Lee Yan Liang first encountered the horn at the age of 13, in his school concert band as part of the Co-Curricular Activities (CCA) and began his studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in 2019 with Han Chang Chou, Jamie Hersch and Hoang Van Hoc.
Being an avid and passionate musician since his secondary school days, he has performed with groups such as The Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Music Makers and Asian Cultural Symphony Orchestra. He was selected as a finalist in the Singapore Brass Festival in 2019 and has participated in masterclasses led by Hoang Van Hoc, William VerMeulen, Andrej Žust and Ben Jacks. In Sept 2022, he participated in the LEAD! Foundation Project in Helsinki, Finland, a joint project with Connext Partner Schools – Haute École De Musique Genève (Switzerland) and Sibelius Academy of The University of The Arts Helsinki (Finland), under the baton of Maestro Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
During his free time, Yan Liang enjoys spending time with his family, meeting up with friends over beer and travelling around the region in search of scrumptious food and delicacies.
What made you start playing the French horn? Were there any major figures that led you into deciding the instrument?
When I first joined my secondary school concert band in 2013, I had no prior knowledge of music nor any experience in playing a brass instrument. I simply wanted to make friends and join a CCA that required ‘little’ commitment. It was my band conductor at that time, Mr Mohamed Fahmi who decided for me that I should play the French horn, as he said that I sounded decent upon his first impression and that my lips were thick enough to play the instrument. At that point of time I never would have imagine that I would pursue music in the future. I am very grateful and indebted to Mr Fahmi for picking this beautiful instrument and for instilling a great passion for music in me.
I play the horn because of its warm and beautiful sound. It produces a sound which is very similar to the human voice, unlike no other. The horn has the versatility to be played in both a brass and woodwind ensemble. In a orchestra setting, it serves many contrasting roles from portraying a heroic, masculine character to having soft, intimate and hauntingly beautiful melodies, of which can be heard frequently in the music of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.
How do you think YST has nurtured you both as a person and a musician? Were there any changes in your approach towards your studies or music activities, as compared to when you were a younger musician?
Studying in YST has taught me to be more empathetic and understanding towards others. As everyone are facing their different issues and battles, the least I could is to support my peers spiritually and think twice before offering any unsolicited advice and making careless remarks.
YST is a very heartwarming community, filled with immensely talented students and an outstanding faculty who continue to inspire me to improve every single day. Not to mention that it is also an extremely conducive environment, with some of the most wonderful lecturers I have met and possibly the best facilities (recording studios, practice and ensemble rooms) among the conservatories.
I wouldn’t say that I am the most systematic and organized person, but studying in YST has definitely equipped me with the skill-sets to manage my time better and juggle between my practice sessions and academic workload more efficiently. I did not had prior music education before coming into YST, so it came off as a culture shock for me initially to transit from Poly life to studying in a music school. I am very fortunate and blessed to be studying here but I am also incredibly dejected that I will be leaving this place soon, as I will be graduating this semester.
You are currently a member of a number of music groups. What made you decide to be a part of them? Do you think it is important for musicians to be playing in different opportunities?
I joined these groups as I am very passionate in making music with like-minded musicians. Playing in different groups has certainly given me a plethora of opportunities to perform a wide array of repertoire from classical, Romantic music to Oriental, Western and Chinese-infused music. Additionally, it has expanded and broaden my social network in the music scene.
As the music scene in Singapore is generally quite small, it is quite common to see the same few people who are playing in several different orchestras/bands, like myself. Whilst it is not a must for musicians to play in more than one community group, it does certainly help to provide opportunities and avenue for avid performers to gain performance experience, or simply make music as a hobby.
What are your biggest strengths that have helped you in your journey so far, and what do you think are some of your weaknesses?
I would say that I am open to criticism and receptive to constructive feedback from others. There are always two sides of the same coin, while there is a positive form of criticism, which serves as an intention to make the music better, there is negative criticism as well, which is often hurtful to the person receiving it. I have learnt to take criticisms with a pinch of salt and not get too affected by what other people say about me.
One of my weaknesses is that more often that not, I could spend hours dwelling on a particular phrase or passage on a piece of music that I am working on. Instead of thinking of the bigger picture, I would be fixated on ‘perfecting’ a couple of notes in a single or few bars, without going through the rest of the music, thus resulting in an unproductive practice session. This is something which I have been mindful of since my freshmen days and I am gradually getting better at resolving this issue of mine.
What is it like when preparing for a performance? How do you practice, and cope in rehearsals?
Preparing for a new performance can be daunting yet an exuberant feeling, depending on the repertoire we’re playing and also the part I am playing in the section. Before the start of the first rehearsal, I would definitely listen to reference recordings of the pieces that I’ll be performing multiple times and be aware of how my part fits into the orchestra. I will then practice and work on the nuts and bolts on my instrument before turning up for each rehearsal.
Listening to the music beforehand is a really integral aspect of preparation for me as it gives me an idea of what the style of the music is like, and helps me notice changes in rhythm, tempo, key as well as time signatures. This not only helps to save a lot of work on the face of my instrument, but also leads to a healthier and more mindful practice.
As one of my former conductors always says, ‘The point of a tutti rehearsal is to learn other peoples’ parts, not your own.’ and I fully agree with this statement. One of the joys of rehearsals for me is to discover how my part is able to blend with other sections, be it strings, winds or even percussion to create unique timbres and interesting textures!
What is the greatest challenge you have as a musician?
Having to stay in great shape and play at a very high level on a consistent basis is definitely one of the greatest challenges that I face as a musician. There are certain days where my lips would feel tight and not in tip-top situations. The reality is that this is not considered a valid excuse and we are still required to deliver and produce our best performance regardless of our ‘handicapped’ situation.
Another challenge would be to maintain a good work-life balance. As a musician, it is sometimes inevitable for us to make sacrifices: spending lesser time with my family, lesser time for social gatherings at the expense of honing our craft and artistry. But at the end of the day the reason why I’m doing this is because I love music and it has given me so much. I believe I will continue to spend a few more decades of my life devoting myself to making the best music I could possibly do.
What are some of your plans after graduating from YST?
I’ll be intending to further my studies overseas and I’m in the midst of preparing for my graduate school auditions! Much like many other musicians, I hope to be able to land myself in a professional orchestra in the future. I would also like to teach both privately as well as in a music school.
What are your hopes for the future band scene in Singapore and also the awareness of the French horn?
I hope the band scene in Singapore will grow to be more vibrant and accommodating towards musicians from all ages and levels. Much like how I felt when I joined my first community band, I have met many wonderful people along the way, of which some became my closest friends. I also hope the band scene will continue to foster relationships with other countries as I have always believed that music connects people from different backgrounds and transcends boundaries.
I definitely hope more people will pick up the horn as there could never be too many horn players! In all seriousness, the horn is a really challenging yet rewarding instrument and I genuinely hope more people will grow to love the horn as much as I do.
Any advice for young budding musicians?
Stay passionate and find ways to keep that fire in you burning! Always strive to make the most beautiful sound you can and touch the audiences’ hearts with your music. More importantly, do not let a bad practice session define who you are or who you will be as a musician, it is all part of the learning process and growth as a musician!
Lastly, what is the most memorable part of your journey so far as a musician?
A really tough question to end off the interview… there have been many memorable experiences which I have gained thus far as a musician. If I really had to choose one, it would definitely be the LEAD! Foundation project which I participated in Helsinki, Finland with YST in September 2022. It is a joint project with two other partner schools, Sibelius Academy of the Arts and Geneva University of Music. I had the privilege to work with Maestro Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who has recently being appointed as the Artistic Director in Helsinki Philharmonic and renowned cello soloist Alban Gerhardt, performing a wonderful program of movements from Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.
During our very first tutti rehearsal, even though it was our first encounter with the musicians from the respective schools, the rustic energy given by everyone from the orchestra was truly incredible and astounding! I could not describe the amount of times I have had hair-raising moments from playing the Tchaikovsky – it is undoubtedly the highlight of my journey as a musician, and has reassured my decisions as to why I chose to do this as my career.