It Changed My Life

Hearing-impaired pianist hears the music in his mind

Accomplished pianist who has only 15% of his hearing left has won numerous contests

Azariah Tan is sitting by the condo pool of Normanton Park, where his family lives, his fingers often jumping to life in a flurry of movement.

In his head, they are navigating the 88 keys of a grand piano, hitting multiple notes, leaping and vaulting over the plains and mountains of a black and white geography he knows by heart.

The 25-year-old is a unique pianist, and not just because of his impeccable credentials.

He has a first-class honours degree in Music from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and a double masters in Music as well as a doctorate in Piano Performance from the University of Michigan.

He is also hearing-impaired.

In fact, he has only 15 per cent of his hearing left, and even that is eventually going to disappear.

Dr Tan, who wears a hearing aid, says: "I don't know if it's related to my hearing impairment but many people often say that I really listen to what I'm playing.

"A lot of people just play the piano for the sake of playing it but they don't put enough emphasis on listening to what sounds are coming out. While I can't hear everything, it makes me strive to listen to everything. It makes me listen more closely and respond to it."

This approach has served him well. In the last decade, he has won scores of piano competitions in Singapore and Asia, as well as in Europe and America.

When Dr Tan was five, he attended a Yamaha keyboard class. He enjoyed it so much that his parents started him on private lessons. The Community Chest TrueHearts show is one of many charity events that Dr Tan has performed for. Dr Tan at the Yong Siew
Dr Tan at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on Oct 7. He has a first-class honours degree in Music from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, as well as a double masters in Music and a doctorate in Piano Performance from the University of Michigan. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In 2012, he bagged three awards, including Best Solo and Best Concerto in the college division for The American Prize, which recognises America's finest performing artists, ensembles and composers, based on recorded performances.

The only child of a former sound engineer and a university lecturer, he is back home on a break from Michigan where he has just completed his doctorate and now teaches and works as an assistant to his professor on musical projects.

His parents suspected he had a hearing problem when he was two.

"My mother said I would respond to words like Batman but not to my name Aza," he says. "She thought it was selective hearing but it turned out I could hear certain frequencies better. The word Batman has a higher frequency; Aza, a lower one."

Other episodes confirmed their suspicions.

When she put on an audio tape in the car one day and asked him what story he was listening to, he could not answer her.

"She turned up the volume, and I still couldn't hear. So she pulled over to the side, and turned on the volume full blast. I still couldn't tell her," says Dr Tan.

A trip to a specialist when he was four years old revealed that he has bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which results from damage to the tiny hair cells in the inner ear.

His parents were advised to attend a summer programme at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, a non-profit organisation which provides services for families with children impacted by hearing loss.

Besides methods to develop their son's listening, language and speech abilities, they also picked up strategies to deal with teachers and help him communicate with his hearing peers.

His father Leslie Tan, 56, says: "Having a disability set him back because a lot of matters had to be handled by his parents. We were almost like his advocates."

His kindergarten teachers, for instance, were told that he needed to sit in front so that he could see their faces and read their lips.

"But often we found him with his back turned towards the teacher, enjoying everybody else's expressions. When they laughed, he laughed. He didn't understand what was going on in class. He went through a lot of his younger years like that," he says.

When he was five, the boy was enrolled in a Yamaha keyboard class. He enjoyed it so much that his folks started him on private lessons not long after.

When Dr Tan was five, he attended a Yamaha keyboard class. He enjoyed it so much that his parents started him on private lessons. The Community Chest TrueHearts show is one of many charity events that Dr Tan has performed for. Dr Tan at the Yong Siew
When Dr Tan was five, he attended a Yamaha keyboard class. He enjoyed it so much that his parents started him on private lessons. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AZARIAH TAN

"My mum would sit in on the lessons so that she knew what I worked on and what I needed to follow up on," he says, adding that his music teachers assured his mother his hearing impairment was no impediment.

In fact, he has perfect pitch, the rare ability to identify and play a musical note without any reference pitch.

Music exams conducted by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music were a breeze; he skipped a couple of grades, consistently scored distinctions and completed Grade Eight when he was 13.

By then, his parents had taken him out of Henry Park Primary to homeschool him. They felt that the mainstream education system was not ideal, given his hearing impairment and his passion for music.

Dr Tan enrolled in a one-year long-distance learning programme with Calvert Education in the United States before his parents took over to prepare him for his O levels - which he aced, bagging six As. His father even quit his sound engineer job to help him with his studies.

Everything opened up; the world became his classroom.

"It had a big impact on my music development," says Dr Tan, who started devouring books on music.

"It was life-changing. I read books on music theory, harmony and history and was fascinated by how music works.

"I realised it was a language which had its own special grammar and vocabulary. It helped me progress faster," says the pianist who also travelled with his parents to Vienna and other parts of Europe to learn about music culture.

He attended masterclasses and took part in competitions, coming in first for many, including the Trinity College London Music Competition (2005), the Cristofori Piano Competition (2006) and the Kevin Kern Piano Prodigy Contest (2006).

At 15, he came in second in the IX International Piano Competition in Nis, Serbia, and also performed a piano recital in Herceg Novi in Montenegro.

His parents sat him down and asked him if he really wanted to pursue a career in music. He did - a decision which was to alter the course of his life.

His father recalls: "It was a great dilemma. We asked ourselves if it would be a waste, and we're not just talking money and time. It was also a very emotional exercise."

But they decided to support him.

"We decided to give him what he wanted in a way that we could support. At least, we know we have given him the best."

So his mother wrote to every music teacher she could think of to ask them if it was a wise undertaking, given Dr Tan's hearing disability.

Their replies were varied. Some told her it was an uphill task. Others said it was a futile exercise. One even told her not to make life even more difficult for her hearing-impaired son.

But Professor Thomas Hecht, the head of Piano Studies at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, asked to see the teenager, who played for him Chopin's Nocturne In B Flat Minor.

Mr Tan recalls: "He told us that while Azariah's hearing was still there (we should) give him the best because he had the talent and the auditory memory. There was no turning back."

And so even before he sat his O levels in 2008, Azariah Tan received a full scholarship from the National Arts Council and got into Yong Siew Toh where he made the Dean's List, bagged a Student Achievement Award and eventually graduated with first-class honours in 2012.

Around the same time he was accepted into Yong Siew Toh, the Royal College of Music in London also offered him a scholarship worth £32,000 after an audition and an interview here in 2007.

The then- teenager, however, decided he was not ready to take on London then.

Although Dr Tan tries not to let it get to him, his hearing loss - which deteriorates at a rate of 5 per cent a year - does frustrate him.

"Knowing that the music I hear is only a fraction of what it really sounds like, not being able to hear all the subtleties that are happening, is frustrating."

He has resisted having cochlear implants, an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear.

Hearing aids, he says, amplify sounds but cochlear implants are completely artificial so he does not know what he will be hearing.

It is an option he will explore only when his hearing goes entirely.

For now, he has worked out his own approach to playing.

"It's like doing any work, you first need to have the proper tools and you need to know how to use those tools the right way.

"A lot of what I understand about music is what is in the music itself. I look at the score and analyse it. I hear in my mind what it should sound like," says Dr Tan, who also won scholarships for his postgraduate music studies in Michigan.

Just as he draws inspiration from deaf composer Beethoven and deaf and blind writer Helen Keller, he wants to give hope to others and has never shied away from public performances.

He has played at countless outreach programmes and charity shows - from Singapore Press Holdings' ChildAid to Community Chest TrueHearts - and helped to raise funds for hearing-impaired children and cancer patients.

When Dr Tan was five, he attended a Yamaha keyboard class. He enjoyed it so much that his parents started him on private lessons. The Community Chest TrueHearts show is one of many charity events that Dr Tan has performed for. Dr Tan at the Yong Siew
The Community Chest TrueHearts show is one of many charity events that Dr Tan has performed for. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AZARIAH TAN

Since coming home last month, he has recorded a CD - Azariah Tan Plays Chopin: A State Of Wonder - which will be sold at a charity gala organised by The Ad Planet Group on Oct 23 to celebrate 50 years of bilateral and business relations between Singapore and Japan.

"Chopin is one of my favourite composers. His music has balance, reason and symmetry," says the pianist who will be performing at the gala.

Professor Bernard Lanksey offered his services, pro bono, as producer on the CD. Proceeds from sale of the CD will go to the Community Chest.

The director of Yong Siew Toh says: "I was really impressed with the quality of preparation and engagement evident in Azariah's work: his was a really challenging programme: some of the most challenging works by Chopin, a composer well recognised for the sensitivity of aural imagination required. I think people will be simply astounded by what Azariah has achieved in the recording - I certainly was."

Describing the pianist's playing as "genuinely distinctive", he adds: "The issue of control in the softest playing is one all pianists face, whether or not you can hear the result, but there is no doubt he is overcoming most of the challenges naturally faced to make music which is communicative, passionate and beautiful. I am sure his music-making will be valued intrinsically and not just because of the hurdles overcome."

A gregarious soul, Dr Tan - who loves skiing and kayaking - plans to come home next year, and continue teaching.

"I like the look on students' faces when they learn something new about a piece of music and realise that they can do something with it."

He believes his hearing will not be an obstacle because he has built up his knowledge.

"I know how a person plays just by looking at them, I do not need to hear them."

• Azariah Tan will give public recitals at Paragon between Oct 21 and 23. For more details, visit www.sj50astrokeofgenius.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline ''I hear the music in my mind''. Print Edition | Subscribe