Johann Koh En Kai (b.1998) is a Bmus4 Saxophone student in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). He is currently under the tutelage of Dr. Leslie Wong Kah Ho, one of Singapore’s most prolific saxophonists and pedagogues.
He first picked up the saxophone at the age of 13 in his school band; St. Andrew’s Secondary School, where he held multiple leadership positions and helped the band attain numerous accolades. He also spent a year at Anglo-Chinese Junior College where he was a featured soloist in a number of performances.
Johann has shown aptitude for his craft when he reached the finals of the Kris Foundation Fund Concerto Competition as a freshman at NAFA, and won the Grand Prize in the final year of his diploma. He is also involved in the development of the saxophone scene in Singapore as musical director for the Protégé Saxophone Ensemble since 2017. He spent his 2 years of national service at the Singapore Police Force Band where he also took up responsibilities as a Saxophone and Music Theory teacher.
He is an active participant of the annual Singapore Saxophone Symposium, and has worked with ensembles such as The Philharmonic Orchestra Singapore, the Protégé Saxophone Ensemble, and is a founding member of the New Meta Quartet. Johann has performed with the New Meta Quartet in various venues in China such as the Soochow University, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and the Tianjin Conservatory of music. He has also represented Singapore in multiple events such as the 1st Asian Saxophone Congress in Chiayi, Taiwan, the 18th World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb, Croatia, and the Singapore Saxophone Symposium as Singapore’s representative for a musical showcase.
Johann has also had classes/masterclasses with world renowned artists such as Nobuya Sugawa, Nikita Zimin, Asagi Ito, Chia-Hsiu Tsai, Lin Chien-Kwan, Tae Young Kim, Kyle Horch, Jeffrey Loeffert, Rodrigo Villa, Jean-Yves Fourmeau, Arno Bornkamp, and Otis Murphy among many others.
A firm believer in the positive impact music can have on one’s life, Johann hopes to help others learn to express themselves through the saxophone and gain a more intimate appreciation of music.
Hi Johann! You mentioned that you started playing the saxophone in Secondary School. What made you want to pursue music further in your education?
There were multiple factors which led me to pursue an education in music, but mostly the teachers which I was so lucky to have had during my Secondary School years. Of course there were those from my Secondary School band; St. Andrew’s School Military Band under the baton of Mr Brando Tan, Mr Marvin Khoo, and Mr Benjamin Yeo. And after taking up the Music Elective Program in Secondary 3, I was further inspired by the course, and my teacher at the time, Ms. Deborah Gan, also introduced me to Dr. Leslie Wong as a saxophone tutor.
What did you find the most challenging when you first started playing the saxophone?
When I picked up the saxophone for the first time, I think much like many, if not all wind instruments, I was surprised at the sheer volume of air needed to produce a sound on my instrument. After which, I found that producing a good, consistent tone and playing in tune have been some of the more difficult things to fully master amongst many others when first starting out on the saxophone.
How did you overcome the above challenges that you faced?
I was very fortunate to have wonderful friends and teachers throughout my music education, and they all certainly have helped me one way or another to overcome these challenges. With proper guidance, diligent practice, and lots of perseverance, I was able to overcome these challenges and further progress the mastery of my instrument.
What is your daily practice routine like?
My daily practice routine always starts with scales and fundamental exercises, ie. long tones, scales in 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths in various patterns and articulations. (In the NAFA saxophone studio, there is a heavy emphasis on fundamentals where we have weekly technique classes which focus on the fundamentals of the saxophone.) After which, I would begin working on etudes or pieces. As I am currently working on multiple works which each require different saxophones, I would practice my fundamentals on the different saxophones depending on which ones I need for my practice for that particular day.
How has studying music in NAFA shaped your perspective on music?
Studying at NAFA has pushed my understanding of music, and I have gained an appreciation for contemporary music. The saxophone is a relatively new instrument compared to other western classical instruments, hence our repertoire is also relatively new or contemporary. As a result, in our studio, Dr. Leslie Wong often challenges us to play contemporary works which pushes our understanding of music and in turn allows us to develop a deeper appreciation for all genres of music.
I have also had the opportunity to see and understand the arts scene in different parts of the world with the NAFA saxophone quartet and the New Meta Quartet with the support of my professors, Dr. Leslie Wong and Dr. Zechariah Goh.
You have had many masterclasses with renowned musicians from around the world, which masterclass was the most memorable to you and why?
It’s very difficult to choose just one as each of them has left me with different and unique takeaways. If I really had to name one or two, I would say the masterclass I had with Nobuya Sugawa for the piece Fuzzy Bird Sonata, was very impactful as the piece was written for him and he was therefore able to give me valuable insights on the composer and the work.
Another memorable one might be the masterclass I had with Jean-Yves Fourmeau on Fernande Decruck’s Sonata in C# for Alto Saxophone. Having lived, studied and taught in France for most of his life, he was able to help me better understand the French style and aesthetic, which I have always found very intriguing and somewhat difficult to fully grasp.
Who is your greatest inspiration throughout your music journey, and how has he/she made you become who you are today?
It’s very hard to choose just one as so many people have inspired me throughout my musical journey so far such as my professors, my peers in the NAFA saxophone studio and my quartet. But I think one that has truly been a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me is my family. Their belief and support means the world to me and has spurred me to reach greater heights than I had ever imagined I would achieve.
What are your future plans after you graduate from NAFA?
After graduating from NAFA, I intend to pursue a Master’s degree to further improve myself and learn more about the saxophone and music as a whole in order to give back to the music community that has so graciously supported and inspired me and help further develop the arts in Singapore.
There are also plans for some interesting projects with the New Meta Quartet next summer.
Do you think there have been any changes to the music scene in Singapore ever since the pandemic? What are they and how do you think it affects the music scene in Singapore?
Since the pandemic, there have definitely been many changes in the way music and music education is conducted. Having been teaching saxophone in Singapore for a few years now, I can personally attest that the big shift to online learning and teaching posed a particular challenge for musicians as it is extremely difficult to conduct music lessons because many of the subtle nuances in music cannot be fully transmitted through the online mediums.
However since the start of the pandemic, many people have been able to maximise whatever equipment or online platforms available and it has truly been inspiring to see our industry persevere and grow through these tough times. With the rapid development in technology and the growing interest in music and the use of technology, I am looking forward to seeing how they can be further integrated and what creative minds are able to do with them.
Lastly, do you have any advice for musicians who might be struggling or just picked up the saxophone?
As with anything worth doing, there are bound to be unexpected challenges and setbacks. However it is always worth remembering that there are people who understand and can help you, be it friends, teachers or family. So, hang in there, persevere, and I can assure you that you will come out of it a better musician!
It is also important to remember to enjoy the process and to keep an open mind to new forms of music and art.
To those who have just picked us the saxophone, I would say to listen to and try as many kinds of music as possible! The saxophone is such a versatile instrument and it’s up to creative minds like yours to unlock new and exciting possibilities for our instrument!
Carolyn has been a music enthusiast since young. Having picked up the piano and violin in Primary School, Carolyn decided to further her music journey by joining the Bishan Park Secondary School band, where she picked up the clarinet. She continued to take part in the Symphonic Band CCA when she studied at Anderson Serangoon Junior College. Currently a Linguistic and Multilingual Studies major at the Nanyang Technological University, Carolyn hopes to promote the band community through writing. If there is one thing she cares more about than music, it will probably be her cat.