Singapore conductor Adrian Chiang has established an extensive career over the last few years ever since completing his Master of Music (conducting major) degree programme at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (NUS).
Apart from being the resident conductor of The Philharmonic Youth Winds, he also leads various wind ensembles from Singapore Management University; Singapore Polytechnic; Victoria Junior College; Anderson Junior College; Eunoia Junior College; CHIJ (Toa Payoh); Catholic High School; and his alma mater, Maris Stella High School.
Unknowingly to many, it was actually by chance that Adrian became inspired to take up the baton, only after he was given the opportunity to be a student conductor during his secondary school band days.
“In those days, the band was really small and I remembered that we only had five Secondary 3 students. Since I had some form of piano background, I was appointed the student conductor. It was the first time I had the opportunity to stand in front of a group and try ways and means of putting the music together. I found it to be a very rewarding process and got hooked,” Adrian said.
“My classmates (and sometimes teachers) were brutally honest about how the band sounded, especially in reference to the “visiting bands” they always hear from next door at the then Mount Vernon crematorium. The comments eventually got more positive and it became a motivation for me to keep working harder to make the band better. The more i delved into conducting, I realised I could, as a conductor, shape the overall performance of an ensemble. I also really enjoyed collaborating with musicians to create a performance,” he continued.
Despite having some passion in conducting, Adrian has actually never thought about being a conductor as a full time career.
“My parents and many peers always discouraged me due to practical reasons. They often ask if I can really build a stable career out of conducting. When I first dabbled into conducting bands, I did it because I enjoy teaching young people, and sharing with them what I have learned from the many peers and senior conductors that I could get in touch with. There was no such thing as YouTube or Facebook then, and one can only learn so much by playing under different conductors, and adopting their methods.”
Since Adrian’s army and university days, he spent most of his time as a band geek, going for rehearsals every other day with different groups, learning from the many great conductors at work.
“After I graduated from the NUS Business School in 2002, I was actually prepared to stop conducting and go into a normal full time job. I was fortunate however to find a job that allowed me to teach part-time,” he mentioned.
Adrian joined the Orchestra Management department of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in 2007 where he became exposed to watching many amazing orchestra conductors at work. It was then that he became serious about becoming a conductor.
“Deciding on a career switch at age 30 was a scary thought. I must have driven my wife nuts by having frequent long weary discussions of whether I should embark into a full time teaching and conducting career. I’m very thankful she supported and encouraged me to take the dive.”
From his work at SSO, Adrian experienced and learned first-hand how different conductors operate towards a performance.
Skills and knowledge aside, other traits such as how one carries himself, having empathy, good clear communication, having a strong sense of responsibility and accountability, are all extremely crucial for conductors to win over the hearts over their musicians.
“While some conductors may have certain stronger personality traits than others, I have come to realise it is how one manages to weave their naturally and acquired talents together that allows one to become your own unique conductor. When I teach the conducting module at YSTCM, students often ask me what it takes to be a conductor and how they should pursue it. I’ve concluded that while everyone has a different path towards learning the artistry of conducting for whichever medium; the grit and perseverance needed remains the same,” he said.
Of the fantastic career that Adrian has enjoyed so far, he felt that there is no one more memorable moment than the other.
“For every student / musician that I had the opportunity to work with, I treat it as a great opportunity to collaborate and create great musical moments together. In fact, regardless of the size and difficulty of the work, every work that I rehearse with my respective groups creates numerous memories of a journey that we had gone through together. Whenever I revisit a work or a recording that was done some time ago, the images of the musicians’ faces, jokes during rehearsals and tears of difficult times will always come flooding back in an emotional wave.”
“I would say that I also really enjoyed the orchestra management role and making many lifelong musician friends in SSO, and I am glad that I could relive some of those moments now as General Manager of Resound Collective, a young exciting local professional Chamber Orchestra,” Adrian reflected.
Besides conducting orchestras and wind bands, Adrian also ventured into other projects that allowed him to direct other arts alongside the wind band medium.
“When I was in the masters program, I saw it as an opportunity for me to improve as a musician and to be a better teacher for my groups. Becoming an orchestra conductor was definitely not in the books then but during my time there, I was the only conductor. Hence, I had the fortune of being involved in every school project, big or small, that required a conductor. That was also how I had numerous opportunities to work with many types of ensembles.”
Riding on the wave of creating performances for the SG50 celebrations in 2015, Adrian and a team of friends from The Philharmonic Youth Winds put together a western Symphony Orchestra mixed with an assortment of Chinese, Malay and Indian instruments.
Called “Singapore Sounds”, the music for this uniquely Singaporean Orchestra was all commissioned and presented in a way that was not done before.
“With this project, it then sparked off a further interest to explore more of such cross cultural collaborations, leading me to being involved in the set up of a similar Orchestra concept, now known as the Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra.”
As Adrian puts it, the best part of the job is to have the chance to meet various musical talents of different worlds.
“Working with them one-on-one and hearing their stories have always been fascinating for me. Being in Singapore means that we are in an unique position to collaborate with different cultural music talents around; and this is something I hope more will be encouraged.”
Other than conducting, Adrian is also the current president of the Band Directors’ Association Singapore (BDAS).
“Regardless of my position in BDAS, I don’t think we are in any position to say what our band scene lacks. Things can always be better and compared to many other countries, we actually really have it better than many others already. While we must understand the fact that we can’t have it all, it is the association’s commitment to improve the vibrancy of the band scene in Singapore, and to continuously raise the profile of bands in the hearts of Singaporeans. BDAS can also be a great platform to create collaboration opportunities for our 100 over members where sometimes coming together can make certain things work easier, rather than if we were on our own.”
Being a freelance arts educator in Singapore is sometimes a lonely job as they are often left to their own devices to face the challenges in their jobs.
“While the association is not a union, we aim to be the voice of our members when it comes to discussing issues with the respective Ministries as we work for better workfare for all freelance Band Directors,” Adrian asserted.
“We are working tirelessly to churn out programs and upcoming events for the coming year. Do look out for announcements!”