Nationally Speaking: Music Matters

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By Liew Ai Xin (16A01A)

It was in December 2014 when news of a mega-concert for Singapore’s 50th Golden Jubilee made waves in the music community, and shortly afterwards, the application process started in January. Each applicant had to send in a short resume of the musical activities s/he had been doing for the past two years and state the section s/he wanted to join: the 50 Pianists, the band or the orchestra.

My first thought when applying was: How on earth are they going to fit fifty pianos up on stage? A second closely followed the first, which was: How is anything going to sound nice with fifty pianos? The very size and scale of the production made me feel as though they were aiming for 50 as the golden number for everything, never mind if a composition can even sound good with fifty pianists and a soloist. If I had known that they were going to add in an orchestra, a band and Stefanie Sun as well, I would’ve been even more alarmed. But I shouldn’t have worried, because the piece composed by Dr. Kelly Tang did an admirable job in fitting in the mammoth production.

Rehearsals with 50 Pianists and the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra at Tanglin Trust School
Rehearsals with 50 Pianists and the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra at Tanglin Trust School
Photo courtesy of Liew Ai Xin

Have you ever heard an orchestra warm up? The mellow sound of all instruments tuning to the oboe’s “A”? Now imagine that on the scale of fifty pianos, except with less variation of sound, and you have something that sounds like a music school with its practice rooms’ doors all open. Nearly all fifty pianists were eager to practice their études, scales and sonatas, all while trying to out-sound their neighbouring pianists. Looking around at all of the furiously practicing pianists was vaguely amusing, and an unbidden thought popped into my mind: exactly how many of these pianists, especially the children, will eventually continue on with music?

That, together with recent observations and discussions, piqued me into thinking deeper about the state of art in Singapore –– and in particular, classical music, my forte.

It started from observing my fellow performers within Sing50. Amongst the fifty pianists, there was a range of age and professions; eleven children from my music school alone, of which I was the oldest, and a smattering of other children aged six and above. There were a couple of university students, one or two others who looked like they had special dispensation to leave National Service, and a handful of older people who were mostly teachers and/or professionals with a love for music.

The Extended Family of 50 Pianists
The Extended Family of 50 Pianists
Photo courtesy of Liew Ai Xin

All in all, a fair representation of all ages and walks of life. It seemed to send the message that music was being practiced by people young and old, and the amount of child pianists in the ensemble (the youngest being seven) also reassured the audience that the future of music was in good, capable little hands.

But was that an accurate representation of what music is like in Singapore?

I don’t think the answer is yes. Truth be told, despite the amount of money pumped into funding concerts and musical education programs, there seems to be a curious disjoint between what the government wants and what is happening on the ground. We have numerous state-of-the-art buildings for musical events –– the Esplanade, Marina Bay Sands, etc., –– but the music scene seems to be growing at a separate pace from our country’s infrastructure. Across the island, the number of students joining the Music Elective Program (MEP) in secondary schools has been dropping, from about 25 students per batch within my secondary school when it first started, to around 10-13 per batch currently. In over ten years of playing the piano, I have watched my own batch of pianists shrink from around 20 to just 4, with many giving up the serious pursuit of piano after PSLE.

The reason for this is, unfortunately, a self-perpetuating problem. Singaporeans have been inculcated from birth to be practical, efficient and productive units of society. Music defies all these. It does not need factories to be built with a great number of employees to keep it going. It also does not generate immediate returns or a secure source of income. In fact, if you want to put it in economic terms, it is a high-risk, long-term investment. One needs a large, continual sum of money in order to learn any instrument(s), and one needs to spend many years of hard work before becoming good at it. If you study with a recognised music teacher, s/he can ask for about $100 per hour, and if you’re in an established music school (Yamaha, NAFA SYT, etc.), the fee per lesson can be around $160 per hour if you’re aiming for an advanced level.

Doesn’t that sound expensive? Consider another exorbitant expenditure familiar to us: tuition fees, which can cost up to $200 per week. Why then, are we so willing to fork out cash for tuition fees, but balk when we look at the price of purchasing a decent grand piano? The key difference is in how we view these expenses. We “need” tuition, but we don’t need music. Music is often seen as extraneous to us. It is a filler; a nice addition to an impressive resume or CV, but not as something that most people would pursue seriously, or a career choice that has a concrete future. Despite the numerous funds, subsidies and programs, we are not educated to feel that music is an essential, living and breathing part of life. In addition, there is a mistaken belief that one has to be good at music in order to be have their interest in it legitimized. While it is true that being good at it helps if you want to pursue it as a career, many people take it one step further by completely divorcing themselves from classical music when they stop learning whatever instrument they had before. Put them with those people who are completely disinterested in classical music (and feel almost proud for being that way), and you’ll have yourself a large percentage of the Singaporean population.

If I had a dollar –– no, fifty cents –– for every time I’ve heard someone say dismissively, “Classical music and I don’t get along,” or “I just don’t understand classical music. It’s too complicated! Let’s leave it to other people,” I’d be a really rich musician by now; and that’s saying something, because a musical career isn’t one commonly associated with a comfortable salary in Singapore. Jeanette Winterson once said, in her essay Art Objects, that: “Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?”

“Why am I even here? Does anyone know what I truly think?”
“Why am I even here? Does anyone know what I truly think?”

When we say we “cannot understand music”, what we show is not a nod to the creativity of artists. It is actually a display of wilfully lazy ignorance, because we assume that it is the artist’s responsibility to explain to the audience, in black and white terms, what their creation means. It is Beethoven’s responsibility to tell us why he wrote the 5th Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s responsibility to write a book on the exact meaning of the 2nd Piano Concerto and Mozart’s responsibility to explain what on earth possessed him to write Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”).

Unfortunately, most composers are no longer alive to do us such a favour. Thus, in order to prevent ourselves from feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed by our ignorance of the cacophony of sounds and chords being blasted at us, we either half-feign irritation at the foreignism of it all or try to familiarise it by endlessly producing songs about our nation’s food, in order to bring music one step down and, by default, make ourselves feel one level higher. This is what Winterson called the arrogance of the audience, where the audience assumes that they’re entitled to critique the art for not “making sense” or for not being “pleasurable”, or worst, not pay any attention to it at all –– just because they paid for it. I saw a lot of this during the Sing50 Concert, where audience members professed to have come only for Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, or (for the older people) Tracey Huang and Jacintha Abisheganaden. While it is fine and understandable to attend a concert because you are a fan of these stars, they were not the only ones on stage, and it is a telling sign of local attitudes when people were spotted leaving before the concert ended just because what they came for had finished. Although the bad sound system most likely played a part in that, was that the musicians’ fault?

There is an erroneous, subconscious sentiment among some Singaporeans that most musicians are unintelligent lowlifes who have no other career choice, and therefore paying them is optional because –– somehow –– their labour is of a lesser quality. If you do pay them, you are now the one wielding power over said artist, because you paid good money for this seemingly nebulous piece of work. On the contrary, making money and making art should not be mutually exclusive, and Singaporean musicians or artists should not be made to feel grateful for being paid at all. You do need effort and brains to produce good music, as evidenced by the many hardworking musicians I’ve met, who are often well-read in many other areas besides music. Albert Einstein and Condoleezza Rice are noted amateur musicians as well. If lawyers and doctors are guaranteed a starting income for their labour, why are the years of time and money spent by musicians unrecognised?

Being interested in music, and learning to appreciate it, is not difficult. Books on composers can be found anywhere in public libraries, CDs and YouTube videos are easily available, and most schools will subsidise trips for performances at the Esplanade or Marina Bay Sands. In order to build an actual musical culture, we remember that we –– the audience –– have nothing to lose by opening our minds to music. We were not the ones who dedicated our waking moments to composing, editing, thinking of motifs, practicing, and generally investing time, money, soul and thought into said piece of music. Instead of constantly pumping money into underused funds and subsidies, our society should start to proactively teach people how to educate themselves and listen to classical music that has no lyrics and causes pain, discomfort, joy, and longing. Only then will we become a more musically sophisticated nation. Only then will the opportunities for most musicians in Singapore increase beyond teaching jobs, the occasional accompaniment or – once every fifty years – mega-concerts such as these.

Music is a beautiful language without words. It has its own history and culture, and it is one where you don’t need to be born in a certain place or nationality in order to have a distinct advantage. You can learn it anywhere, at any time, as long as you’re able to open your ears and heart to the unknown. If we go on refusing to humble ourselves in the face of art, we will never achieve that “uniquely Singaporean” identity. Our only well-known pieces will be the annual National Day songs written by Dick Lee, and it will be an extraordinarily long time before we produce a local pianist to sit where Lang Lang sat, or to be on par with the likes of Vladimir Horowitz, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, et cetera.

The SING50 concert will be broadcast on Channel 5 on the 22nd of August 2015, at 9PM.

In conjunction with National Day, Raffles Press is launching Nationally Speaking. Posts under this column analyze and comment on affairs and discussions of national significance. Submissions are welcome at To view other posts under this column, click here.

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