Watching Dr Azariah Tan, 26, tease out exquisite tunes from the piano fills one with a sense of calm and wonder.
His fingers delicately traverse the well-worn keys as his body sways gently to the rhythm, his whole being deeply immersed in the experience.
You would not have guessed that the award-winning pianist can barely hear his own music.
Prelude to a virtuoso
Before he turned four years old, Dr Tan’s parents discovered he was suffering from bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, a condition in which the inner ear’s tiny hair cells are damaged.
Over the years, his hearing ability has deteriorated to just 15 per cent of a normal person’s. His doctors have said that he will eventually lose all hearing.
The prognosis left his parents devastated. Nevertheless, the couple, then a sound engineer and a university professor, painstakingly educated themselves about their son’s condition, and did everything they could to train and support him.
They homeschooled him and let him explore various hobbies and interests. He took to the piano and his teachers discovered he possessed the rare gift of perfect pitch.
At 13, he had already achieved a Grade 8 in the instrument. Dr Tan found himself at the crossroads — he had to decide whether to continue his musical journey as his hearing worsened.
He says: “Not being able to catch what people were saying and missing out on a lot of information was tiring and mentally draining. “But I received a lot of encouragement from people to make good use of whatever remaining hearing I had to share my gift of music with others.”
Against the odds
Dr Tan went on to eventually receive a first class honours degree in music from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, as well as a double master’s in music and a doctorate in piano performance from the University of Michigan in the United States.
The current accompanist at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance has also had numerous achievements at top piano and music competitions both internationally and locally.
Recently, he received the $10,000 Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence from the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts. It is awarded to NUS students and alumni who have contributed significantly to the performing arts.
His secret to success is dogged resilience.
Says Dr Tan: “Sometimes when I face challenges, negative thoughts fill my mind. But I always tell myself to look ahead and focus on making the best of my situation.
“Our minds are like a garden. If we don’t take care of it, negative thoughts, like weeds, will overrun it. We need to uproot them and plant seeds of positivity.”
Such resilience can be taught, which is why it is important for youth to have a good mentoring and support system, he adds.
Dr Tan explains: “Youth is a period of emotional intensity, curiosity, exploration. “Having mentors as a formal support system to provide a listening ear and guide them through challenges are especially crucial in an intensely emotional period of their lives.”
It is also important for youth to know what their life goals are, as it will keep them focused and passionate about what they do, he adds.
Doing good with music
Dr Tan believes that helping others can take the focus off one’s challenges and community work is good training to develop resilience.
He says: “The world we live in is becoming more fast-moving; there are many distractions and people have become more self-centred.
“Involving youth in more activities to help others and not just focus on themselves is important.” Dr Tan often performs at charity events that are coordinated with organisations such as Very Special Arts, Singapore and the Singapore Association of the Deaf to raise funds and build awareness about people with disabilities.
“I feel a special connection to these two organisations. Working with them also enables me to reach out to more people,” he says.
Dr Tan’s charitable work has also taken him overseas. He was in Japan recently to teach children play the piano at an orphanage.
He recalls: “It was heart-warming to connect to them on a personal level. Many of the kids were very talented, humble and willing to learn. I’ll do what I can to help them. “Their wonderful attitude towards life also reminds me of how I should be.”
Dr Tan wants to do more for the local community, and hopes that, in time, Singapore’s society will become more inclusive and family-like.
He says: “Playing the piano is not just the physical skill of how fast you are or how dexterous your fingers are; a lot of it comes from a love for music, people and life.
“This is what we do as musicians to convey the gift of music to others so they can be inspired and captivated by it.”
Correction note: The article introduction has been edited for clarity.