In a Class of their Own

Published on 18 January 2016

What is the value of learning from the masters? We explore the role it plays and the difference it makes to the community.


When 12 year-old Joanne Chan first heard that the award-winning Singaporean violinist Siow Lee Chin was giving masterclasses to members of the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO), she was beside herself. “As I had only recently joined the SNYO and was among the youngest, I couldn’t imagine having this golden opportunity to learn from such a renowned violinist!”

Chan auditioned and was overjoyed to be shortlisted. “I played Bach’s ‘Solo Violin Partita No.2 in D Minor: Sarabande and Gigue’ for Ms Siow. Through her comments, she gave me a new way of seeing things and enlightened me on certain actions I can take to execute the notes better.

“One great trick I learnt was when the left hand is difficult, focus on the right hand; when the right hand is difficult, focus on the left hand. This may not make any sense, but it works!” Chan muses, adding that the pieces she played for Siow ended up being her audition repertoire for her Direct School Admission to the Raffles Girls’ School’s Music Elective Programme. Her application was successful.

That First Step

For Siow, who has performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall, it was — incidentally — playing in a masterclass conducted by Aaron Rosand, a renowned American violinist who was then in Singapore to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, that changed her life.

“I was about 15,” she recalls. “On the spot, Rosand offered me a place to study with him at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world.”

There, she trained under the baton of legendary conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Riccardo Muti, and Sergiu Celibidache; and she studied with artist-pedagogues such as Rosand, Jascha Brodsky and Felix Galimir, who trace their musical lineage to Eugène Ysaÿe, Henryk Wieniawski and other giants of the violin world.

Siow, currently a Professor of Violin at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, says “giving masterclasses is my way of paying it forward, passing on what I’ve learnt to young violinists, and continuing the rich musical tradition of which I’m so blessed to be a part.”

Today, she conducts masterclasses wherever her concerts take her — from China’s Central Conservatory of Music to the University of Chile; in schools for gifted young musicians from the Ukraine to the United States; and in her home country Singapore at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and with the SNYO. “I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve taught!” she chuckles. “But no matter how tired I feel, working with young people always recharges my batteries — the lightbulb moments when they ‘get it’ are most intoxicating.”

So, how are masterclasses different from regular lessons? Siow explains that a traditional music masterclass is similar to a one-on-one lesson, but in the presence of an audience. “The artist comments on a student’s playing and gives suggestions to enhance the performance. In my masterclasses, I love to add an element of sharing and dialogue. While a student may not be able to perfect a technique within a masterclass, a dialogue is a precious opportunity to encourage budding artists, offer new insights to ignite their interest and inspire them on their journey.”

Acting Up

While masterclasses are well established in the tradition of classical music, they’re also found in other genres of the arts — be it visual, literary or performing. Masterclasses in acting are not uncommon in Singapore.

Nelson Chia, an actor and director from Nine Years Theatre, runs several workshops a year on the Suzuki method, a form of acting created by Tadashi Suzuki, whose main training centre is in Toga, Japan. He also trains in a technique called Viewpoints, created by American theatre and opera director Anne Bogart who is based in the SITI Company in New York.

French master clown, Philippe Gaulier, has also held regular masterclasses on clown work in Singapore, while at the Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity, founder Kamil Haque regularly brings in trainers from overseas to conduct masterclasses. This month, two master teachers from Italy will teach Commedia Dell’Arte, an early form of actor training that uses masks; while in March, the centre will bring in David Glass, one of the foremost voices in Physical Theatre who is renowned for his particular approach to actor training.

Haque himself coaches aspiring and working actors in Method Acting, and claims to be the only teacher in Asia who teaches the work of Lee Strasberg — widely acknowledged as the father of Method Acting — as it was intended. Prior to starting his centre, Haque was the youngest teacher and first Asian to have taught at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Hollywood for six years.

TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW Kamil Haque (above) coaches actors in Method Acting as taught by Lee Strasberg, who is known for training the world’s best actors, including Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. PHOTO Samuel Leong

Stay Composed

With advancements in technology, artists are able to reach a worldwide pool of students. Apart from face-to-face sessions, Haque offers coaching via FaceTime or Skype. Singer-songwriter Corrinne May has also conducted online courses on songwriting for her prestigious alma mater, Berklee College of Music in Boston.

While May is quick to deny that her classes are ‘masterclasses’ in the traditional sense, the students who sign up to learn from her benefit from the critique of an award-winning singer-songwriter.

“The course I teach explores the various tools songwriters can use to craft good melodies. We talk about the use of modes and musical phrasing, and explore a different facet of melody-writing each week. The students receive a new online lesson and then submit their songs for critique at the end of the week. We also have a video/audio conference once a week where the students get to ask their questions about the lesson or any other music industry-related queries they may have.”

In the two years she has been teaching with Berklee Online, May has taught about 100 students who hail from far and wide, from Lebanon to England, Japan to Turkey. Some are beginners to the craft, while others have written hit songs. “I taught one student who had been an artist herself in France and had written a hit song for the British pop group, S Club 7. She took the course to refine her songwriting craft and it was very fulfilling to teach her.”

The challenge with the online environment, however, is that there is limited scope for interaction. “It does make a difference when you can respond and interact with your students face-to-face,” May says, adding that she is not aware of a similar set-up in Singapore, “but I think it might be good to teach and mentor a select group of songwriters some time in the near future.”

STEP IN THE WRITE DIRECTION  Singer-songwriter Corrinne May (top) mentors students from around the world in songwriting, and is open to doing the same for Singapore in the future. PHOTO Pamela Springsteen

Master Strokes

Of course, masterclasses are not all about performance-and-critique. Some are purely interview-style — like Inside the Actors Studio, a televised craft seminar for drama students in New York, where esteemed actors discuss their philosophy and creative process.

For the students of arts institutions like LASALLE College of the Arts, and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), masterclasses are part and parcel of education and exposure. LASALLE organises special classes with Cultural Medallion recipients such as world-renowned toy pianist Margaret Leng Tan and Cantonese opera doyenne Joanna Wong; while NAFA runs classes by the likes of Chinese ink-masters Tan Kee Sek and Cultural Medallion recipient Wee Beng Chong.

Wee was the first recipient of the Cultural Medallion for visual arts in 1979, and was conferred the Distinguished Alumni Medal by NAFA in 2010. Tan, who has exhibited around the world, was a founding member of the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society in Singapore. Together, they mentor a new generation of Chinese ink students at their alma mater.

One of their students is 52 year-old Ho Seok Kee, who made a mid-career decision to pursue a full-time diploma course in Chinese ink at NAFA. While she has learnt from other teachers, her learning curve spiked with her four-hour weekly sessions with each master. “They insisted I hold the brush in a correct manner while executing the strokes onto rice paper, be it for calligraphy or painting. Methods of loading colours are just as important,” she recounts. “They also constantly stress the six principles of Chinese painting by Xie He, a sixth-century Chinese writer and art historian.”

From a childhood interest, Chinese ink is fast becoming a possible second career path for Ho. After graduation, she will continue training with the masters, while pursuing a degree course. “To be a full-time artist is an ongoing dream. Two years of specialist studies at NAFA is too short to master the craft. My artistic journey will continue to evolve; there’s no stopping exploration in art- making,” Ho reflects. “Eventually, I hope to show the many possibilities of Chinese ink painting by adding a contemporary touch to attract children to learn this art form.”

DRAWING ON EXPERIENCE Chinese ink master Wee Beng Chong, the first recipient of the Cultural Medallion for visual arts in 1979, working with student Ho Seok Kee at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, 2015. PHOTOS Jay Ho

Feat of Clay

Learning from the masters is a unique experience that is not limited to exclusive masterclasses for intermediate to advanced students who are selected through stringent auditions. Students of the arts have access to many of these masters through special classes arranged for them by their schools; while non-practitioners can also do a bit of research and sniff out classes run by these master artists, as some do teach newbies, in addition to mentoring practitioners.

In the field of pottery, Iskandar Jalil, a Cultural Medallion recipient who was conferred the Order of the Rising Sun (Gold Rays with Rosette) by the Emperor of Japan, continues to mentor artists and aspiring artists at Temasek Potters, a studio space at Temasek Polytechnic.

His ‘students’ are adults who generally know the subject well; some have 10 to 15 years experience with clay work. “They bring their work, we exchange ideas and views, and the younger ones learn from the older ones. There is no teaching,” reveals Iskandar, adding that the workshop is free and opened six days a week from 10am to 5pm. The master ceramist also leads regular trips to Japan (where he studied ceramics), visiting well-known potters and painters to discuss art with them.

For ceramist Jessie Lim, the first woman to be accorded a solo ceramics exhibition by the National Museum in 1988 — and whose installations grace the Supreme Court, Marina Barrage and Biopolis — teaching has become a full-time endeavour. Notably, she was mentored by the late Ng Eng Teng, the grandfather of Singaporean sculpture and a Cultural Medallion recipient, and attributes her shift from functional to sculptural pottery to him.

Lim now runs her own studio, Jessie Lim Ceramics, and accepts students of all competency levels. “My approach is to teach the skills and to get them to realise their own creativity,” she says. “The form of their pieces comes entirely from them.”

POTTERS’ PLAYGROUND Ceramist Jessie Lim , whose works grace public spaces like the Supreme Court and Marina Barrage, now runs her own ceramics studio, teaching students of all levels. PHOTOS Jessie Lim

Lessons for Life

Learning from the masters happens in dance and literary circles in Singapore too and, often, it’s not just skills and techniques that are imparted, but invaluable life lessons as well.

For SNYO member, Chan, the most precious thing the young violinist took away from her masterclass with Siow was a cheeky but effective mind trick. “Ms Siow said if you don’t feel like practising, trick your mind! Tell yourself you’re only doing it for 10 minutes, but do it with great concentration, and soon you’ll have done an hour. I’ve used that trick and she’s right! Ms Siow is truly inspirational.”

Siow believes that while not everyone becomes a concert artist, the lessons learnt go beyond music. “Cultivating the discipline required to perfect your passion, mustering the patience to do the work before you taste success, and having the faith to persevere through setbacks, are valuable takeaways that carry one through life,” she affirms.

Beyond opening worlds of possibilities, learning from the masters holds value in the simple fact that because these artists have ‘been there, done that’ — and lived to tell the tale — it’s enough for us to believe that we can too.

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS Siow Lee Chin (above) working with 12 year-old violinist Joanne Chan in a masterclass organised by the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, July 2015. PHOTO Rachel Toh

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