Many Singaporeans expressed pride when young local violinist Chloe Chua, who is just 11, won the top prize at the prestigious Menuhin Competition in Geneva, Switzerland. Performing a masterful rendition of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons with such precision and control, she captivated international and local audiences alike.
But what next for Chloe after this achievement? While Singapore is regarded as an important global financial centre, does it have the facilities, environment and culture to nurture this young, prodigious musical talent to greatness? And while we celebrate her achievement, can we provide her with a space to thrive?
“If we are talking about musical education and infrastructure, of course we do,” said Leslie Tan, of the renowned T’ang Quartet.
Indeed Tan, who spent seven years abroad studying and performing in countries like London, Russia, and the United States, doesn’t consider Singapore a fishing village when it comes to music. But he added that the sheer quality of local musicians is often overlooked.
“We have world class musicians and educators, Chloe’s teacher (violinist Yin Ke the programme leader for Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts School of Young Talents) is a good example. He has done a good job and brought her very far,” said Tan, 54.
And Singapore has come a long way since the days when a student’s only exposure to music in school was learning how to play the recorder. With the National Arts Council (NAC) reporting that over 500 schools having their own musical band or choir, children of this generation are exposed to music at a young age.
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“Musical infrastructure is picking up in Singapore from when I was younger,” said Tan. “We have the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO), Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and Lasalle College of the Arts providing more musical opportunities than ever,” said Tan.
“She could stay with NAFA School of Young Talents. They’ve served her well so far and she could move on to be a concertising soloist in the future.”
So Singapore has enough to help Chloe in her musical progress. But would venturing abroad help her improve further than if she were to remain?
“She could stay in Singapore, she could choose to develop her talents here, it honestly just depends how ambitious she wants to be,” said Michael Loh associate principal of the Second Violins at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Leaving the roost when he was just 13 years old, Loh spent a decade in Germany, honing his skills under multiple teachers, including the famed Professor Igor Ozim at the Music University of Cologne.
“No matter how conducive the environment, as a musician, you have to leave,” said Loh. Just as someone who aspires to become a world-class footballer needs to play in international leagues with world-class teammates and against world-class opponents to develop their skills, a musician would benefit in a community of world-class performers, too.
“You won’t become a world class footballer just playing in our local football league,” explained Loh. “And most classical musicians in Singapore went overseas to study.”
Tan agreed, adding: “Although music is picking up, we are still a young country with a significantly smaller space and market.” The musical and cultural life is much richer overseas, and that environment would be helpful in the development of a young musician, explained Tan.
Citing his own experience as a student in London, he said: “How many art/music shows are there in Singapore per week? Two? Four if you’re lucky? In London there could be four in a single day; that is exposure.
“Musicians benefit from exposure to the arts. Galleries, museums, anything that can spark inspiration,” Tan added.
In light of this, Loh had some advice for young aspiring musicians: “Be exposed to all things, go beyond the training, learn from experience in order to chart your own journey and develop your own identity.”
However, despite the efforts of the NAC, there is a still a certain stigma attached to being a musician.
“The recent “busking is begging” debacle is a clear indication that things need to change from an educational level. I don’t mean all the music schools, but from a fundamental standpoint,” Tan explained.
“There is an idea of Singapore being pristine, and that buskers only litter the streets. I feel that this mentality has set a precedent to the way we view them. But I think busking should be allowed. Almost every city in Europe has its own ecosystem of buskers that make it much more vibrant, even I used to busk in London,” Tan elaborated.
“We need to enlighten the public that music isn’t just for recording and performance. There are many ways music can be used, be it music therapy, social enterprise, arts management, production; you can even call it a form of outreach.”
Despite this, Tan maintained a positive outlook, stating: “Singapore has the means and facilities to develop and nurture young musicians. Things are going quite well for music in Singapore, and if we continue on this trajectory. I’m sure that things will turn out well.“
Eugene Lam, 27, former president of the Anglo Chinese Junior College (ACJC) String Ensemble, echoed Tan’s sentiment, saying: “Our forefathers lived in a developing nation, where at the early stages, art was never the focus. But now that we have developed into an affluent society, the arts will soon begin to become celebrated.”
Indeed, a culturally-vibrant environment is vital for the nurturing of our young talents, according to both Tan and Loh. And the support of the community is just as essential as that of family and friends to a musician’s growth. To acknowledge and respect those in pursuit of their endeavours without diminishing them. We could thus provide the support structure for young talents within our shores.
With Chloe Chua’s win at the Menuhin Competition, a feat last achieved by a Singaporean when Ning Kam won in 1991, we see a testament to the quality of Singaporean musicians and music teachers. This augurs well for the thriving cultural and music scene in Singapore.
So next time you see young people performing on the street, be gracious and try not to label them as beggars. And if you could find some kindness in your heart, drop a coin or two in their hats and encourage them with some applause. You never know – you could be watching the next Chloe Chua.