Okay, here’s the long winded story of my musical journey. According to my mum, I started singing when I was 1.5 years old. By the time I was about 2 years old, I could already sing and memorize all nursery rhymes and theme songs from drama serials. I would happily sing and play (bang) on the toy piano my parents bought me. Sometimes my family would go over to my neighbour’s place, and their daughter (who is 1 year older than me and could play anything by hearing) would play the piano and I sing along.
I started on my formal music lessons on the violin when I was six. I had requested to learn the violin upon seeing my brother learn it and my mum picking it up to help him. My first violin teacher was one of my mother’s friends. Although I couldn’t remember much of the lessons, I still remember carrying the violin and going for lessons just before my pre-primary class at Yu Neng Primary School, and my mum who sat in during lessons kept telling me to look at the notes and not my fingers, and me ignoring her advice because I just couldn’t read notes. After about a year or so, I had to switch to lessons at a music school because I transferred to Gongshang Primary School for primary 1 and it was not convenient to go to the same teacher’s place for lessons just before school. Soon after the switch, I requested to stop lessons. And I had absolutely no idea why. At first I thought that it was because my brother had stopped lesson, that’s why I followed suit. But later my mum told me that I only started lessons after my brother stopped, so that was not the reason. I guess it might be because I was not used to the new teacher, and furthermore, my mum was not allowed to sit in anymore during the lesson at the music school.
When I was about 9 years old, my mum bought me a keyboard upon seeing that I had immense interest in pianos and keyboards. I still remember my mum bringing me to City Music at Peace Centre to select the keyboard and I eventually selected a 61-key Casio keyboard. By that age, I could already play by hearing and I was happily playing all my favourite tunes after I got the keyboard. Subsequently, my mum enrolled me in group keyboard lessons at a community centre. It was at this class that I learnt how to play chords, but as it was a group class, I was not taught properly how to read notes and also some of the chords. Also, I was not taught how to play both hands, but only chords and melody separately as one person in the class would be asked to play the melody and the rest of the class accompanied with chords. However, not being taught to read notes did not bother me much at this stage because I could already play by hearing and did not need the scores to learn the melody. I also taught myself how to play both hands by combining the melody with the chords. After some time, I became bored with the classes and requested to stop (partly also because I had to carry the keyboard all the way to the community centre and I had no proper carrying case except for the paper box that the keyboard comes with.)
Then, something miraculous happened when I was about 11 years old. One day, I chanced upon some old cassette tapes of Jimmy Chan’s piano playing in my parent’s room and started listening to them. I was mesmerised by his playing and the sound of the piano. I didn’t know that the piano can sound so good. (I guess I had very limited exposure to piano music before and the only times I heard piano sound was my cousin’s playing.) I would listen to the recordings again and again. Eventually, I started begging my parents to let me learn piano. Mum was sceptical and said no at first. Reason was because by then I have already started and stopped halfway many courses and activities – violin, keyboard, ballet, plus four of my school’s CCAs (basketball, badminton, Chinese dance and keyboard ensemble). After all, learning piano is a huge investment and it would be a waste if I had stopped halfway. I persisted and kept begging my parents to let me learn. Surprisingly, my dad, who was the stricter one, allowed me to learn. He thought that learning piano would make me more lady-like and made me promise that I will not stop halfway and learn all the way to grade 8.
I still remember the day that I went to select my piano. My mum had saw an advertisement in the newspapers by Cristofori selling 2nd hand pianos as low as $500 and suggested that we go there and take a look. It was at the Cristofori warehouse at Bedok Industrial park. My mum was actually eyeing for the $500 piano as that was the cheapest one, as she did not want to spend so much on a piano, but my dad was convinced by the salesman to buy a new made-in-china beginner model (Nieer) as it had a buy-back/upgrade scheme and it was more reliable than the $500 2nd hand piano. I was impressed by neither pianos. I only remembered the ones which I really liked the sound were the big, tall (and expensive) ones. Yes, as a beginner I could already hear the difference. But I knew that my parents could not afford that and the Nieer piano was the best my parents could afford. My dad even had to trade-in his new car for a 2nd hand one to afford a piano for me.
I started on my first lessons a few weeks before my piano arrived. My mum enrolled me in Manning music school and I chose a weekly 30-min lesson so that my parents do not have to spend so much on lessons. My first teacher was a Chinese lady who have been brought up by a Malay family. Although she was very systematic and strict in her teaching, my most vivid memory of lessons with her was her using the mechanical pencil (made of metal) to hit my fingers because I played wrong notes. And there was another time whereby I practiced so hard so that I could play both hands with alberti bass in left-hand, only for her to say ‘lazy fingers’ after she heard me play (and I had no idea what ‘lazy fingers’ meant until much later on). I told myself I will never do that to my students if I ever became a teacher next time. This teacher lasted for half a year before she quit the music school. The music school then assigned me another teacher (and this was the only one that I couldn’t remember the name). All I could remember about this teacher was that she became very frustrated ‘teaching’ me scales and arpeggios and could not understand why I could not learn. And in the meantime, already I was teaching myself how to play ‘Fur Elise’ from the book that my cousin gave me.
Around the time when I was 12, my mum decided to switch to a private teacher. The new teacher was recommended by one of her friends. She was a Malaysian PR who also started learning piano late in her teens and had been a Yamaha teacher previously. This was the teacher whom I had the most chemistry with. She was able to recognise my ability and my learning accelerated under her teaching. I enjoyed her lesson very much and she enjoyed teaching me too and treated me like her own daughter. I was around grade 1-2 when I started learning with her. She accelerated me to grade 3 (due to grade 2 book out of stock), taught me the pieces that I’ve been dying to learn (full version of Fur-Elise, Ballad Pour Adeline) and introduced me to a variety of interesting and nice pieces which are more difficult than my level but are so nice that it motivated me to practice even more. Under her tutelage, I took my first piano exam (grade 3). Although I did not do very well for my first exam, I had a breakthrough in my playing and learning under this teacher. Unfortunately, my mum terminated lessons with this teacher not long after my grade 3 exam due to rumours heard from her friend. I had initially thought that she wanted to terminate because of the increase in fees, but she was just using that as an excuse to terminate lessons. And by the time (more than a decade later) I know about the actual reason to clarify with her that the rumours are not true, it was already too late.
The next decision that my mum made after my third teacher was probably the worst decision she had ever made for my piano learning – to go back to a music school for lessons. Until now I still think that I have wasted an entire year at that music school and regret not requesting to stop lessons there after a few months. The new teacher was a Chinese PR who grew up in Singapore. I still remembered that all she did was to put the score in front of me and just asked me to play, and she insisted that I sight-read my lesson pieces (and exam pieces) both hands and did not allow me to go through it hands separately. Occasionally, she will sing or clap along as I play (if I did not end up with playing rubbish because I’m sight reading), and sometimes she would just sit back and fall asleep (I was the last student of the day). I did not remember her teaching me much pieces, because would I bring home to learn by myself all the pieces that I was assigned to (mostly exam pieces) so that I would not end up playing rubbish when I was asked to ‘sight read’ my pieces. There was even one piece that was already taught by my previous teacher that she supposedly ‘taught’ me again for an entire year as she wanted me to take part in the school concert with that piece. My mum eventually terminated lessons with the music school. She had gone to pick me up at the music school a few times after my class, saw the teacher, and thought she was too young. She had actually even considered stopping my piano lessons altogether, as she thought I could already play and do not need lessons (by that time, I was already 14 and could learn a number of pieces by myself, play by hearing and improvise). But I said no, I wanted to continue learning, and so she went on to make the best decision she had ever made for my piano learning.
Okay, to side-track a bit, by now, you would have realised that my mum (or rather her decision on where I have my piano lessons) had quite an impact on my musical learning journey. And that was about all the parental involvement I had for my own piano learning. Partly because I had started late and was rather independent in my learning, my mum did not help me in any aspect of my piano learning except to change my teacher. The only other thing that my mum (and my brother also) did that had an impact on my piano learning was to complain about my practice. The one thing that they always liked to say every time I open my piano lid to practice was ‘嘈死人!’ (translation: ‘the noise is killing me!’) This might also be the reason why she had asked me to stop lessons altogether when I was 14. She never liked the sound of the piano. I even remembered that there were occasions where she accompanied me to try out the piano at the exam studio or to a piano recital, and she got so bored that she went out for a walk halfway through. And I never received any praise or recognition for any of my accomplishments in piano from her. She always compared my piano grades to her friend’s children who (used to be) higher than mine. She even compared me to Lang Lang (who happens to be the same age as me). My dad was no better. Although he did buy a piano for me and to paid for most my piano lessons, and rarely complained about my practice, (though he was rarely at home to ‘suffer’ from the ‘noise pollution’), he never attended any of the recitals that I performed in. Occasionally, he’ll ask me what grade I’m at during Chinese New Year Reunion dinners. Fortunately, I managed to persist despite the negative parental involvement. I even did better despite this (stubborn-me would sometimes practice even more every time they complained). This is why I always emphasized on parental involvement when I started teaching. One good thing about my parent’s non-involvement though, is that they never pushed me for any exams. I am the one who decide whether or not to take a particular grade and I set my own goals with my teacher.
My fifth piano teacher was the best teacher (in terms of teaching ability) that I’ve had from grade 1 to 8. He was the one that lasted the longest too, from grade 5 to 8 (all previous teachers only lasted at most a year). My mum, who used to be a nafa fine-arts alumni, had actually initially contacted Fang Yuan (principal of NAFA School of Young Talents) and asked her to teach me, but she was too busy teaching NAFA young talents and diploma students, so she recommended this teacher for me. My new teacher – Mr Law – was a Chinese national who had just started to establish himself here 1 year before I started learning from him. He was originally from Shanghai and was teaching in Hong Kong before he came to Singapore. From the first lesson with this teacher, I knew that this is a good teacher. He could identify all my strengths and weaknesses in my playing and was able to help me overcome them. I started to get merits and distinctions in my exams after learning from him. I still remember that during lessons sometimes he’ll mention that he was going to adjudicate for this or that piano competition, or working on some important composition. Whenever exam results are released, he’ll always mention how many of his students got merits and distinctions. There was even a time whereby the Hong Kong TV station came to interview him just before my lesson. Even so, his rates remained incredibly affordable, and every time there was a fee increase after I passed an exam, he would state that he was just following the NAFA school fees.
Unfortunately, my piano learning journey was always not a bed of roses, even after I’ve found a very good teacher. As I started late at 11 years old, I could not finish all my grades before my important exams (‘O’ and ‘A’ levels). By the time I was in JC 1, I was still at grade 7. The grade 7 pieces are significantly more difficult than the grade 5-6 pieces. More time was required for practice at this grade. But at this age, most of my time was either spent in school or studying my A level subjects. Furthermore, I was increasingly getting frustrated with practicing grade 7 pieces on a beginner’s model piano. I had actually been begging my parents to upgrade my piano to an exam model since grade 2-3, before the deadline of my piano’s buy-back guarantee, but my parents do not see the need to do this. They think that having a piano to practice is good enough. I could not play with good dynamic control because the piano’s (limited) action does not allow that. I could not play with even tone as the keys were uneven, and I could not play up to speed (or would get very tired doing that) as the piano had very stiff (elephant) keys. I was so desperate for a better piano that I begged my parents not to bring the family for any overseas trip but to use the money to get me a good piano, and as expected, without success. There was a period of time where I was so stressed with my school work and also so frustrated with my piano that I did not touch the piano at all. My teacher had no choice but to ask me to stop lessons.
By the time I got to resume my lessons, I was already in year 1 of university. It was during the summer break after my freshman year and I wanted to finish my grade 8 before the next academic year starts. As I did not take exams for the previous 2 grades and had stopped for quite a while, I realised that there is a lot for me to catch up on, especially for scales, sight-reading, and aural. By this age, I had enough funds to get a better piano (although my mum offered to sponsor half of it) and I used up all my savings to buy myself a second hand Weinberg piano. Also by this age, I was expected to self-fund all my piano lessons. So, I took up a 9 to 5 temporary job, made myself practice for 4 hours on weekdays everyday as soon as I got home from work and the whole day on weekends, and had lessons just a few months before the exam. To save on lessons, I had actually learnt the exam pieces by myself (by listening to CD and figuring out the notes bar by bar) before resuming lessons (Though I would not recommend any student to do this unless you have exceptionally good aural skills and rhythmic perception).
I passed my grade 8 with merit. Because of the 3-year break in lessons and all the hard work that I had to put in to go up to the grade 8 standard, it felt like the most difficult exam I’ve ever took at that time. And then I found out that to go professional in music, grade 8 is just the beginning. I eventually went on to pursue grade 8 theory and diploma in piano during my undergrad years, and decided to be a full-time piano teacher after graduation. (I was already teaching part-time after my grade 8).
So, that’s all for my musical journey from grade 1 to 8. To sum it up, I took 10 years altogether with a 3 year break in between and passed grade 8 at 21 years old, and I had a total of 5 different teachers. Sometimes, I really envy some of my friends who can learn from the same teacher all the way from beginner to grade 8, but I guess both the good and bad experiences that I have with the different teachers have shaped me to become the teacher that I am now; I had always aspired to be like Mr Law (who have since moved on to teach professionals only)and to have accomplishments like him, and at the same time I always tell myself not to repeat the mistakes of the other teachers.
There is another happy ‘ending’ to my story too. I’m now blissfully married to someone who is extremely supportive of what I’m doing, who enjoys hearing me play the piano and gives me constructive comments on my playing, and who is always proud of my accomplishments in music!