa sa ugali.


And who would that be?

I’ll take that [secret] to the grave with me—no one’s ever going to know! But you have to do your best and get along with them and make things work.

What is the best thing you have learned from being in the pop scene?

People in pop are so used to performing with little or no rehearsals, which is something you can’t do in classical music. The nice thing I’ve learned from doing pop is that I can read notes and pieces faster.

Who among our young singers do you find most promising?

Klarisse… she’s just fantastic. The tone she has is beautiful and something you can’t teach; it just comes out naturally…  I think she’ll go far if she is managed right. She’s someone people should watch out for.

Would you consider teaching music?

You have to have a certain level of patience to teach, and I’m not sure I have it!

Are your kids musically-inclined?

I have a 6-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. They both love music, but I’m not sure what instrument they’ll be picking up. Konting pakanta-kanta lang kami, but nothing serious.

Would you teach music to your kids?

I wouldn’t teach my own child. It’s tough because I can’t scold them.

(“The Legends and the Classics Encore” tickets are available at TicketWorld outlets and

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TAGS: “The Legends and the Classics Encore”, ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, Berklee College of Music, Cecile Licad, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Gerard Salonga, Lani Misalucha, Lea Salonga, Lisa macuja-elizalde, Martin Nievera, Regine Velasquez, Ryan Cayabyab, Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo
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