The Young Start-Ups

Published on 26 May 2017

Does starting young really make a difference in the arts? We speak to some established full-time artists about the value of early exposure.  

By PAMELA HO & JO TAN

Award-winning dancer/choreographer Jeffrey Tan started learning ballet at the ripe old age of 21. Former lawyer and self-taught musician, Rani Singam, cited the Internet as her school when she started to sing jazz in adulthood. And Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015 winner, O Thiam Chin, only started writing seriously at 27. So who says being a successful artist in Singapore requires an early start in the field?

Is there a value then in being engaged to the arts from young? The plethora of arts programmes targeted at children and the expansion of arts education in schools seem to suggest there is. We invite some established local artists — who started young — to reflect on their personal journeys.

FRANCES LEE - ACTOR

Out of Frances Lee’s three nominations for Best Supporting
Actress at the Life Theatre Awards, the one for playing the spunky Rosemary Joseph in Beauty World may seem least surprising. After all, she began preparations at the age of eight with her stage debut as Rosemary in Baby Beauty World, presented by chanteuse Jacintha Abisheganaden.

“There were many things I only realised performing the show the second time around,” laughs Lee. “The eight-year-old me was saying lines about getting offended with this guy called Eddie because during their date, he laid newspaper down on the ground at MacRitchie. Everybody laughed, but wouldn’t tell me why. It was only after over a decade that I reread the lines and understood.”

There were other things that took time to digest. While continuing as a child actress with the musical Chang & Eng (in which she continued performing for various restagings throughout primary school life), Lee says she only realised fairly recently what lessons she retained from those early years.

“I suppose starting early helps you be more comfortable in front of audiences. But otherwise, you don’t really think about the advice and opportunities people give you when you’re so young….

“Honestly, I was a very ill-disciplined kid performer and even got yelled at by Ekachai Uekrongtham, possibly the most even-tempered director in the world. Things only hit you when you have grown up a bit. I realised not so long ago that some of Jacintha’s advice, such as not having to always show off your vocal power, really stuck with me.”

Lee is grateful to her mother for that first push into performing almost two decades ago, by enrolling her in Abisheganaden’s singing lessons. “It’s wonderful that Mum has continued supporting my passion however she can — even after our savings weren’t enough to finish my education at the New York drama school I got into; or when my junior college drama teacher asked me, ‘Are you sure you can make it as an actor?’

“Now that I’m doing okay, my mother is supportive in a different way, like coming to my musicals and warning me, ‘You went flat, ah?’ She likes to balance constructiveness with being one of my biggest fans.”

Catch Lee in the play Dragonflies (24-26 August), part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017. She will also be performing at this year’s National Day Parade.

Art Direction: Tony LAw Photography: Joel Low Styling: Karin Tan Makeup: Shuan Lee Hair: Alicia Tey/Mosche Salon Illustration: David Liew
Credit: Frances Lee

NATHAN HARTONO - SINGER-SONGWRITER

Many musicians begin their training as tots. Not singer- songwriter/Sing China 2016 runner-up Nathan Hartono. “My mum tried starting me on piano and violin lessons. But I wasn’t interested because it all felt so academic. I didn’t think music was going to play a big part in my life.”

Boy, was he wrong. After his father encouraged him to join a singing competition at age 14, he went from having zero performance experience to winning local singing contest, Teenage Icon 2005. High-profile gigs and album recordings followed.

“Still, I barely knew what I was doing. Even the biggest gigs didn’t seem of consequence because I was so young. It didn’t help that I didn’t have any peers in music my age, so I would do these gigs with much older professionals and then return to ‘real life’ in school.”

Nonetheless, music continued occupying Hartono’s days. He was roped into his secondary school choir, gained direct admission to junior college as a chorister, then joined the Music & Drama Company (MDC) in the army. “That was when I decided, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. There wasn’t a lot of artistic freedom in MDC, and I often performed for audiences who would have preferred a girl or a deejay. Yet I found myself finding ways to work around these potentially defeating gigs and craving more. I realised I loved music, even when it was a grind.”

This realisation came just in time for him to choose Berklee College of Music in the United States instead of the National University of Singapore. “Based on my track record, my parents realised I would be able to at least survive as a musician, and encouraged me to push my passion as far as I could. That’s one benefit of starting early — you’re better informed when the time comes to make life decisions. It also meant that I’d seen the spotlight come and go, and realised that while the attention was nice, music was really about committing to the art and making it as good as possible.”

He offers some advice to young music-lovers and their families, “It’s not feasible for everyone to do this as a career, but by all means make the arts part of your lives. They’re a great outlet to relieve stress or express yourself in ways that words can’t. Plus, joining the choir helped change me: members were much more studious than my usual crowd, and the commitment and rigour poured into perfecting music shaped me for life. I became a better student, a better musician, and even choir president later.”

Catch Hartono in the musical The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey opening 14 July.

Art Direction: Tony LAw Photography: Joel Low Styling: Karin Tan Makeup: Shuan Lee Hair: Alicia Tey/Mosche Salon Illustration: David Liew

RUBEN PANG - VISUAL ARTIST

He may be 27, but Ruben Pang’s works have already been featured in close to 30 exhibitions (of which 10 are solo exhibitions) and travelled as far as Switzerland, Italy, Israel and the United States. He’s also enjoyed a string of sell-out solo exhibitions. While Pang graduated with a Diploma in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts, his love for art began in kindergarten — an interest encouraged and nurtured by his artist/sculptor father.

“I remember drawing on A4-sized paper in my dad’s study. My parents and family friends always bought me coloured pencils, watercolours and markers. It was always a part of daily life,” he recounts. “Even as a child, I was copying and making my own version of paintings from artists whose names I couldn’t even pronounce!”

While his parents supported his interest in art, they set clear rules for him. “I liked using fresh paper to draw, but when I messed up a drawing, I’d leave it lying around half-done. My dad would tell me to either plan or make sure I finish the work, if not I couldn’t use fresh paper,” he shares. “My parents never tried to shape what I did, but they’d give me a lecture when they felt my attitude needed adjusting, like being wasteful with materials or not putting my heart into the drawing or painting.”

Pang admits he was close to dropping art once. “That was when I was doing ‘O’ Level Art. Nothing kills pleasure more than being assessed and graded. Back then, I thought, maybe it’s better to just enjoy what you’re doing, without having to be measured against other people or a grading system.”

But art was the one area he felt he truly applied himself, so pursuing it full-time after graduating from LASALLE was a natural progression. “My parents gave me their blessing. All they said was, ‘When you do this, do it with full conviction, knowing it will be difficult. No complaining or making excuses for yourself!’ ” he shares. “As an artist, there are many things beyond your control that can impact your career. However, you are responsible for whether you paint honestly, whether you put in the hours at the studio, and how you treat others in the community.”

Pang’s next solo exhibition in Singapore will be in early 2018. Keep updated at www.rubenpangstudio.com.

Credit: Pang Che Rong & Irene Ong Rou Hui
Credit: Juliana Tan

NG YI-SHENG - POET/WRITER

Ng Yi-Sheng’s seen the spectrum of literary accomplishments — he’s published and performed poetry, penned acclaimed books and plays, won competitions, written reviews, moderated literary events — and all by the age of 36, thanks to having a head-start.

“It’s easy to grow up ignorant of Singapore’s literary scene. I was introduced to the community during secondary school, through a very selective process, available only to certain classes in certain schools,” says the alumnus of the Creative Arts Programme (a creative writing programme for secondary and junior college students, with the Gifted Education Branch as one of its organisers). “That early start gave me a certain privilege because the scene — especially for playwriting — was much less crowded then: I feel there are better playwrights than me who are relatively forgotten because they didn’t jump on the train early enough.”

Ng is glad that there are much fewer barriers to the creative writing community today. “I was recently moderating Singpowrimo [Singapore Poetry Writing Month], and saw work by everyone from Yale-NUS kids to construction workers, nurses and homemakers. Now, Singpowrimo has a Facebook group with over 4,000 members. I also see wonderful writing on social media and blogs.”

Accordingly, he’d encourage anyone to pick up their pens. “Glory or not, writing is just good for you. Being sensitive to words makes you sensitive to how you communicate with others. It gives you the tools to read more into statements, in advertising or otherwise, that others take for granted as true. And I think it opens up a lot of beauty in your life. In kampongs past, people would improvise pantuns to each other, and right now in our construction workers’ dorms, people are writing poems. You’ve never had to be middle-class and highly educated to write.”

And he does feel it’s good to start early. “Someone commented that I’ve a distinctly political voice for a Singaporean English-language poet. I think it’s because I started encountering works in the theatre and literary scene early, which made me realise writers of all genres have a social conscience, and must speak truth to power. That helped develop the voice I have now.”

Ng is currently serving as dramaturg on a play jointly written by Thai and Singaporean artists. He is also working on a supernatural crime novel.

Credit: Ng Yi -Sheng
Credit: Ng Yi -Sheng

CHRISTINA CHAN - DANCER/CHOREOGRAPHER

Slight in build but packed with passion, Christina Chan was a full-time artist and rehearsal master with Frontier Danceland before leaving in 2016 to start a collective with Aymeric Bichon. Her choreographic works have travelled beyond Singapore shores and include four repertory works for the Singapore Dance Theatre. Growing up, she trained at the Singapore Ballet Academy (SBA) and The New Zealand School of Dance; and in 2010, graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance from The Boston Conservatory.

But her dance journey really began at age five, when her mother signed her up for ballet lessons at Joo Chiat Community Club. While she almost quit at 12, taking classes at SBA reconnected her with her first love. “My greatest connection to dance is the basic pleasure of moving to music. So at 12, I decided I wanted to be a dance artist and I’ve not questioned or second-guessed myself since.”

But pursing that dream was an isolating experience for Chan, who comes from what she calls a “very academic family” — her parents are both medical doctors and she herself excelled in school. “My decision was difficult for everyone! My parents worried about how I would make a living. But I came to terms with the fact that if I failed, I’m okay with it.”

Training overseas led to a gradual drift from ballet to contemporary dance. “While I was very clear I wanted to be in dance, I adapted according to what I knew I could give and what I had to give. So for me, the value of my early training was that it helped me realise what I didn’t like. I learnt the rules, then unlearned them.”

On hindsight, Chan sees the value of parents challenging their children and injecting realism. “If they back down, that’s good! It’s not an easy life. If they still choose it, then you can be at peace that they’ve weighed the options.”

And loving the arts doesn’t mean you have to be a full-time artist. “The difference is that as an artist, it’s your job to bring the arts to everybody else; to make it accessible to everyone. But you should never wait till you’re proficient to enjoy what you love.”

Chan recently received the National Arts Council Creation Grant to start on a new full-length work. Further updates at www.dancemeasheep.com.

Photo: Tan Ngiap Heng
Photo: Christina Chan

JULIAN WONG - MUSIC DIRECTOR, COMPOSER, ARRANGER, ACCOMPANIST

Julian Wong was just four when he started music, learning the violin from Sylvia Khoo. At age 11, he was cast in his first theatre production — TheatreWorks’ First Emperor’s Last Days — where he had a cameo role as a young Lim Yu-Beng, whose character in the play was a violinist. That same year, he joined the children’s ensemble of Chang & Eng. It was there that he met his mentor, Cultural Medallion recipient Iskandar Ismail. “It was Mr Iskandar who taught me piano, ear training, and arranging. We worked together until he passed away in 2014.”

Now 30, Wong has composed music for grand fireworks displays to stage productions like Returning (Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015) and this year’s Tropicana: The Musical, to being music director of Spotlight Singapore Mexico City 2015 and piano accompanist for Kit Chan in her Spellbound concert. “I guess you could say I’m a musician who had strong roots in theatre,” he says, adding that it was only in secondary school that he began working hard and practising seriously. “I was quite the problem child, academically weak and depressive. Music kept me going.”

While he loved music, he never planned to be a full-time musician. “I was going to apply to study Pharmacy,” he reveals. But during National Service, he got to work more closely with Iskandar — assisting him as a copyist, pianist and arranger — and it was then that composer/arranger Belinda Foo encouraged him to consider music. “They took me under their wing, gave me many opportunities, and taught me everything I know today. After four years, they encouraged me to pursue my music degree with the money I had saved up.”

Wong went on to graduate from Berklee College of Music in the United States on a National Arts Council scholarship. While he attributes his passion for music to his mentors, he is quick to add that they have taught him much more. “From the time I was 10, Mr Iskandar told me he had only three rules: work very hard, stay humble, and don’t ever be late. I carry these precepts with me till this day, and I constantly endeavour to pass them on to the young musicians I work with. I tell them these values will serve them well in whatever they do — arts or otherwise.”

Wong is music director/arranger of Letters to ITE (7-8 July), an original musical by the Institute of Technical Education. Tickets available at www.apactix.com.

Photo: Tan Kian Wee
Photo: Julian Wong
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