Tay Kai Tze is a musician based in Singapore. He regularly performs and records as Principal Oboist with the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, the ReSound Chamber Orchestra, the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Music Makers, the Philharmonic Wind Orchestra and guests with the Singapore Armed Forces Central Band.

A sectional and instrumental tutor with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, the National University of Singapore Wind Symphony and Symphony Orchestra, he is also a School Band Director and coaches oboists at several schools. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and is a grateful recipient of a National Arts Council Overseas Bursary and the Estlaman Layman Martin Harison Scholarhip from the University of Sydney. Kai Tze is an alumnus of the Asian Youth Orchestra, the Australian International Symphony Orchestral Institute and the Sydney Sinfonia.

Kai Tze is privileged to serve as head of Artistic Planning with the Philharmonic Wind Orchestra and as a committee member of the Wind Bands Association of SIngapore, he works with young people and leaders as an organizer in the WBAS Youth Arts Leaders Conference and serves as an Artistic In-Charge of the WBAS Youth Band Festival.

How did you get started with music? Did you start with the oboe? Were there other musicians in your family?

I started piano and music theory lessons when I was about 5 years old because my Mum had this instinct that music lessons were good for one’s development. I am forever grateful for that! Although I had the most patient piano teacher and went through the typical ABRSM exams route, I lost interest towards the end until two fateful things happened. One, I joined the school band and picked up the clarinet and realised I loved playing in an ensemble (true to today!). Two, I developed a love of classical music in both playing and listening.

The oboe came about later when my first teacher, Mr Joost Flach, with a lot of foresight and wisdom, organised a free oboe class to encourage people to pick the oboe through their school bands. I still remember the moment I raised my hand to sign up for the class but I do not know why I did. Only after several years of indecisive juggling between the two, I decided the oboe would be my primary instrument! 

My parents were not musical but they are now singing students and are adept at telling apart the difference between the clarinet and the oboe. My sister continues to play the Zhongruan in Chinese Orchestras and my sister used to sing in her school choir. 

At which point in your life did you decide that “I want to pursue music”? How did you come to that decision?

My memory of this is a bit hazy now but it probably came much later than many of my colleagues. I know I had never considered this path as a child. There was no defining moment. It was more of a series of serendipitous events and opportunities that confluenced when I was about 19 to 20 that made me realise I want to study music professionally. I was for a very brief time, an Architectural student, but attended rehearsals and concerts far too frequently and before long, I left and thought, I had to pursue music. 

Which teacher has influenced you the most? Tell us a little bit about your time studying music.

I was fortunate to have studied with some amazing musicians. At the Rotterdam Conservatory, Emmanuel Abbuhl was a consummate technician who could demonstrate perfectly each and every single time. He would play something amazingly but then remove the reed and look at it accusingly and said, “Hmm.. bad reed!”! He always encouraged us to sit in and observed the other classes. I really struggled with stamina then but always got inspired and remembered the lessons from the other students. Diana Doherty at the Sydney Conservatory was an artist who infused her music with incredible rhythmic vitality. Her oboe voice was something unique altogether, I couldn’t tell where the honky low register or the piercing altissimo notes were because she made all the notes sound like the most comfortable middle register. Alexandre Oguey, my other teacher at Sydney and Diana’s husband was a fantastic problem solver and not surprisingly, a great reed fixer. 

When and how did you start conducting?

I don’t remember! It probably started when I assisted School Band Directors and there was no better way than to dive into the deep end and stand in front of the band. It was, of course, more teaching and classroom management than conducting but that’s how I got started. Soon after, I participated in a few conducting masterclasses. I do not conduct professionally so much but observing conductors is endlessly fascinating and I get to do this as a player!

What about your opinion on the wider music scene in Singapore?

I can only speak for classical music (and I consider music written for bands in this) but it is a very exciting time for the music scene.

Notwithstanding the fact that Covid restrictions are lifted while ensembles return to their usual performance calendars, there is also a healthy growth in Opera productions and new found appreciation for Early Music ensembles. Venues such as the Esplanade and Victoria Concert Halls are kept busy during traditional concert seasons and people who perform for fun are kept busy with community bands and orchestras. Community outreach projects are also out in full force, you don’t have to wait too long in between free music events. The music freelance scene is extremely vibrant with people who are daring and challenge the status quo. Young students are also spoilt for choice in the way of music camps and festivals! Music is a gift that keeps giving!

What is your vision for the music scene (both orchestral and wind band) in the next decade?

I would like to see two things: first, a bigger audience for the Arts and secondly, more young people who are Arts literate. The audience is a vital partner of the Arts and therefore, the growth of the scene can only grow when the audiences do. 

What is one (or two) pieces of advice you would give budding musicians?

Stand back to broaden your views and perspectives. What I mean to say is, if you play the oboe, don’t just be an oboist. I play the oboe but I will be bored stiff if I could only listen to oboe music. Imitating another consummate musician can only take you so far. Go beyond your instrument to be a musician. Listen, read, write (compose) and analyse and you will discover your own voice.

John Fung

Written By John Fung

John has been playing the oboe since 2013 and has built up extensive orchestral experience. A long-serving member of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO), John joined the SNYO in 2015, culminating in his appointment as Principal Oboist. John also plays with the Orchestra of the Music Makers and has been invited as a guest player with music groups in Singapore, including NUSWS, NUSSO and West Winds.

A recent graduate from school, John is currently serving his National Service. Beyond music, John is an avid coffee fan. In his free time, he can be found in the kitchen cooking for friends and family, or in a coffee shop in a corner of Singapore.