Leonard Tan, is currently in the States pursuing a Doctor of Music Education Degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music under an NIE-NTU Overseas Graduate Scholarship. He has acclaimed artistic accolades such as the National Arts Council Geogerette Chen Arts Scholarship, Lee Foundation Scholarship, and the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) Conducting Scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota, USA, just to name a few.

(This interview was conducted in July 2010)

What were the challenges or difficulties you faced when moving on to the new different environment?

The greatest difficulty was not in the new environment, but in not working with my previous ensembles anymore. I greatly miss conducting all my school bands, the Singapore National Youth Sinfonia, and the Philharmonic Winds.

I conducted and taught virtually everyday of my life (including Sundays!) for 10 years, and really felt the withdrawal symptoms! I really consider myself fortunate that despite the occasional stress, I greatly enjoyed my work in Singapore.

Everyday I woke up, I’ll be thinking what I’m going to rehearse, what I want to program for my next concert, etc. So, it was really quite hard at first to make that switch. Thankfully, my wife and kids are there and supported me throughout the transition period.

That aside, the weather is of course completely different. I first arrived to the USA in the midst of winter: from 30 degrees Celsius to sub zero temperatures, it was really quite a big change!

Eating out is very expensive, unlike Singapore! No more char kway teows and roti pratas anytime I want! These aside, Americans are generally very friendly people and welcome diversity. It’s really not hard to make new friends, especially when there’re common musical topics to talk about.

Furthermore, the music is the same wherever you go: we hear the same Bach, Beethoven, and Holst whether we are in Singapore or USA. Thus, I would say that ultimately, music makes me feel at home no matter where I go. It is truly an international language.

Can you describe what’s a day curriculum like at the school?

The lessons themselves are not very long, but there’s a lot of personal work expected. I think there’s a lot of emphasis on independent learning at this level.

What’s the most enjoyable learning experience you have had in your study period there?

This is a difficult question! There’s something to gain from every course that I take, and every workshop / concert / rehearsal I attend! There’s so music going on in the Jacobs School of Music, and I am benefitting from the wide range of expertise available.

If I really had to choose something, I guess it would be observing the orchestral conductors work with the Indiana University Philharmonic / Festival Orchestras. It was very wonderful watching how conductors like Leonard Slatkin, Mario Venzago, David Effron, and Arthur Fagen mold and shape the orchestras, both verbally and gesturally. I also enjoy regularly watching my teacher Prof Stephen Pratt rehearse the Indiana University Wind Ensemble.

Of all my music education classes, I enjoy philosophy the most. Oh yes, conducting the Indiana University Summer Band during last year’s Summer Music Festival was a very enriching experience for me as well.

For any prospective young musician who wants to take their profound love in music to higher grounds, would you recommend them to study music overseas?

It’s a hard question, and will take a long time to fully answer. We need to consider several factors. What degree are we looking at? Performance? Education? Conducting? Theory? Undergraduate? Graduate? Which country? All these need to be considered, so I would say it is very much on a case-to-case basis.

One can argue that the overseas exposure is good, but our local institutions are doing very good work too. It is also not possible to generalize and say where you would learn more. Besides, overseas institutions vary in standards too.

Finally, I must emphasize that learning is ultimately the responsibility of the individual. No matter where you study, much depends on how much you soak things in.

What are your recommended paths for aspiring conductors?

First of all, I think we need to have a strong conviction that music is what we want to do.

Music can be leisure, but to pursue it professionally, it takes a lot of time, effort, determination, and tenacity. If the conviction is not strong in the first place, we can get really discouraged and plunge into despair when things don’t go the way we would like it to. That conviction burning within you is what will keep you going through the darkest of times.

Secondly, it is important to have a thorough knowledge in all aspects of music: harmony, history, counterpoint, orchestration, analysis, aural, sight-singing, performance and conducting techniques. Don’t take shortcuts! If we want to teach school bands, we should also have a good idea of how the various instruments in the band work as well as techniques to build strong ensemble fundamentals.

Thirdly, we need to have the drive to keep learning. We need to have as rich a well of knowledge as possible, so that it never dries up. We must always have something “extra” that we can give our ensembles. I don’t mean that band rehearsals should become theory or history classes, but how we understand music will greatly influence the way we teach and perform it. Students will soak up whatever you teach them! Make opportunities to learn from as many sources as possible.

Next, I must talk about William Revelli’s quote, “Don’t forget what you know.” If you learned something in a class or a workshop, don’t forget it! And the only way not to forget is to write it down, use it, and keep going back to it until it becomes a part of you.

Finally, it is important to have models. I don’t mean to blindly imitate, but to study from the best musicians and teachers and learn something from everyone. Do not be afraid to ask for help! In Singapore, there are several veteran directors who have been doing excellent work. As a relatively young conductor, I was really fortunate to benefit from their advice. So, to all the veterans and experienced directors who have helped me, thank you so much!

If you could describe music in general in a few words, a sentence or a phrase. What would it be?

Many people have tried to, but the one I am most convinced by, is that “If music can be described in words, we wouldn’t need it.” I like music analysis very much, and enjoy reading how theorists have tried to explain music in words.

While that can enhance our understanding of music, that by itself is NOT music. I am truly convinced that humans are wired to love music, no matter which culture, no matter which people.


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.