Award-winning violinist enjoys being a professional musician despite job being less stable

Singaporean concert violinist Alan Choo, who won this year's Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award. -- ST PHOTO: STEFFI KOH
Singaporean concert violinist Alan Choo, who won this year's Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award. -- ST PHOTO: STEFFI KOH

When Singaporean concert violinist Alan Choo was seven years old, he told his primary school teacher that he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up.

While Choo, now 23 and a professional musician, dismisses his choice of ambition back then as "childish", he says in hindsight that it was perhaps a harbinger of the less typical career path he has taken anyway.

He says with a laugh: "I think if you want to be an astronaut as a kid, that already says something about you. I was never one to go for a mainstream or ordinary job and I like going down a route that is less tried out."

Taking the road less travelled has certainly made all the difference for Choo, who has just won this year's Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award. He beat three others on the shortlist after an audition where each musician played three pieces for a panel of judges.

Established in 2011 to honour Singapore's late pioneer violinist and conductor Goh Soon Tioe,  it is given annually to a young string player aged 15 to 25 and the cash award, raised to $6,500 this year, must be used to further his musical endeavours.  Inaugurated in 2012, it is supported by the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Fund and administered by the Community Foundation of Singapore.

Choo, back in Singapore after completing two master's degrees in violin performance and early music at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, will give his award winner's recital on Aug 10 together with renowned pianist Lim Yan. The performance is sold out.

Becoming a professional musician never crossed Choo's mind until his father proposed the idea when he was just 12, six years after he picked up the violin at the request of his music-loving parents. Having seen his son progress quickly from grade to grade as a child, the elder Mr Choo felt the child showed exceptional talent in the field.

The musician recalls: "I was a bit surprised when my dad suggested it to me back then. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it was actually a good idea because the violin was something I really enjoyed, so why not make it my career?"

The eldest child of a doctor father and a stay-at-home mother, he has a younger sister and brother, both of whom used to play the violin but have since stopped.

In 2006, Choo was admitted into the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore when he was 15. After  two years of national service, he  graduated from Yong Siew Toh in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in violin performance.

That same year, he won first place in the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition in the violin artist category and his solo recital with Tokyo-based pianist Miyuki Washimiya was praised in The Straits Times as "the debut recital of the year".

He has since performed as a soloist with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Festival Orchestra, Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Singapore National Youth Orchestra, among others.

While he is aware of the apparent greater insecurity a music career entails, he has no regrets pursuing it.

"It's a less stable job compared with those of most of my friends working in law or accounting firms. But looking back now, I think I really made the right choice because I enjoy the spontaneity of music-making."

The greatest challenge of his music career right now is finding out his true identity as an artist.

"It is something that cannot be defined for you by other people.  I'm still searching within myself what it is I want to do about my craft that can make a difference to people's lives. There are no boundaries, no right and wrong - you have to be creative and do something that will truly represent you as your own artist."

He will be returning to the United States to pursue a graduate performance diploma in violin performance at the Peabody Conservatory under a full scholarship administered by the school.

Although he will be based in the US for the next few years, he ultimately intends to return to Singapore one day to build a career and contribute to the local music scene.

"My ties to this land are still very strong and there's a lot I enjoy about being home, though there seems to be so much more I can do in the States. I don't know how many years I will be overseas for, but at the end of the day, I know I want to return and give back to Singapore."

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