Tan Yun Qu is a Singaporean saxophonist and a recent graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA)/Royal College of Music (RCM) Bachelor of Music (Honours) Programme.
As a soloist, Yun Qu has clinched awards at numerous competitions locally and internationally such as the King’s Peak International Competition 2020 (1st Prize), Sugree Charoensook International Music Competition 2021 (1st Prize) and the NAFA Concerto Competition 2022 (Grand Prize Winner). She has also performed as a chamber musician with the Protégé Saxophone Ensemble and New Meta Saxophone Quartet at concerts held in Singapore, China and Malaysia. Since 2019, Yun Qu has been an administrative assistant at the Asia Pacific Saxophone Academy in Bangkok where she is part of the international camp’s organising committee.
Having a strong interest in promoting new music, Yun Qu has also premiered works by local composers such as Gu Wei and Dorcas Koshy, she is also currently co-leading a Global Saxophone Consortium with the New Meta Saxophone Quartet, for a work by one of Singapore’s most accoladed composers, Dr. Zechariah Goh.
As an aspiring music educator, Yun Qu has been avidly gaining teaching experience through her employment as a saxophone teacher by Flute and Music Academy (FAMA) and Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) Schools where she teaches students in private and group band settings respectively.
In recognition of her high standard of music and holistic achievements in NAFA, Yun Qu was the recipient of the 2019/2020 Tan Chay Bing Scholarship award, the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 OCBC Local Undergraduate Scholarship, the Best Graduate Award 2022 for Bachelor of Music (Honours) and the Embassy of Peru Award.
Moving onwards, Yun Qu will be pursuing a Master of Music at the Northwestern Bienen School of Music in Chicago while also serving as a graduate assistant during her studies. In tandem with further honing her skills as a saxophonist, she plans to further sharpen her research skills especially in the field of ethnomusicology and aims to be a diverse musician and artist.
How did you get involved in music, and in particular the saxophone?
My parents have always been music lovers, not being musicians themselves, they named me 韻曲 – a name associated with song, melody and rhyme – perhaps hoping that this would impart me with some musicality. They were also extremely eager to send me for piano lessons after I showed interest at a keyboard course during kindergarten. I spent the next few years from primary to secondary school taking ABRSM piano exams and being one of those students hammering away on the school canteen piano playing Joe Hisaishi and Yiruma transcriptions.
My introduction to saxophone was through my secondary school band. Due to a friendly senior, I attended the band trials and was placed in the saxophone section, that was also the first time I had seen a saxophone and heard it in real life. It’s strange that although I started saxophone later than piano, I felt much more confident playing the wind instrument and through it, started enjoying and performing in front of others, slowly overcoming my stage fright and gaining confidence.
At what point in life did you decide that you would pick a performing career in the saxophone and pursue your music studies?
After JC, I was caught in a dilemma to choose between studying history in NUS or pursuing music at a music institute. It was a tough few months constantly thinking over which choice should I make. For me, the fear of choosing music was that it was seemingly riskier and less stable in terms of job security. There was also a perception within myself that I would be looked down on for choosing music, which until now is still something I am trying to understand. Ultimately, I chose music because I felt that that was the choice which was more honest to what I wanted for myself. I also had an inkling that compared to anything else, music was the only path that I would give my all.
Who or what inspired you throughout your music journey?
There are so many artists that have inspired me throughout my music journey, amongst them, I think my saxophone studio peers at NAFA have had the most direct influence on me especially in forcing me to challenge the way I think about practicing and performing. Apart from music, I am also greatly inspired by dance and literature, often, I find that engaging with different types of art can help me to think about the music I am playing differently.
How was your music experience in NAFA? In what ways have you grown as a musician or individual?
For me, NAFA was the first place that I was able to meet with and work with people who shared the same passion for the arts. This environment was integral in helping me to see that what we are doing is important and to take pride in the music I perform and the projects I embark on. The wide range of administrative and leadership roles that I was given the opportunity to work in also helped me in being more assertive and forward thinking.
Being in NAFA also allowed me to glimpse into the wider international arts scene especially through overseas performance trips organised by our saxophone studio and the study exchange to Royal College of Music in London, these experiences were important in motivating my intentions to study overseas and to explore different art scenes.
You were offered a place at Northwestern University Bienen School of Music to further your education. Is this a dream come true? What are your thoughts about this opportunity?
I definitely feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to pursue my Master of Music at Northwestern. Upon entering NAFA, I did not plan to study for a Masters after graduating and it is only through the guidance of my saxophone professor, Dr. Leslie Wong, that I am now able to do so. For me, studying at Northwestern gives me a chance to learn from the stellar faculty and also immerse in a completely new environment and arts milieu. I am excited for this experience to challenge the way I think about music and for the new opportunities that I can seek towards growing my music career.
Could you share with us what are some of your daily or weekly practice routines?
My practice always starts with long tones which will incorporate crescendos and decrescendos. After which I will practice scales in several different patterns, usually playing them in thirds, fourths and fifths. At NAFA, our studio conducts a weekly technique class which focuses on embouchure control, finger technique and voicing. This strong emphasis on fundamentals have greatly influenced my practice routine which is why I often find myself spending more time practicing my fundamentals than on repertoire.
What are some repertoire that you enjoy performing? Are there any music or composers that you would recommend to budding saxophone players?
One of the most memorable pieces that I have performed is the ‘Cyberbird Concerto’ by Takashi Yoshimatsu. I especially love the second movement and how Yoshimatsu’s composition for the piano, percussion and alto saxophone creates this beautiful atmospheric setting which is such a contrast from the jazz influenced and exciting first and third movement. I also enjoy performing in a saxophone quartet and encourage anyone learning the saxophone to play in any form of chamber ensemble which can most often be the best way to improve musical sensitivity and ensemble skills.
For budding saxophone players, I would recommend to try to be open minded and to listen to as many different kinds of music as possible to explore the saxophone’s versatility in tone quality and genre.
Do you have anyone to thank for your music journey till today? Any words for your friends and families before you fly?
I have my family to thank for making my music journey possible. They have always been extremely supportive and were the ones who brought me to my first piano lesson and bought me my first saxophone when I was 18. No doubt there were reservations when I told them I wanted to study music full time as they did not understand what that would entail, but ultimately I appreciate their trust and their efforts in trying to understand my passion for music. The NAFA saxophone studio as well as my saxophone professor have also created such a nurturing environment for me to learn and grow these past few years and I am grateful to them for all they have taught me as well as all the fun times and fond memories we share.
What are some of your future plans or projects?
Branching off from my ethnomusicological studies in NAFA, I am interested in developing my research on the cultural context of Singapore and how it has affected local musicians. I am fortunate to be included in a team of researchers to create a panel on the impact of sound and language on identity formation in Singapore. We are currently awaiting our results from our application to present at the Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting next March in Boston.
The saxophone quartet I am part of – New Meta Quartet – also plans to organize a concert tour next June during our holidays, it will be a challenge to continue our planning when half of our members will not be in Singapore but we have recently started exploring the use of social media to promote a greater interest in classical saxophone as well as to showcase our past performances and achievements.