Singaporean conductor Chan Tze Law is Associate Professor and Vice Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore where he is a founding faculty member. Chan lectures on music leadership and conducting. He also led the creation of and oversees the conservatory’s Master degree and Continuing Education and Training (CET) programmes. More recently he was appointed in a concurrent role as Vice Dean at the Office of Student Affairs to oversee the University’s newly reorganised NUS Centre for the Arts.
Chan holds performance diplomas in violin performance and teaching, bachelor and doctoral degrees in conducting as well as a masters degree in management.
Chan is the founding chief conductor of the Australian International Summer Orchestral Institute and has taught masterclasses in conducting at the Peabody Institute, USA, Royal Academy of Music, UK and the Queensland Conservatorium, Australia. He has served on the selection committee of the Oxford (University) Conducting Institute International Conducting Studies Conference and conducted at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s 2020 and 2022 National Music Camp. Since 2017 he has also co-presented in Prof Kenneth Paul Tan’s ‘Tune in to leadership’ course at the annual Senior Management programme of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, as well other leadership programmes and workshops for various NUS faculties and major Singapore and international business organisations.
Chan’s concerts and CD recordings has been featured on Singapore Airlines’ KrisWorld in-flight classical music selection, broadcast on Australia’s ABC Classic FM, UK’s BBC Radio 3, and can be heard on Spotify and Apple Music.
The Band Post speaks to Professor Chan Tze Law on the Future of Arts in Singapore.
You have been part of Yong Siew Toh (YST) Conservatory since 2003, and this year (2023) will be its 20th anniversary. What do you think of this journey, and the achievements that YST has attained from then till now? What do you think is the future of YST, and where will you help lead it to?
First of all, it’s incredibly momentous that we are approaching our 20th anniversary. It seems like just the blink of an eye that 20 years ago, when our small group of founding leadership and faculty members helped launch the school, together with crucial and continuing support from NUS and supporters. I look back now and can see how that has put Singapore on the map in terms of professional music education at a tertiary level.
So many people have contributed to the conception and realisation of YST, and I think it was a landmark decision for Singapore’s arts scene (alongside the formation of institutions such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and The Esplanade). We have benefited from the immense transformation in Singapore’s cultural landscape and are proud to be shaping the scene through our own growth and evolution.
Young people in Singapore today are playing musical instruments at a level unimaginable 30 years ago, no doubt due to the high quality of teaching that is enabling them to achieve higher standards much earlier in their lives. With our flourishing arts infrastructure, there are so many avenues for them to hone their craft on world-class platforms. And all this has been a great encouragement and inspiration for our young musicians.
At this important milestone, we look back with pride and gratitude, and move forward with confidence and excitement to continue shaping the future of music.
So, would you say that the curriculum in YST has changed over the years?
I feel the general perception of music education has shifted. In the past, teaching was more about the transferring of knowledge from the more informed to the less informed. Today and in future, teaching is much more about facilitating the quest for knowledge. How do we set up our students to pursue this quest for knowledge as part of their innate curiosity, and create their own possibilities? Our curriculum at YST continually evolves – as should all of us as artistic professionals.
And what about your own interactions with students?
For me one of the most rewarding things is to see how young musicians find their true artistic identity, embrace it and take it forward. We see so much of this at YST, and it encourages us to work harder to help all these young people attain their dreams.
So would you say that a musician should have certain qualities to be successful, or what kind of qualities would make a musician unique?
Talent and hard work remain paramount, but today’s musicians need all the more to collaborate, communicate, and be nimble in adapting across domains, so as to thrive as well-rounded professionals. Through their craft, musicians develop many transferable skills, but they also need to know how these capabilities can translate into other domains. Our educational offerings emphasise this awareness and nurture students to be confident music leaders equipped to shape the future.
You will be taking on a new appointment with the NUS CFA, would you be able to describe the role?
I’m very excited about my new concurrent role as the Vice Dean at the Office of Student Affairs overseeing the reorganised Centre For the Arts (CFA) at NUS. There is still quite a lot I’m learning about the organization and its spectrum of activities (including over 30 student performing arts groups, the NUS Arts Festival, the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts, arts awards). With the CFA team, I look forward to enhancing arts involvement across the university and nurturing student passions across the University.
Outside of your YST work, you are also the music director for the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (MFO) and the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM), with the latter celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2023. Can you talk about your journey with OMM, and how do you see the orchestra in the Singapore music landscape?
OMM was formed by a group of schoolboys who wanted to have their own orchestra and steer its destiny; they asked for my support and I agreed to help them. No one could imagine then what OMM has become today, through the efforts of this group of incredibly motivated young people; indeed, if they did not create OMM back then, at a time when Singapore was ripe for such an initiative, then I am quite sure others would have done it.
What it has gone on to achieve is quite remarkable for a volunteer organisation. Around 800 people in Singapore have since played with OMM, a significant number of whom are now professionals in the music scene and who continue to be involved with the orchestra. The orchestra’s programming and outreach have also been distinctive and strong, they are continually find ways of connecting people with classical music.
You have been working with so many young musicians with OMM, were they any very good memories that you had?
Oh, so many. We have had the honour of working with so many great artists and conductors, most recently including our concert with Martha Argerich and friends, and sharing our music on Spotify, YouTube and also Singapore Airlines’ inflight entertainment system KrisWorld. Another particularly epic memory was our Taipei concert, which was sold out, then cancelled due to a typhoon threat, and then subsequently reinstated. For the organising team and orchestra as a whole, that was quite an experience!
What do you think about the future of OMM?
The OMM team continues its Wagner Ring cycle by staging Das Rheingold in July 2023, as well as collaborations with other arts organisations in Singapore such as Altenburg Arts, YST, in addition to cross marketing between SSO, YST, OMM and Resound Collective. We are also eager to re-engage with our friends in the region.
Is there a plan for OMM to go on tour any time soon?
The orchestra is watching things very carefully because the economics of touring doesn’t work at the moment – but if the opportunity arises, sure, why not?
Apart from directing the orchestras, you have helped develop the programmes at YST. How would you say that these programmes have contributed to the development of students? How do they prepare the students for the many potential futures within this evolving music landscape?
We ask ourselves the question, what qualities and skillsets does the 21st century musician need, to manifest their artistry (be it in the concert hall, production, research, community engagement or the many other contexts)? And how can our programme best nurture our students’ capabilities and artistic identities to achieve their ambitions in a rapidly-evolving world? At YST, our Masters of Music Leadership, and undergraduate Music and Society and Music, Collaboration and Production degrees are designed to address this.
In closing, how would you see the future of the arts in Singapore? And what are some of your personal dreams and hopes?
I am more optimistic about the arts in Singapore than ever before. I think that there is more recognition of the impact of the arts on society, and the determination to harness energy arising from them, and a growing ecosystem that continues to flourish through the passion and hard work of all across the landscape.
My wish is that a future Singaporean is somebody who is very confident of their own identity, and that this person is arts literate. And wherever they are in the world, including Singapore, they can either contribute to or benefit from all that the arts have to offer.
A contributing editor at TBP.