Singaporean makes history at Royal College of Music

Mr Chew says his fascination with the erhu started when he was young, and he hopes to be a world-class performer one day.
Mr Chew says his fascination with the erhu started when he was young, and he hopes to be a world-class performer one day.ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Erhu player is its first graduate specialising in a Chinese traditional instrument

A Singapore student has scored a first by graduating from London's prestigious Royal College of Music (RCM) specialising in a traditional Chinese instrument.

Mr Chew Jun Ru, 24, completed his Bachelor of Music course in performance with the erhu - a 1,000-year-old two-stringed instrument played with a bow.

It is the first time a student playing a Chinese instrument is graduating from the 130-year-old institution, thanks to a 2011 agreement between the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and RCM, whose alumni include composers Benjamin Britten and Andrew Lloyd Webber, guitarist John Williams, flautist James Galway and singer Joan Sutherland.

The agreement admits music diploma graduates to RCM's third- and final-year undergraduate degree programmes conducted mainly at Nafa's campus. Mr Chew is in the pioneer batch of 18 graduating this month, but he is the only one using a Chinese instrument. The others play Western instruments, including the piano, violin, drums and French horn.

He started learning the erhu as a nine-year-old at Rosyth Primary School and became so passionate about it that he quit Nanyang Junior College to join Nafa.

Both his businessman father and housewife mother needed some persuading when the eldest of their four children chose to drop out of JC. "We had wanted him to do his A levels and then go to the university to do a professional degree like accounting or law, but he insisted on a career in Chinese music and wrote a long letter to us expressing his strong desire," said his father, Mr Chew Sin Hwa, 55.

The younger Mr Chew said: "Since young I have been fascinated by the erhu which can produce a range of very emotive sounds."

When he finished his diploma, the RCM option for a degree was available, except for one thing: the London school had no faculty in Chinese instrumental music.

So Nafa sought expert help from Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music and Mr Chew had to attend a seven-week programme in erhu performance in Beijing before completing his degree course.

He won the first prize in the erhu open category of the Singapore National Chinese Music Competition last year, and has been an active performer in Singapore and overseas. He leads the Nanyang Ensemble, a Chinese instrumental group he formed in 2011.

RCM deputy director Kevin Porter, who will confer the music degrees at Nafa's convocation on Aug 24, said: "We are delighted that Chew Jun Ru has become the first RCM graduate in a traditional Chinese instrument. This is a significant step for RCM, and reflects our commitment to providing diverse and forward-thinking training for the most talented young musicians from all over the world."

Mr Chew said the degree programme let him study a Chinese instrument under a Western curriculum. "I had the best of both worlds and my final-year research project on China's pioneer erhu master Liu Tianhua, who took the former street instrument to the concert hall in the early 1920s, was written in English as required by RCM," he said.

He hopes to be an advocate of the erhu and perform in the West. "The erhu is still relatively unknown in the West, and not very much academic literature on it can be found in English either. I hope to contribute in this area in future as well."

Nafa president Choo Thiam Siew said more Nafa graduates are following in Mr Chew's footsteps. Eight students specialising in Chinese instruments are in the Nafa- RCM programme, three each in the guzheng and erhu, and two in the ruan.

Next month, Mr Chew will make history again as the first Singaporean recipient of a scholarship from the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing to do a three-year master's degree in erhu.

Nafa's head of Chinese instrumental studies Wong Sun Tat said: "He will go far with his strong passion for his chosen instrument."

Mr Chew said: "I wish to perfect my skills further under the best erhu teachers there so I can realise my dream to be a world-class performer one day."