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How An Trần Learns to Embrace the Saxophone and Life in the Limelight

I set up an interview with An Tran at the most awkward time: 11pm on a Sunday.

An had just woken up from sleeping, wearing a simple black T-shirt and no makeup. As strange as it may sound, the actual reason behind this is that An’s schedule is the opposite of most of ours. “I sleep from 1pm until 8–9pm. I have fewer classes now that school is online but [they are] always at weird times like 3am,” she laments. 

Attending one of the best high schools for arts in the United States, Idyllwild Arts Academy, An is currently balancing projects in Vietnam, online school, and practice hours all at once. “I have back problems from sitting too much. I just got an MRI scan and I think it’s my 6th bone that got [bent] to the right,” An laughs as she tries to describe it to me with her hands. “I’m doing chiropractic right now and it feels like buying a new back. Man, I love it!”

Like father, like daughter

An Tran, whose full name is Trần Đàm An Phúc, is the daughter of Vietnam’s beloved saxophonist, Trần Mạnh Tuấn. She began playing the saxophone when she was nine, and is currently the youngest and one of the very few female professional saxophonists in the country. At 16, she became the Youth Ambassador for the Trinh Cong Son Scholarship Fund, an official performing artist and brand ambassador for P. Mauriat Saxophones, and a recipient of the Idyllwild Arts Academy merit scholarship.

The saxophone has been part of An’s life since she was born, but it took her a while to warm up to the idea of playing it professionally.

The young saxophonist made her first appearance in front of an audience almost eight years ago. “It was when I was nine, only two months after I first learned how to play the instrument,” An shares. “I wasn’t nervous but my parents were. I never get nervous for some reason.” An’s natural feel for the stage came as a pleasant surprise for her parents. From then on, she often accompanied her father on many of his stages, small and large. She became the youngest artist to perform at important political events, such as the APEC Summit. Fast-forward to 2019, and An released her first big personal project, a saxophone cover of the Trịnh Công Sơn classic ‘Còn Tuổi Nào Cho Em,’ debuting as a professional musician.

“It [may] feel like I was born to do this but it took me five years to figure out that I like the saxophone,” An reveals. In fact, she tried many different types of instruments and art forms before choosing the saxophone. “When I was four I started playing the piano; I got so sick of it and I started crying every single lesson. Eventually, my parents gave up. Then I started doing ballet; it didn’t really fit me so I tried musical theater. I liked it, but then my family moved to a different part of town, very far from the musical theater school, so I had to quit. Then I started acrylic painting but I was allergic to the acrylic paint itself so I had to quit, again,” An tells Urbanist.

An and her dad performing an impromptu session with a street musician in Rome.

An was born into a very musical family: her grandfather was a traditional Vietnamese instrumentalist, her grandmother was part of Hanoi’s Chèo Theater, and her father is one of the two most-renowned saxophonists in the country. However, An reveals to Urbanist that, at first, her father didn’t actually allow her to play the saxophone, thinking that it isn’t a feminine instrument. But to turn a blind eye to An’s natural talent is impossible.

“My dad is my biggest inspiration in performing because I grew up watching him play. He’s a super cool dad; if you meet my dad, you can talk to him like a friend,” she tells me. “After my first stage performance, I kept practicing and practicing. I knew that I love [the saxophone], and I knew it was going to be my best friend.” Besides her father, An mentions Charlie Parker, Trịnh Công Sơn, Jacob Collier and Justin Bieber as her big musical inspirations.

Befriending music at an early age

With a charming aura and unapologetic confidence, every stage that An steps on is hers. The energy An brings to the stage is unmistakable, unreplicable, and most definitely extraordinary. The audience holds their breath as she begins playing the first note, and becomes awed for the rest of the night. “I’m young so I have a lot of energy, and I get to express myself in a very energetic way on stage. But sometimes when it comes to ballads and jazz songs that I need to be sexy for, I can do that too,” she laughs. “I’m not scared of anything. I literally just close my eyes and play.” Being one of the very few females in the industry, An remains undaunted.

“It [may] feel like I was born to do this but it took me five years to figure out that I like the saxophone.”

Having decided to pursue music almost right away, An grew to be familiar with the stage and the industry at quite a young age. “The pros [of entering the industry so young] are that I get to meet all the people who have gone down this path before me and learn so much from them. I’ve always gotten to experience the things that friends my age don’t get to experience, meeting all the people that my friends don’t often meet,” she shares when asked about the highs and lows of being a young professional musician. “The cons are I don’t have time to spend with my friends. I spent a lot of time on my own practicing. So hanging out with friends wasn’t something I got to do so much.”

“You know how in life people have family, friends, jobs, work, etc. Work and family were the things that I had more than the others,” she continues. “The picture of my childhood doesn’t look like anybody else’s. It was special because I got to experience things that my friends don’t experience.”

Pressure is inevitable for the young musician; nevertheless, she understands that it is necessary for her to push herself. “I am scared of failure, everybody is scared of failure. But it’s art and music, you’re not sure if you’re going to be famous, you’re not sure if you’re going to be successful, you’re not sure if you’re going to have gigs, you’re not sure if you’re going to be happy. It’s like a very no-way-out kind of thing. You go in, and you go in,” she says with confidence. Though, she is sure of one thing: “[Music] is my favorite thing to do in the world.”

An’s soulful rendition of the Trịnh Công Sơn classic ‘Còn Tuổi Nào Cho Em.’

One piece of advice that has stuck with An throughout her years of being a professional performer is this: “Get more sleep! I’m kidding,” she jokes. “Balance your time. Sometimes I spend too much time on this one technique; I would get bored and for the next few months I would not touch that skill again. I wanted to master it but what happened was the opposite,” she continues. “It’s better to space it out and practice a little bit every day, rather than to be obsessed with it for two months straight.”

Preparing for a career in music

At Idyllwild, An is majoring in two different musical focuses at the same time, Jazz and Songwriting & Production, which means double the work, and more intense time management is needed. “I have to [pressure myself]! I go to an art school and everyone there seems to be better than me. When I first came to my school, I wasn’t that good. I had to push myself to practice so in the beginning I spent most of the time practicing and distancing myself from friends to practice. I got to the level I wanted and was very proud of myself but it was the same problem that I had: friends,” she shares. Since then, An has found the balance she needed in order to support her mental health as well as her career by restructuring her life, putting priorities in order, and learning how to work efficiently.

“I am scared of failure, everybody is scared of failure. But it’s art and music, you’re not sure if you’re going to be famous, you’re not sure if you’re going to be successful, you’re not sure if you’re going to have gigs, you’re not sure if you’re going to be happy.”

The saxophone is an instrument mostly played by men because it requires deep diaphragm breathing and good control over breath. “There are some [female saxophonists in Vietnam] now, but not as many as men. In the past, the gender problem wasn’t something that people often talked about because in everyone’s mind the saxophone is for men. I don’t think there is any difference except that, obviously, men are able to take deeper breaths,” she declares.

When asked if she’d ever considered a different career, An confidently affirms that it hasn’t crossed her mind: “I just love music so much that I don’t know what I would be doing if it’s not music.” Looking into the distant future, the young musician wishes to keep the family’s long-running jazz club on Le Loi, Sax n’ Art, going. Though she does wish to perform on big stages, An much prefers a simple and “happy” life. But for now, the audience can look forward to An’s next project: “I’m going to have a live session!”  

Ending the interview, I ask whether she gets tired of being around artists all the time whilst at Idyllwild, to which she answers: “No, it’s amazing, it’s really fun. No one is straight and you know how fun it is to hang out with gay people.” With such ambition and love for music, I’m certain that An will go far in her career, stirring up storms in the music industry as well as continuing to break free from the stereotypes placed on women in music.

Quãng 8, which means "octave" in Vietnamese, is a series of articles on Vietnam's new generation of unique music personalities. Know an interesting musician and want to introduce them to our readers? Send us an email via contribute@urbanisthanoi.com with your ideas.

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