A Loke Cheng-Kim Foundation scholar, Tan Yao Cong is currently a third year music student of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he is studying under the tutelage of Mr. Patrick Harrild, principal tuba of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Yao Cong first took up the tuba during his secondary school years where he studied under the music direction of Mr Desmond Ng. With the Dunman High School Symphonic Band, Temasek Junior College Symphonic Band and Sembawang Wind Orchestra, Yao Cong has performed concertos ranging from Wilson Suite by Robert W. Smith to the Tuba Concertos by Alexander Arutiunian, Edward Gregson and Vaughan Williams. He has achieved several accolades since, representing Singapore in the International Tuba-Euphonium Conference in Budapest 2004 and as Principal Tuba in the WASBE International Youth Wind Orchestra in 2005 where he performed with The Boston Brass and under the baton of renowned band conductors such as Mr Felix Hauswirth and Mr Yasuhide Ito. He has also participated in a tour across East Asia with the Asian Youth Orchestra in 2008.

To date, Yao Cong has been actively involved in community performances, both in London and Singapore. Previously Concert Master of the Sembawang Wind Orchestra and a representative of the Youth Executive Council, Yao Cong has organised several music platforms and performances with the aim of bringing music to the public, with the most recent being his inaugural brass quintet/dectet concert ‘Brassanova’ in August this year. Back in London, his brass quintet has been invited to perform at various events such as the City of London Festival and a series of Chamber Tots workshops. Together with Paul Archibald (Trumpet) and Stephen King (Organ), they have recently released their first CD recording with Toccata Classics titled ‘John Gardner – Music for Brass and Organ’.

Yao Cong currently plays a Meinl Weston 45S-LP F Tuba with a Perantucci PT-65 mouthpiece, and a Hirsbrunner CC tuba with a Monette 99 mouthpiece.

(The interview was conducted in November 2010)

Firstly, what first got you into music, and then specifically the tuba?

I was very lucky that my parents introduced me to music at quite a young age; I attended piano lessons at Yamaha and remember liking the music but definitely not all the practice!

I picked up the tuba when I joined the band in Dunman High School. It was pure coincidence because I was the tallest guy and the conductor decided then that I should play it.

What was your first impression of the tuba when you began learning it?

Haha to be honest, I didn’t quite like it at first! I even picked up the flute instead of the tuba for my second instrument exam in the Music Elective Program. Thankfully I wasn’t fantastic at the flute and stopped playing it after the third year, switching to the tuba for the subsequent exam and later on, playing the tuba as my first instrument in JC years.

Actually, I think the person who really helped me take the tuba seriously has got to be Mr Desmond Ng; he opened several doors of opportunities for me and for that, I am really grateful.

What made consider pursuing your degree abroad?

I met Mr Patrick Harrild in 2004 when I stopped over in London on my way back from a competition in Budapest. I had two lessons with him and he inspired me so much, I decided then that I would work towards pursuing music in London. And although Singapore will always be home, I’m really glad to be in London. The music culture and environment here is just great and being abroad has also forced me to step out of my comfort zone and really focus on music.

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

I think the hardest thing for me is leaving everything in Singapore–my friends/family plus the FOOD! It’s about getting used to a different lifestyle and culture, but the people I know in London have all been really nice which makes it way easier. That said, it’s still always difficult every time I leave Singapore to come back here, it takes about half a week to get re-adjusted each time.

Can you describe your weekly schedule at the school?

There are a few standard lessons: I have my principal study tuba lesson, chamber music rehearsals, tutorial, and elective sessions. But my weekly schedule can change from week to week because timings get shifted around and it also depends on projects (e.g. operas, orchestras or brass band performances) I am involved in during each period.

What I have noticed so far is that I have relatively free periods with nothing to do, and then times when I can be in school the entire day that it would be considered extremely lucky to not be double-booked for two or three classes at one go. You can say it gets hectic but funnily enough, I actually quite like it because life certainly never gets dull!

What is your current practice routine? Are there any pieces that you are currently working on?

I think like everyone else, I start with a warm up which I vary accordingly depending on what I’m practicing. Still, there are a few exercises that I use all the time, essentially variations on scales and arpeggios. Also as a general rule, I add in a few exercises that are contrasting to the main piece I’m practising. I like to do this because I do get bored playing the same things all the time.

On average, I do about 2-3 hours practice each day, with a self-allocated break on Saturdays. Perhaps I’m just lazy but I actually find that if I practise for longer than three hours, the time spent is not as effective. Recently I have also been trying to do more ‘practice’ away from the tuba, for example by studying the scores and doing ‘mental practice’. I actually find that a lot of problems seem to be more easily spotted and managed when away from the tuba.

As for pieces I’m currently working on: Leonard Salzedo’s Sonata, Eric Ewazen’s Concerto and a solo piece Midnight Realities by Morgan Powell.

What’s on your ipod? What music or CDs do you listen to? Are there anyone in particular?

However hard to believe, I don’t–and have never–owned an ipod. I’m not the kind of person who listens to music on the go especially if it’s classical music. Neither do I have any preference in popular music although I do listen to the radio or songs recommended by friends from time to time. For the genre of classical music, my favourite works are those of the Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev). I also really enjoy vocal or string music (my favourite instrument is the cello).

In your opinion, what is the significance of the tuba in an orchestra / wind band? Is it just another low bass-line instrument that plays the “ompha-ompha” notes?

I think the best way to find out what role we play in any piece is to look at the score as it does somewhat varies. To me, the tuba is a low bass-line brass instrument and our main function is to play low notes. Generally, we play a ‘support’ role in the orchestra/band, with the occasional solo or prominent part and I rather enjoy it being this way. But having said that, I still believe we should always aim to play lyrically and with intention; I believe the part is only as dull as we make it to be.

The significance of the tuba’s role should never be understated because we definitely play an important part in music making. Tuba music can look deceivingly easy but in fact, it can be more difficult to play our parts musically as compared to the melody. I think to achieve that, we really have to know the music very well as our parts are always not as apparent as the melody.

Many musicians are indecisive on the idea of continuing music as they fear it provides a poor career prospect. Do you have any comments?

I can understand their fear because being a musician is definitely not something mainstream, especially in the Singapore context. Studying music certainly doesn’t guarantee job offers upon graduation, much unlike other more common courses. Also, the music field is definitely very competitive and before I succeed, I don’t think I’m in much position to comment. But I think beyond loving what you do for a living, one of the other benefits about being a musician is that you ironically have more control in your life.

For anyone looking to enter this field, I’d say that you would need loads of hard work and sacrifice, after which you hope you get lucky! But if you’re hoping that going into music will make you financially rich, then perhaps music isn’t the right choice. After all, unlike other jobs, being a musician is never just about the money.

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?

I would only recommend someone to study overseas if he/she can sort out the funding or are lucky enough to be able to afford it. It’s definitely a tremendous experience to study abroad, but it will only be good if you actually benefit from the program and enjoy the activities offered in the city. It really does cost a lot to study overseas, and I know of people who work so hard just to make ends meet that they don’t have time to participate in any school events or go to any concerts–which is a pity because I think all these things make overseas experiences much more valuable.

Apart from doing music, what other activities do you enjoy?

Like almost anyone else, I enjoy watching movies, reading and travelling. Also, being Singaporean, I love food!

What will you be doing after your degree?

I hope to be able to play in an orchestra, and maybe do some teaching as well. But I’m still keeping my options open for now.


Written By Editor

A contributing editor at TBP.