NUS music school strikes the right note

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music looks to build on its success by empowering students to find their musical niche and identity

When the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music opened its doors in 2003, there were those who had reservations about how the school and its students would fare.

Would Singaporeans apply and make the cut? Would the school be able to hold its own against established conservatories around the world? What would its graduates go on to do?

The school's development over the years and the achievements of its students, especially in recent times, have put paid to those initial doubts.

Singapore students now make up more than 30 per cent of its intake, up from about 15 per cent at the start, and many of them have won international competitions.

Most recently, its alumnus, Singaporean Wong Kah Chun, became the first Asian to take the top prize at the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition held in Germany.

Its graduates are also sought after as post-graduate candidates by top conservatories around the world, including Yale School of Music in the United States, and at least 60 per cent of them win full scholarships for further studies.

Those who choose to be professional musicians have also landed coveted positions with orchestras such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

What makes these accomplishments stand out more is how quickly the school has realised them. This places it "on a level platform with established conservatories around the world", says Singapore violinist Kam Ning, 41, who is based in London and studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and Cleveland Institute of Music, both in the US.

The conservatory's graduates have also "enriched the scene", says The Straits Times' classical music reviewer Chang Tou Liang, 50, who has been following Singapore's music development since 1979.

He says: "Singapore is now producing its own top performers. Some of them play in our national orchestras while others perform with young orchestras that have formed."

Freelance classical music reviewer Mervin Beng, 56, who is forming a professional chamber orchestra in Singapore, echoes Dr Chang's sentiment: "The idea to form a professional chamber orchestra has been there for more than 10 years, but we never had enough players to call on until the last few years."

Musicians who go beyond playing

About 40 per cent of the new chamber orchestra, which will debut later this year, are alumni of the conservatory.

Mr Beng says the conservatory has also enlivened the music scene here by hosting many high-quality performances that are well attended by both young and old. In total, it holds more than 200 events a year which are attended by about 20,000 people.

Yet this is no time for the school to rest on its laurels, say observers of the school and the music scene whom The Straits Times interviewed.

As the rules of engagement in the classical music world are rewritten by changes in technology and patterns of music consumption, the school and its students face the question of remaining relevant in these times.

Singapore concert violinist Siow Lee Chin, 49, says: "The challenge for conservatories today, including the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, is to prepare graduates to be entrepreneurial and develop careers beyond just performing. Many orchestras are coming under budgetary constraints and music graduates have to think outside the box and look beyond finding jobs in orchestras."

The school is keenly aware of this need to adapt and prepare its students for the future, says its chairman Goh Yew Lin.

Its strategy: Empower students to find their identities and niche through music, rather than train them for specific roles.

Professor Bernard Lanskey, 56, director of the conservatory, says: "Traditionally, you educate the number of engineers for the number of engineering jobs that are here, but if you did that for artists, it's not such an easy equation."

The work, he says, begins with accepting students who "can lead change", a criterion that became part of the school's assessment of potential students in 2012.

"They need to have the capacity in terms of raw artistry and technical ability, but also that capacity to see a future in a landscape where the opportunities may not always be so apparent," he says.

An example he cites is the award-winning conductor Wong, who seized the support and resources available at the conservatory to hone his skills.

As a freshman, he started a student orchestra to gain conducting experience and as a second- year student, he took part in a conducting masterclass in Singapore with renowned Finnish conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. He stayed in touch with the maestro over the years and Salonen recently gave him pointers as he prepared for the Mahler Competition.

Wong, 29, says: "The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory programme is about making dreams come true if one were to work hard at them."

Another alumnus, Hawaii-born Lawrence Sarabi, 25, noticed a demand here for music teachers with music degrees. With the support of his professors at the conservatory, he launched the music school Aureus Academy in 2013 while juggling his academic commitments as a final-year conservatory student.

There are now three Aureus Academy schools in Singapore catering to 1,500 students. Six more branches are scheduled to open by the end of next year.

Professor Ian Woodward, who lectures at the Singapore campus of graduate business school Insead and is also associate conductor of the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra in Singapore, says the conservatory can remain relevant by encouraging the public to "view classical music as a living art form for everyone, not just elites and the older generation".

Two of the conservatory's alumni, violinist Loh Jun Hong and pianist Abigail Sin, have been doing this with their More Than Music series of concerts launched in 2013, which presents classical music in an intimate way. The musicians share with the audience anecdotes about the compositions and their encounters with the works to dispel the notion that classical music is serious and stuffy. The popular series has been getting more invitations from schools and corporations to perform.

Professor Lanskey says the conservatory is also working on being heard in the community and beyond conventional performing spaces such as a concert hall.

Of this move, the school's chairman, Mr Goh, 56, who holds the same position at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, says: "When you go out, you realise what needs to be done to make music communicate to somebody. Music is about communication, it's not just about right notes and wrong notes."

He adds that the move into the community is not a "token effort" at arts engagement.

"We're not ticking boxes. It has to be a period of sustained engagement so it's about how we advocate them," he says.

Prof Lanskey says: "The critical shift is exactly that - empowering students so that we reach a wider community."

He cites the example of a music project initiated by recent graduate Bethany Nette, in collaboration with Sengkang Health, to use music to promote the well-being of hospital patients and staff.

Prof Lanskey says it is also working with its recording arts students to make these community spaces suitable for classical music performances "so that people realise what is possible and our students reconsider what is a contemporary music platform".

The school will also be rolling out new initiatives in the next 12 months to make itself relevant to a wider community. These include making its performances more visible on digital platforms, offering standalone courses to help music instructors enhance their teaching skills and making it possible for students at the National University of Singapore to earn a minor or double major in music at the conservatory.

Prof Lanskey says: "We're more aware of what the potential is, partly because of what has been achieved, but also because we see how distinctive we can be - to be that platform for an artistic evolution that will take Singapore to the next level as a global city."

Doing community work with music

In her third year as a Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music student, Ms Bethany Nette lost and found her dream as a musician.

The 22-year-old Australian, who recently graduated, had originally hoped to be a professional trumpet player in an orchestra.

She comes from a music-loving family, although no one else in her family is a professional musician.


Conductor of sound and noise

In some ways, Mr Lee Kok Wey is the unseen conductor of the everyday orchestra of ambient sounds and noises.

The work of the 27-year-old consultant with an international engineering and design company ranges from managing noise pollution at construction sites in Singapore to ensuring that the acoustic properties of auditoriums, performance halls and residential and commercial properties are top notch.

The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music alumnus, who majored in recording arts, says his career path has surprised those who know him, including himself.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline NUS music school strikes the right note. Subscribe