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Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music
Publication Date : 09-08-2013
Singaporean Chinese orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat went back to school at 58 to study Chinese music conducting
After a long day of rehearsals, acclaimed Chinese orchestra maestro Tay Teow Kiat behaves just like a regular Joe. He unwinds in front of the goggle-box at home, watching mindless Hollywood action dramas.
"I can't remember the names of the shows, they're not important," says the Singapore conductor in Mandarin, his usually stern and unsmiling mien breaking into laughter when you ask him about his one frivolous indulgence.
"The main thing is there must be a lot of exciting, fast-paced action. I get impatient with slow-moving drama serials."
His escapist hobby is probably the only banal thing about the 66-year-old Cultural Medallion recipient. He has conducted many amateur and professional orchestras and music ensembles here and in China over the last 40 years, received fulsome praise from renowned Chinese music personalities and is regularly flown over to China to judge traditional music competitions, such as those organised by state broadcaster CCTV.
Regarded by some as the founding father of Singapore's Chinese orchestral scene, he built up the first established Chinese orchestra here in 1974 at the Radio Television Singapore, later known as Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC).
In the early 1990s, after SBC privatised, the orchestra became the independent City Chinese Orchestra, a leading 150-member amateur orchestra supported by National Arts Council grants.
Under Tay's baton, it has performed in China, Taiwan and throughout South-east Asia, and recorded two albums. Come August 18, it will present a one-night concert of Minnan (Hokkien) classics and new compositions at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
Since 1980, he has also been at the helm of what many regard as the leading school Chinese orchestra. Prominent students of his at the Dunman High School Chinese Orchestra, who have gone on to become professional musicians, include the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's resident conductor Quek Ling Kiong and its associate principal erhu player Ling Hock Siang, as well as Singapore Symphony Orchestra cellist Song Woon Teng.
Words such as "single-minded" and "uncompromising" pop up when music insiders talk about Tay, who devoted himself to traditional Chinese music while holding down a day job as a Chinese-language teacher for nearly 30 years, first at Siglap Secondary School and then at Dunman High School.
In 2000, the Ministry of Education appointed him music director of a centre for Chinese orchestral music serving the schools in the east zone, a job he held until his retirement in 2009.
An instinctive and self-taught musician who picked up the sanxian, a long- necked plucked string instrument, and at least 10 other traditional Chinese musical instruments in his teens and 20s, he never stopped learning. He attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1980 and 1999, studying first the sanxian under Professor Li Yi and then conducting under Professor Cao Peng.
Even as retirement loomed, at 58, he decided to first do a master's and then a PhD in Chinese music conducting at the Beijing Normal University, spending six years there on a partial scholarship from the ministry.
Ask him why and the father of two and grandfather of four tells you that "the study of music knows no bounds" and "I felt my own study of Chinese music was inadequate".
In a country as vast as China, "the musical styles of different regional groups is something you couldn't finish studying in a lifetime".
He cuts a taciturn figure from a distance but, once he warms to you, is straight-talking and displays flashes of sensitivity and humour.
The interview is held in his simply furnished office - distinguished by several hanging scrolls of Chinese calligraphy and traditional ink paintings, as well as a neat collection of music books - at the Dunman High performing arts centre. Though retired, he is still music director of the school's Chinese orchestra, City Chinese Orchestra and Ding Yi Music Company, a six-year- old professional Chinese music ensemble.
The other reason behind his autumnal pursuit of postgraduate studies "was to redress my regret that I never got my degree", he says.
Prior to that, the highest paper qualification he held was a diploma from the Teachers' Training College, now the National Institute of Education.
"I first went to Beijing Normal University as a visiting fellow. I felt embarrassed that people were treating me like a scholar, so I decided to do formal studies.
"I enrolled in a three-year master's programme, finished it in two years, but still felt unsatisfied. I wanted to take my dissertation on the art of Chinese orchestra conducting to another level. So I did my PhD. But I still don't think the result is very good," he says. He tries to keep his tone light, but there is an unmistakeable air of melancholy.
The strand of regret becomes even more palpable when he reveals his recent brush with mortality. He discovered he had stage three prostate cancer last October.
After 37 sessions of radiotherapy, the cancer is now in remission. He says: "When you're old, it gets like that. That's why I tell people, after you turn 50, you need to go for regular health screening. It wasn't something I thought about."
Two days after the last radiotherapy session, he was back on stage, conducting the Dunman High Chinese orchestra at its 40th anniversary concert in February.
He shows no sign of slowing down, clocking in at the school's performing arts centre every day and on weekends to oversee his three music groups - City Chinese Orchestra and Ding Yi Music Company also rehearse there. The only difference, post-cancer, is that he goes home earlier and no longer crawls into bed at 1am.
Luminaries of the traditional Chinese music scene do not agree with his protestations that he is just "an ordinary man".
One of them is Piao Dongsheng, former president of the China Nationalities Orchestra Society, a major association of musicians. He featured Tay in his 1999 book on the history of traditional Chinese music in China, noting that "within the traditional Chinese music circles in China, few do not know Tay".
Another prominent music critic, Yu Qingxin, upon watching Tay conduct the Dunman High Chinese Orchestra during its 1992 tour of Beijing and Shanghai, penned his praise in China's music journal Renmin Yinyue. Tay's conducting, he wrote, is "rigorous, accurate, robust and lucid, possessing a strong sense of proportion while retaining a degree of unfettered grace".
His students in Singapore see him not just as an exacting and influential conductor but also a caring educator. One of them is the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's general manager Terence Ho, 44. He played the erhu in the Chin Kang Huay Kuan's Chinese orchestra in the late 1970s and 1980s, when it was one of several clan association and community centre orchestras led by Tay.
He recalls the orchestra members once playing a game of "finger wrestling", which the conductor joined in. Ho was pitted against Tay, who, as a sanxian player, had talon-like fingernails as was required to pluck the strings.
By accident, Ho broke one of his nails. "I was so worried, I didn't know how he was going to play the sanxian after that.
He said, 'Not to worry, you broke my fingernail but you did not break my heart'," remembers Ho. Tay, he adds, was "very strict as a conductor" but also saw his students as "seeds to be nurtured".
The 16-year-old state-funded Singapore Chinese Orchestra is the only professional Chinese orchestra here. Tay sits on its education and outreach committee. Back in the early 2000s, he had been tipped to be the orchestra's music director when the position fell vacant, but United States-based Chinese conductor Yeh Tsung was selected instead.
Asked about his current relationship with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Tay lets out an awkward little laugh.
"In terms of personal relations, everyone is friendly. But there have been no professional collaborations. I have been invited to conduct a few times but that was long ago. They invited me once or twice since, but I had no time or interest to accept. That's all. We each do our own thing," he says matter-of-factly.
The second-youngest of five siblings, he grew up in a struggling, working-class family. His father was a lighterman, operating a barge on the Singapore River, selling amenities to the crew of ships. His three older brothers left school early to join the trade, from which they could earn better money than most other labourers. His mother was a housewife.
At 13, he contracted gastric ulcer and took leave from his studies at Chung Cheng High School for half a year. While recuperating, he learnt how to strum on the mandolin from one of his brothers, who enjoyed playing the string instrument of Italian origin.
This exposure to music proved to be a turning point. Back in school, he joined the Chinese orchestra, quickly mastered the daruan and then was tasked to pick up a more difficult plucked string instrument that none of his orchestra mates played, the sanxian.
In the 1960s, books from communist China were restricted here. To learn how to play the instrument, he painstakingly hunted for Chinese music scores. Among other things, he got an uncle in China to mail him scores "and they would take two to three months to reach. Rediffusion sometimes played traditional Chinese music and when I heard a really good piece, I would rush to transcribe it".
In 1968, he completed his A levels and went on to do a teaching diploma. He had a place at the Chinese-medium Nanyang University, but back then, employment prospects for Nantah graduates were bleak. "I considered that my family was poor. If I did my degree at Nantah, it would take three years and there was no guarantee I would get a job. If I studied at Teachers' Training College for two years, I was assured of a job," he explains.
In 1970, he married Tan Wah Chwee, who was his schoolmate at Chung Cheng. Now 66, she is a retired Chinese teacher.
Their older son, Yi-Chung, 40, is the Shanghai-based president and chief operating officer of a digital media company, im2.0 Interactive Group. Their younger son, Yi-Cheah, 37, is an investment analyst with Singapore's GIC.
Tay is obviously proud of his sons. Both were straight-A students, each mastered several musical instruments and were alumni of both the Dunman High and City Chinese orchestras. But he tells you frankly that he cannot claim any credit for their accomplishments.
"My wife brought up both our sons. I was not at home from morning till night. I didn't even know when they had grown up," he says with a chuckle.
Joining the Chinese orchestra helped them understand their father better, says Yi-Cheah. "We got to see more of him after we joined," he says with a laugh. He used to play the piano, cello and liuqin, a Chinese plucked string instrument.
He says of his father: "For most of our lives, he was this serious person. When we were in the orchestras, he showed us no favouritism. If anything, he was a bit tougher on us. When he became a grandparent, I was surprised to see a different side to him. Now I know all grandparents are crazy about their grandkids."
He has a three-year-old daughter and a four- month-old son on whom his father dotes.
Tay says he always made it clear to his sons that "studies come first, Chinese music comes second. This does not mean that Chinese music is not important; it helps you in building character and in identifying with the culture".
He adds that at the end of the day, no performer can move his audience based on technical ability alone, but rather through communicating a sense of culture and lived experience.
"All art comes from life at the end of the day. If you have not lived, how can you produce good art?"