One of the most highly sought-after percussionists in Singapore due to his flexibility in Western and Chinese music literature, Cheong Kah Yiong has performed with many of Singapore’s most important ensembles including the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, Ding Yi Music Company and The Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2017, he was chosen from over 1000 musicians across Asia to take part in the Asian Youth Orchestra 2017 World Tour, touring across America, Europe and Asia, performing in festivals like the Lucerne Music Festival and the Ravello Music Festival. Throughout the tour, he worked with amazing artists such as Mathiass Bamert, James Judd, Sarah Chang and Vadim Repin. In 2020, Kah Yiong won a position in the Pacific Region International Summer Academy (PRISMA). Most recently, he recorded Chinese percussion for Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan.
Kah Yiong enlisted into the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band as a Military Musician in the year 2017. He performed with the band both locally and internationally which includes the Japan Self-Defence Force Marching Festival (2018) and Nanchang International Military Tattoo (2019). Other notable performances include In Harmony 34th and 35th (Acting Principal Timpanist) and Chamber Repertory XVI (soloist) performing Triptych Boom by Chad Floyd, accompanied by the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band Percussion Ensemble. He also can be seen at National State Events such as The National Day Parade, the Singapore Armed Forces Day Parade and Various Welcome Ceremonies for foreign dignitaries throughout his years of service.
An advocate of chamber music, Kah Yiong is part of various local chamber ensembles such as Morse Percussion (Contemporary Percussion Ensemble), Dicapella (Chinese Flute Ensemble) and Reverberance (Chinese Wind Instrumental Ensemble). In addition, he frequently collaborates with theatre and dance companies such as Intercultural Theatre and The Arts Fission Company as solo percussion, most recently touring with the latter to Melbourne, Australia, presenting music and dance in an eclectic programme curated by Dr Joyce Koh and Victoria Chou.
Kah Yiong is a graduate of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Singapore. He studied with Mark Suter, Christian Schioler, Ted Atkaz and Rob Knopper. He is currently pursuing his undergraduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music (New York), studying with Christopher Lamb, Duncan Patton, She-e Wu and Kyle Zerna.
How did you begin your journey in music-making?
It has been quite a while! I started playing percussion in my primary school’s Chinese Orchestra when I was 8. I remember my mum dragging me to the CCA fair where she saw the Yang Qin, a Chinese Dulcimer played using bamboo sticks, and really liked it. I had some kind of background in piano, so the teacher there suggested that I pick that instrument. However, after a few sessions, the percussion section was lacking in players. Since the techniques used in playing the Yang Qin and Percussion instruments are almost similar, I was transferred to the percussion section to help out. And the rest is history! I went on to join the Chinese Orchestra in my secondary school and for a year in junior college before entering NAFA to study percussion professionally, majoring mainly in Western percussion.
Was it always your dream to be a professional musician? If not, at which point did you decide to pursue music studies and become a professional percussionist?
Honestly, no. Interestingly, I recently mentioned to one of my friends that my childhood dream was to become really rich and get my future son a chauffeur to drive him everywhere.
I was in junior college when I decided to pursue music, as I did really badly for my studies in the first year of college and had to retain for a year. I didn’t want to do that as I was never good in academics to begin with. So, I took a leap of faith, sought out a good teacher to study with, auditioned for NAFA and plunged myself into this realm of music. Looking back, I am really happy to have made that decision which led to a turning point in my life.
There are so many aspects of percussion playing, not to mention the variety of instruments within the percussion family. Yet, you are a versatile performer with extensive knowledge of both Western and Chinese music literature. How did your foray into becoming such a multifaceted percussionist start?
I wouldn’t say that I am a multifaceted percussionist nor well versed in all kinds of percussion – it is just something you write in your bio to make yourself look good. However, I would say that I am really fortunate to have started out in Chinese orchestra, which taught me enough Chinese percussion literature to be able to convey intended ideas when I am playing in a Chinese ensemble setting.
Studying in NAFA also allowed me to experience how wide percussion playing is. I learnt that it does not consist only of playing the snare drum, xylophone and marimba, as we were taught Latin percussion, drum set and even Indian drumming. As percussionists, we always have to be open minded and learn as much as we can to make ourselves marketable. If there is a gig which requires you to play congas and you can’t do it because you are so stuck in playing your Keiko Abe marimba solos, you are going to lose out (and honestly, you will definitely get more gigs playing congas, bongos or even drum set rather than a marimba solo). So, practice your Latin Percussion!
You started your career as a Military Musician in the SAF in 2017. How did your career with the SAF band and your experiences studying and performing music prepare you for your studies?
I would say being in the band has shaped me as a person character wise, as working in a military organisation is not for everyone. It has allowed me to grow professionally as a musician and also gave me the taste of how a career as a musician is like. It has taught me life lessons, such as how to be professional when working with people that you might not have the best relationships with.
NAFA is definitely a great place for any aspiring musician to be in, especially the Percussion faculty. Mark is a really great teacher who is attentive to students’ needs and concerned about students’ learning processes and well-being.
These experiences have definitely equipped me with a better mindset to cope with my studies here in MSM, as the school activities can be quite challenging. You are expected to perform almost every week, be it in an ensemble setting or solo for performance classes. The expectations are very high. I am forever grateful to these two organisations for helping me in my journey of music making.
In 2022, some of the most significant performances you were part of include Morse Percussion’s Playful Textures at the ArtScience Museum, as well as Ding Yi Music Company’s Percussive Rhythms at Stamford Arts Centre. How did you come to join these two groups?
Luck favours the prepared mind, so I would say that both luck and being prepared were key factors when these opportunities arose. Being in the right place at the right time also definitely helped.
Morse Percussion was co-founded by Derek Koh and Joachim Lim. As Derek’s very good buddy, of course I had to be part of the group! It was totally not based on my percussion playing skills 🙂 Jokes aside, I would say that in intimate ensembles like Morse Percussion, while the baseline is excellent playing skills, being able to create good vibes is a huge plus point. You have to make people feel comfortable working with you, otherwise you will never be called ever again.
As for Ding Yi, I got the chance to audition for the role of contract musician as they were looking for an extra, so I went for it. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to be part of the ensemble. I recently just left them to pursue my studies, so that means that there is an opening now – do grab the opportunity!
How was it like recording Chinese percussion for Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan?
It was pretty surreal I would say. I vividly remember the first day at the recording studio. Our conductor told us that we were recording for Mulan, and all of us we went, “Yeah yeah…” until we saw the recording artist in person. That was when we realised that it was the real deal. We were not allowed to say a word about the project till the movie was released! Till this day, I still wonder if it really happened, as I had never dreamt that I would get to do something like this. It was really a proud Singaporean moment for me.
Wow! You have such a wealth of experience as a performer in so many local and international ensembles large and small. Was there a particular event or incident that really impacted you as a person or as a musician? Please tell us more.
I was really fortunate to be given many opportunities over the years. An event that really impacted me the most was when I was part of the Asian Youth Orchestra in 2017. That year, we did a world tour, and it was one of the best experiences any aspiring musician could ever get. We were literally living the dream. We had a 4-week long intensive training camp where played music every day before touring around the globe to New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Milan, Berlin and Luzern, to name a few. This opportunity greatly helped me in my decision making as at that point in time, as I was a fresh diploma graduate from NAFA and thinking of pursuing either drum set or orchestral percussion. I was able to use this experience as a checkpoint for myself and thankfully, it worked out well.
Who or what are some of your influences or inspirations throughout your music career?
I take inspiration from every single one of my peers whom I have met, not just musicians but any human being whom I have ever gotten to converse with. Everyone has their own narrative and it is so interesting to know that everything we do is interrelated – we just have to make the connections by ourselves. Anyone who’s a hard worker with good work ethic and also a kind heart is an inspiration to me.
After so many years of learning, playing and performing, how do you fuel your passion for percussion and music-making?
I do so by always seeking self-improvement. I want to know how can I draw the best sound out from the 32-inch timpani that will suit whatever repertoire I am playing. I want to know how can I make a non-pitched instrument like a snare drum sound like how a violinist would phrase their etudes or solo pieces. I am always hungry to improve on every possible aspect. I believe that as musicians, we are very fortunate to be able to do what we are doing, and that is a blessing in itself. We are given this chance to share the ability that we have, thus we have to always seek ways to improve so as to give our audience their money’s worth.
Congratulations again on recently going abroad to further your music studies at the Manhattan School of Music. How has the experience been for you thus far?
Thank you! It has been a dream. Honestly, going back to school after working professionally in Singapore for the past 4-5 years is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Being able to study with the world-class faculty here has been really refreshing. The Percussion program here is one of the best in the world, and to be given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study with Christopher Lamb (New York Philharmonic Principal Percussionist) is something I truly cherish. The city itself is really vibrant, with lots of amazing activities and world class orchestras coming in and out every week. It has been a fulfilling first 2 months here and I am really looking forward to the next 3 years.
What do you look forward to accomplishing at the end of this chapter of your life?
To be a better equipped musician and also hopefully get an orchestral job somewhere in the world, which has always been my dream. I definitely also want to try my best to contribute and give back to the Singapore music scene by drawing from my experience in NYC to benefit the future generation of musicians in Singapore.
What advice do you have for young percussionists who may be considering a career in music?
Be prepared to not have any social life. Most of your time will be spent in the practice room honing your craft. Always seek out ways to improve yourself and be open minded to all kinds of comments given to you, be it positive or negative. If people are willing to spend time to give you feedback, you should be appreciative and accept them graciously. Be nice to everyone. I always believe in treating people how I want to be treated and that has served me well. Last but not least, enjoy the music making process.
In closing, do you have any words of appreciation or comments for those who have been a part of your music-making journey thus far?
My family who have been supporting me both financially and emotionally. They have been so ever supportive of my decisions especially on coming to NYC. I would have never been able to come without their support. Derek Koh, my brother from another mother who has always guided me both as a friend and as a colleague. Benjamin Thia, the real boss of percussion who has also helped me tremendously during my audition period. He is one of the kindest souls I have ever met. And to everyone who has entrusted me in the process of music making, believing in me for my skillset and trusting that I will give my best for the performance.
Quek Ling Kiong, one of my mentors, was once asked what he would tell his younger self if given a chance. He said “珍惜眼前，活在当下“ which translates to “Cherish what you have, live in the moment”. I have been living by these wise words ever since I came across this verse, which I feel is really fitting for every single artist out there.
Cherlyn is an educator who enjoys teaching and mentoring young people. She plays the clarinet, drum set and piano.
The first instrument she learnt was the piano from the age of 6 to 16 – a typical trajectory in the life of a stereotypical Asian kid. This opened the doors for her to study higher music as part of the Music Elective Programme, which broadened her perspectives about music history and world music. She picked up the clarinet when she joined her secondary school band, and later played in her university wind band. An advocate of lifelong learning, she started drumming when she became a working adult.
Cherlyn strives to be a Jack-of-all-trades and master of some, and is on the lookout for the next challenge, skill or field of knowledge to dive into.