Singaporeans can make a greater impact on the world music stage if
they are given more moral and monetary support.
by Wang Ya-Hui, December 2010
Today, I look at many young Singaporean musicians, and their parents
who dream of their child’s distinguished musical future. I would hate
to say to them that compared with their Western counterparts, they are
already behind. And when they finally walk the road, they will realise
that they are even further behind. Why do I think that Singaporeans
are disadvantaged in making an impact on the world music stage, and
what can Singapore do about it?
Allow me to tell you about my own experience of music, which has
shaped my views.
Let’s rewind to the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up in Singapore.
Most of us had our music education privately. We learnt from teachers
individually, an hour per week. Music in Asia then was considered for
the rich and (sadly still is) an indulgence. I recall my maternal
grandfather asking my mother why she invested in a piano for her
daughters “to make noise on”. Nevertheless, we went on to take the
ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal School of Music) exams like
everyone else who took formal music lessons.
The ABRSM system was good for those times. It made us practise our
scales and arpeggios (basic technical skills), learn theory and
provide an early training of our aural skills. These were foundations,
vital for a degree in music and a lifetime’s engagement in music.
After I obtained the LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College of Music), my
piano teacher who had patiently taught me from scratch, advised my
mother that I should look for another teacher. We found Ong Lip Tat, a
young Singaporean pianist who had just returned from Germany and made
his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) at its opening
What I learnt from him, aside from a great advancement and maturity in
my piano playing, was showmanship, which I still use today. He was
always particular about how one plays every note and how that
should/could be communicated to the audience.
Technique and Training
One of the most important skills in music performance is technique.
Technique is not inborn. Motor skills must be honed at a young age. We
have all watched how the communist countries train their little ones
(some even injure themselves in the process). Attaining excellent
technique is almost impossible when spending a mere one-hour per week
lesson, practising through the cracks of school, homework and play.
I struggled much with this balance when I was young. Fortunately, I
had an understanding mother who preferred me to fail my mathematics
than to miss an hour of piano practice.
People in the Western world grow up as inheritors of Western art.
Their techniques, knowledge, experience, and connections are largely
due to their constant exposure to Western Art. This is far more than
what an aspiring world-class musician here in the East can hope for.
Some “buy” their resumé particulars, such as paying US$100,000 to play
with a Russian Symphony Orchestra on tour, or do a recording with a
major label. But that one-off event will not buy them eternal fame.
As Yo-Yo Ma’s father said in his Chinese biography, it takes three
generations to make it to the very top -- the first generation is the
birth of a naturally talented but raw musician; the second generation
is that of the professional musician; the third generation is the one
that can achieve world-class status. Yo-Yo Ma’s Dad was a cellist and
Mom a singer. Another example is the pianist Lang Lang.
Music and Money
This brings me to the second point: exposure and environment. My
classmates at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia included
students such as Alan Gilbert, now Music Director of the New York
Philharmonic, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn (son of the Russian Literary
giant Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). They spent their childhood with
houseguests such as the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch
and New York Philharmonic conductors or musicians.
These young musicians had the opportunity to play chamber music with
professionals, and were immersed in music that permeated every aspect
of their lives.
The Curtis Institute of Music itself is known in the music world as
one of, if not the best, music conservatories in the world, because of
its unique mission to train exceptionally gifted young musicians for
careers as performing artists, and its rare tuition-free policy
established back in 1928. Only four Singaporeans (all violinists
except myself: Siow Lee Chin; Kam Ning and Ike See who is currently
studying there) have ever studied in Curtis since its establishment in
Keys to the Top
I returned to Singapore in 2006 to be the Music Director/Conductor of
the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of
Singapore, Singapore’s first music conservatory. While the music scene
seems to have improved, the form has widened more than deepened. More
people are attending concerts, and there are many more people that I
can have intelligent invigorating musical conversations with. This has
prompted me to found a Richard Wagner Society here in Singapore. But
from my observations of the “emerging talent pool”, aside from
violinist Kam Ning, I am still waiting to hear a young Singaporean who
can make it on the international stage.
In saying this, I do not intend to be too judgmental. To be the next
Yo-Yo Ma, you have to have all of the following (and I’m not being
facetious either): a) good looks b) right height c) enough muscles d)
excellent technique e) great financial backing and personal
connections f) the gift of being musically refreshing and
Being petite and cute can sell, but the Asian physique, generally
smaller than the Caucasian, remains a challenge for top performers.
Groom Them Very Young
The late Dr Goh Keng Swee rightfully believed that this nation should
have its own symphony orchestra, and he started the SSO and initiated
the SSO scholarships. His calculations were simple: government gives
scholarships to Singaporean musicians to study abroad for four years,
they then return to Singapore’s SSO to serve a bond for eight years.
After providing these scholarships for the past eight years,
theoretically we should by now have a full orchestra of Singaporean
musicians. The reality? Some scholarship holders returned to serve in
the SSO, but to this day, there is only a handful in the orchestra.
The rest have moved on, and some have even given up music
It is too late to start serious musical training at the age of 18. You
need to start at 10 or earlier. The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of
Music takes in students at age 17 and above, and not surprisingly, is
made up of largely imported students. SOTA (School of the Arts)
recently created by former Minister of the Arts, Dr Lee Boon Yang,
does better, accepting local students at age 12. Let’s look at some
great musicians of our times: Lorin Maazel (former Music Director of
New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony) started conducting
publicly at age 8; pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim also began
performing at age 7.
In my opinion, Singapore needs to have the will to commit to a
long-term strategy of growing local talents in this nation, instead of
preferring to import foreign talent. As an aside, I do not blame
Singaporeans who raise their concerns about our national table tennis
Commitment From All
In Singapore today, the government invests heavily in infrastructure
hardware, erecting many fine buildings. Yet there is not enough
financial support for the software, the artists. Reports show that
Singapore has among the highest number of millionaires in Asia, but it
is the rare individual who would step out to fund the arts.
Compare this with the Japanese and Korean corporations, who would pay
their own (and other countries’) symphony orchestras to feature their
country’s artists. European embassies fund their artists to perform
in different countries.
I believe it is time for Singapore to redress this imbalance. Our
wonderful champion of the arts, Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy
Koh, suggests that the Singapore government can do even more to use
culture as an instrument of diplomacy and as a way to project a more
rounded image of Singapore to the world.
Singapore now has an enormous opportunity in Asia. The economic growth
is here, to quote Joseph Horowitz in Classical Music in America - a
History: “According to a 1939 survey, the number of American
orchestras increased from 17 before World War 1, to 270.” Underscoring
this trend, the former Director of the Curtis Institute of Music and a
great pianist of his time, Gary Graffman, once said, “During my time,
people were talking about the end of classical music. Look at it
today, there are more orchestras, more concerts and more classical
musicians! Thus it has not reduced but increased!” Asia is walking the
So, let us have more faith, and support the arts. Singaporeans are not
less talented. Success in the arts is highly dependent on the
environment, the financial and emotional support everyone in the
country is willing to give to artists.
Don’t treat the arts as merely a business. Treat it as philanthropy
that will improve the country that we live in and call home.
[Wang Ya-Hui is an internationally renowned conductor and has
conducted symphony orchestras, operas and ballets around the globe.
She is currently based in Singapore as Music Adviser, Centre for the
Arts at the National University of Singapore.]