Music Education: Ms Karen Wong

  • Previously a civil engineer; teaches at NAFA as well as privately
  • The Singapore arts scene is "growing"; "more people are taking music more seriously"
  • The arts "reflects the standard of living and the development of the nation"
  • Advice: "be the best in your field"
  • "Opportunities vary. But there's enough if you are good enough and are able to grab them"

    Music Education: Mr Goh Seach Joo

  • Former secondary school music teacher; now an officer under the Ministry of Education's Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB)
    1. We understand that when you started on a National Institute of Education course on Physics and Music, people around you were rather surprised at your decision. Yet you maintained that if you had a choice again after five years you would do so with even less reluctance. What kind of passion made you embark on this journey and what were some of the goals you set out to achieve in the process?

      First of all, I had a clear goal in mind to be a teacher. NIE was the obvious choice since it specialises in education.

      Frankly speaking, I did not realise the full potential of the music course offered before I had signed up. That's why I said if I were to choose all over again, it would have been my obvious choice.

      I love what I do in music and I wanted to bring that to the schools. What better way than as a school teacher and currently a HQ officer looking into CCA music.

    2. Did you ever consider yourself becoming a professional performer or composer as opposed to an educator of music? Why or why not?

      Not really. Somehow, sad as it is, I find that as a professional I may not be able to express what I truly want or to explore areas which are more obscure. As a amateur musician, I don't have to worry about my rice bowl in what I do in music. Not to say that it gives amateurs a license to produce sub-standard work but, I'd rather be in the position to do something because I enjoy doing it and not because I have to fulfil the job.

      Music performance has had a long history. But music education is more urgent and has longer reaching implications.

    3. In your opinion, what are some traits and key skills a music teacher should possess?

      I believe there should ideally be 2 qualities. Firstly, a music teacher must be a music practioner, at whatever level. Especially at the school level, practical experience is very important for the student and how can the music teacher effectively transmit that without being a performer himself?

      Secondly, a music teacher must be sensitive to qualities in good music and a horror for mediocrity. This would help the students develop the same sensitivity and ear for good music and also constantly strive for improvement. They need to learn that music is just as important as any other subject and not to be taken lightly.

      The rest is similar to what all teachers should have, e.g. ability to motivate the students, familiarity with course content, etc.

    4. As a music educator, share with us some of the joys received and woes encountered during your experience with students.

      For me, the greatest reward is to see students perform and make music with a sparkle in their eyes. A sense of excitement and that desire to give their best in whatever capacity. It's rare, but I have seen it especially in the composition classes that I run. I know that they truly know what they are doing and wish to covey that knowledge through music.

      I guess the biggest lamentation is that there would still be pockets of students that no matter what you do, they will still remain aloof and uninterested. I suppose that happens everywhere and one has just got to accept it as a fact of life.

    5. You are currently an officer under the Ministry of Education's Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB), in charge of instrumental ensemble and a member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra secretariat. What are the duties that you cover and how different is the work environment there as compared to teaching in a school?

      I find, most significantly is the accountability issue. I realise that schools are able to move much faster because the catchment is much smaller. In HQ, every decision has to be mulled over as the implications are nation wide. In a sense, I long for the "carefree" days as a music teacher, when I could do, literally, whatever I deemed suitable and beneficial to the students.

      Over here it's is a similar concept in that we are trying to promote CCA music in schools. We also look into policies pertaining to CCAs, such as funding, CCA management, CCA assessment (competitoon and central judging) and of course, as you would have heard, the running of the SIngapore Youth Festival. The SNYO runs along a similar thread in that we are giving avenues for students to engage in the arts and hopefully develop a life long passion.

    6. Finally, can you kindly provide some inspirations for students aspiring to become music teachers in the near future?

      Be convinced of the value of music education and persist till the end, through whatever capacity, in whatever circumstance.

    Conductor / Director: Ms Jennifer Tham

  • Returned from Canada with a degree in composition; currently conductor for many Singapore choirs including the SYC
    1. You trained "as a composer at the Simon Fraser University". When did you turn to conducting and what made you do so?

      I was conducting way before I studied as a composer - since 1987, with the Singapore Youth Choir (SYC). We went abroad, won some prizes, in 1989 MOE's Choral Excellence Programme began with Tay Eng Soon touting the SYC as a role model for all school choirs, I quit my paper-pushing job as a school administrator at ACS(I)... and the rest is history.

      Always a passionate music-hobbyist, I quit teaching school choirs to join my husband in Canada in 1991. I went to study, and get an MBA ... and came back with a degree in music, trained as a composer. Absolutely no regrets even though I never write any more - the training has allowed me to really 'read' other people's music ... why is that note there? On that instrument, at that register, dynamic ... duration ... and so on. Where is it heading?

      I was never an instinctive composer, and do not feel compelled to write. I think others do it better, and being composer-trained allows me to see that. I love the expressive power of the human voice - its range and flexibility of colour, its intimate and primal nature - it is man/woman at their naked best/worst. The voice is a blueprint of humanity - mind (since we have construct the music in our heads first), body (singers are their own instrument) and soul (there must be the desire to express).

      I have been singing forever it seems, and have always been in choirs all my life. I have been in love with music forever as well, and seem to have some sort of instinct for leadership and pedagogical work. It seemed natural to move from singing in choirs to conducting them.

    2. Do you think the government is doing enough to promote and sustain the local arts scene in the 21st century?

      I'm not sure that any government is perceived to have done enough for any country's arts scene. People on the ground have very different ideas from the powers-that-be, which is sometimes a good thing because there always should be some sort of discourse (healthy) about what the arts should or should not do for a society. Singapore's current vision for the local arts groups is to have them turn into little arts enterprises (and contribute to the GDP) ... NO KIDDING. Just went for a 'dialogue' session with various arts who-who's, administrators and patrons.

      So, I'm not sure that the government is the one to lead the way in promoting and sustaining the local arts scene ... because their vision is not (ever) driven by artistic purpose, and is necessarily made complex by social-economic considerations and popularity stakes. I have been asked to 'dumb down' my programmes for ministers ... says something doesn't it? They don't really want to be educated, engaged or inspired. They really just want to be entertained. Dick Lee and Jack Neo got the Cultural Medallion this year.

    3. What do you think are some key traits and skills of a conductor that make them different from other music careers, like teachers, performers or composers?

      Hmm ... this is tough - a conductor wears many hats, including teacher and performer. I think conductors need to have an extremely high EQ (and group management skills, for rehearsal pacing), strong communication skills (translation of ideas into action, producing tangible and intangible musical results), the desire to teach - because all conductors are pedagogues: they need to be, to teach their ensembles how to shape the music and why ... this includes professional orchestras. Of course, as for all musicians, a large base of knowledge from being widely-read would help. X-factors that would be major bonus - musical instinct, and personality.

    4. We understand that you direct school choirs from all over the island at the moment. Talk about some of your experiences working with these budding musicians and how you "connected" with them to produce good music.

      I think it helps that I play RPGs on PS2 and GBA (well, not lately because really no time), and that I have done many different things in my life - I come into music really late. By the time I returned from Canada and started conducting professionally, I was 34. On the way, I have hiked and camped and skinny-dipped, played basketball every day, been a school swimmer, gone through several courses of study - triple science (JC1), double maths (JC2), engineering (NUS Year 1), Arts/Sciences (Philosophy, Sociology, Statistics) ... been through a couple of jobs (Singapore Broadcasting Company - in the acquisitions and programming unit; ACS(I) - administrator; private tutor - maths, english)...

      It is a long scenic road ... but I have always had fun, and enjoyed what I was doing - I think this is important - and I see everything as being connected anyway. Just as music has always been a part of my life, and is now almost fully my life. I think all this life experience has made me a better teacher - so I connect with people easily since my own background is so varied, with always a sense of 'play'.

      Still, all that said, whatever I set out to do I always did to the best of my ability - and this focus and discipline is also what my choirs see, and helps me get things done. So - despite providing a sense of the whole world being my playground, I am very focused on the task/music-at-hand.

      Also, I like people (mostly) and am genuinely interested in what they think. So maybe this helps with the connections.

    5. What are some difficulties that you face as a conductor and how did you manage to overcome them?

      Educating the educated (the top people), educating non-vocal musicians ... ongoing battles, of course. The quality of work, growing standards of performance, basically the tangibles (golds, etc) will turn the top around - eventually. Being non-diva, down-to-earth, also helps I think. Music is already the most inaccessible of the performing arts .... I think if more musicians came down from their ivory tower we might fill the halls a bit more.

      Have not much difficulty with singers in the school and community choirs. Except maybe when I'm taking over a choir whose previous conductor used very different means to motivate them - eg. tantrums, scolding - then it just takes time.

      NAFA chorus/chamber choir is an anomaly. So I don't consider that a conducting job, but a class.

    6. In your opinion, how significant a role does the arts, particularly music, play in nation-building?

      Hmm ... tough question. Really don't how to answer this. I mean, we are Singaporean so all the art we produce is necessarily Singaporean and therefore part of the country's artistic output. Whether the nation sees this as being fundamental to what is considered 'Singaporean' I cannot say. What it means to be 'Singaporean' is in the eye of the beholder isn't it? For me, I'm just being me and trying to do what I think is meaningful work. Whatever that means.

    7. Lastly, can you provide some advice for aspiring conductors?

      Stay happy, healthy and hungry.

    Composition: Mr Zechariah Goh Toh Chai

  • Alumni of NAFA, University of Kansas; currently at NAFA as full-time lecturer
  • Inspired by many composers including Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok and Bach
  • "In every profession you have to work hard to achieve something"
  • "Arts is part of life and we cannot let this part of our life go to waste"

    Luthier: Mr Sabo Istvan

  • Professional luthier

    A luthier is a French term for a violin maker. It is a very interesting and unique job. Basically, apart from making violins, we also restore, repair and solve problems with regards to what the musician really wants. So it can also be a broad-spectrum job. I like it as it is very challenging. In a nature, I work on all the string instruments, in particular the violin, viola, cello and double bass. The repairs that I do can also range from the devastatingly damaged to the mild scratch. In terms of satisfaction, I do feel that I am doing what I love but there is a certain amount of stress. I can work for a couple of days just sleeping for a few hours so I can finish up a repair job. It is very physically draining due to the harsh way we work and the conditions that we have to repair the instruments under.

    A luthier is required to have a huge knowledge of the physics of the instrument. It is very essential to know, play and understand the string instrument. The complexity of such problems is something we must overcome.

    In Singapore, there are only a few luthiers. Not more than two that I can think of. But that does not mean that there is a comparatively huge market for us. It is also very difficult for the player himself to identify a problem as not all string instruments are the same.

    I deal with a lot of people. From those who can afford a collection of instruments to those who really require assistance [but have relatively less money].

    In Singapore, many people still do not know much about the instrument. Some come looking for a "very very good German" for the price of a flower vase. It is sometimes quite ridiculing to hear things like that.

    The art scene in Singapore has recently started to bloom. Though not full, the improvement can be said to be considerably satisfactory. The people need to learn more about music as a whole. This falls on the part of the government. Besides splurging money on bringing [up] good musicians, educating the people is also very crucial to the growth of people appreciating the arts.

    I believe that the arts represent a very high level of development in a country. To be able to appreciate such a form of culture and artistic perspective, we would need to open ourselves to more things that comes along.

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