Starting the New Year with JOY! Beethoven's 9th Symphony (SG50)

Exactly 1 year ago, I wrote about how AJ crossed paths with Adrian Tan, the Music Director of the Singapore Wind Symphony (SWS), the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (Singapore) (BHSO) & the Saigon Philharmonic (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam).  Finally, 1 year on, I was able to ask him some intimate aspects about his past, and he graciously obliged:

1) What made you joined Navy? Isn't it strange that you then decide to major in Theatre Studies, a subject that seems completely unrelated to your chose career, for your Bachelor's degree?

I am the only child in a single-parent family and my Mum had to bear the heavy burden of raising me. When I was at Victoria Junior College, I took Theatre Studies & Drama (TSD) for my 'A' levels. This was not as widely accepted then as it is now, but my Mum had always only offered advice, but let me make my own decisions in life so long as it was within our family's means. When I enlisted for National Service, it did not even occur to me at all that there was a chance that I would have a professional military career.  In BMT, there are talks organised by the various services to recruit regular officers - and to be honest, the scholarship schemes, salary and benefits were very attractive. I was initially interested in what the Air Force & Navy had to offer but when the Navy recruitment officer brought us to Tuas Naval Base to visit the Missile Corvette RSS VICTORY (which I had the privilege of being 2nd-in-Command many years later), I was really impressed and was rather swept up by the romantic idea of a life at sea. Also, I knew that if I was awarded some kind of scholarship by the SAF and have a regular salary while I was in University, it would really lighten the financial load on my Mum. So I indicated my interest and applied, but the contract was conditional on doing well enough in BMT to be selected for Officer Cadet School (OCS). I was selected, and as they say the rest is history.

When I was deciding what course to enrol in for my Bachelor's degree, I had no doubt that I wanted to be in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. History, Literature and Theatre were subjects I loved - so I just picked all the modules that I was interested in, which therefore made these modules easy for me. I ended up doing a double major in Theatre & Philosophy. Eventually, I did well enough to graduate with an honours degree and an academic prize for outstanding achievement in Theatre. When I returned to the Navy after I graduated, I was constantly asked about why I chose to major in Theatre. I made up a joke about how I thought the SAF was all 'wayang' so I thought majoring in Theatre would make me a professional in it! 

Jokes aside, many have the misconception that the Arts are all 'airy-fairy' and that is far from the truth. The kind of discipline it takes for a pianist to learn how to play the solo part for a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, and the kind of planning and teamwork it takes to mount a full-scale musical rivals the kind of discipline, planning and teamwork in any military unit. In a way, working with creative people enabled me to 'think out of the box' and being innovative, not just  being regimental or obedient, is just as prized as an attribute in the modern armed forces. I found that I could apply what I learnt in Theatre and what I learnt in my Navy years interchangeably, and often helped me gain interesting perspectives. 

If there's anything I've come to realise from that episode that I really want to tell parents - is that an education should not purely be about preparing a child for a future job. I don't think many 18 or 21 year olds really know what they are good when they choose their educational path. What is really important is for them to be really engaged in the subject they choose, so they not only REALLY but also learn how to learn because their curiosity would drive them further. This really broadens up the capacity of a young person, and not just their competency and qualification. The world is changing so rapidly. 10 years ago, there was no such job as an "App Developer". So how could anyone prepare themselves for such a booming industry via their education 10 years ago? Therefore, it is really important to develop a young person's character and values, their capacity to learn and their capabilities (like leadership, analytical thinking, creativity) during their years in school. 

2) What/who encouraged you to leave Navy after 10 years & took up conducting course in Sydney?

First of all, I have to say that all in all I had a really fulfilling career as a Naval Officer. Sure, it had its ups and downs. Believe me, on a day with rough seas, you spend every waking minute regretting your decision to sign on! I learnt a lot, experienced a lot and had the privilege of serving under some truly inspiring commanders. The last few years of my career were really the high points - I relished the opportunities I was given and enjoyed going to work. 

But truth be told, I had a passion for music since I was quite young. I joined a neighbourhood Chinese Orchestra when I was 11 years old and learnt to play the Dizi & Sanxian. When I went to Raffles Institution, I joined the Military Band and learnt to play the Saxophone. Later I was given my first opportunity to conduct the band in VJC, I realised how much I loved it. A very wise teacher gave me this advice when I told him I wanted to be a musician during JC: "If there was anything else you can do well besides music, go and do that something else, don't do music". Why? He explained that you can be a doctor, still love music and be a very active amateur musician in your free time. But you can't be a professional musician, and be an amateur doctor in your free time. Music is a really tough career, and even for the most talented ones, an uphill one with little certainty. He told me "only if you wake up in the morning, and know in your heart that you will never be truly happy unless you spend every minute of every waking hour till you sleep, thinking about and making music  - THEN, you can become a musician." 

You may not believe me - but one day I woke up feeling exactly like that. Then it was just a matter of making a choice between my happiness and a good stable career, and the choice was surprisingly easy for me. Frankly, it was easy because I enjoyed my job so much, and it had given me the opportunities to learn about myself and  build up my confidence. But I knew I needed a new adventure so I had to move on. Many people think about changing jobs because they hate what they do - but that's really not a good reason. If you change because you want to run away from something you like, you may develop the habit of wanting to bolt every time something becomes too hot to handle. People do well usually because they want to do well - and to 'want' or 'not want' is often within our control if we are prepared to pay the price for our decisions. That may mean working harder, having a less materially comfortable lifestyle or delaying some life choices. So I chose with my eyes open, and haven't regretted a moment since.

3) What advice would you give to parents with young children that have just started off playing or learning musical instruments?

Well, for a start I'd want to know WHY parents make their children learn to play music in the first place! I'm a huge believer that every child should learn learn music as part of their basic education - but only for the right reasons, and when the learning objectives are correct. I am told that some parents think that learning music makes their children smarter, or pay for piano lessons as a kind of status symbol. Those reasons are certainly not right, even though the children may inadvertently gain from their music lessons if they are lucky to have a good teacher.

The ancient Chinese wanted their scholars to be well versed in 四艺(琴棋书画)referring to the four arts of music, chess, calligraphy & painting. In the west, from antiquity to the Renaissance, the Quadrivium (numbers, geometry, music & cosmology) was the model for a classical education. It is not a coincidence that music appears in both. Music requires you to deal with complex mathematical thought processes and the creative ability to express ideas and emotion at the same time. So make sure your children are doing that when they learn and play music - not merely imitate what they hear on a recording or developing muscle memory. If they do that, then at least music will really become something that will engage their minds, their hearts and become way for them to communicate with another human being. 

If the child is exceptionally talented or passionate about it, and it is clear that he/she wants to spend a lot more time on music, or even become a professional in the future - it is important they they balance the need to have technical mastery of their instrument or learning new pieces of music, with the development of other domains. They need to love to listen to music, not just classical but all kinds of music, they need to develop a curiosity about the history of music and the science/technology behind instruments and sounds ... the list just goes on and on, but most of all, they need to be given the chance to live their lives like any other child would with enough time to play with their friends, read, watch TV, be naughty and get a scolding, fall in love for the first time, so on and so forth. A good musician needs to have something to say, not just the means to say it. As a musician matures, it is his/her memories, his good taste, his sense of curiosity, adventure and humour that make him or her an artist. Sadly, if he or she has missed all that because of being locked up for 8 hours in a practice room as a child, then there's no way to get it back.

4) In yr opinion, what are the prospects for young musicians in S'pore, say 10 years from now?

I think the prospects are GREAT - and let me tell you why.

I really do believe that every child needs to learn music, but I certainly don't think every child, not necessarily even every child who is actually good at playing music, should make a profession of it. I think the advice I was given was actually mostly right. Music is really a calling - like the most important and essential human professions in the world like healing the sick, teaching the young, inventing and building things. I don't know if we will need App Developers in 10 years, but I know there will be musicians, in one form or other, for as long as there are people.

One of the things that get on my nerves these days is when someone finds out what I do for a living and remarks "Wah, you're so lucky that you're chasing your dreams!" What this person does not realise is how hard musicians have to work, how life can be filled with anxiety when you don't know when is your next gig, and what you will lose if you cannot continue to play music as a livelihood - but I've learnt to let it go. We do need to believe in ideals. We need to believe that someone can 'chase a dream' even if I can't. Do you really want to live in a society where everyone only does something because it is practical or they have to in order to stay alive? 

The truth is, there have never been a time when there was, and there never will be a time when there are enough paying jobs for musicians. The livelihood of professional musicians will always be subjected to prevailing tastes and the state of the economy. It's not a fact that most talented or most skilled will definitely prevail - we know there are really good musicians who find it hard to land a job, while other mediocre ones may make a good living. No degrees prestigious schools or famous teachers can guarantee anything. It's going to be tough - and that's when knowing and believing in WHY you are doing what you are doing really makes all the difference. Those of us who have that kind of relationship with music may still complain a lot - but given a choice, we'd still pick this life over another, maybe easier path because we feel it is a privilege, and a blessing so it can only be great. There will be ups and downs because good times, like bad times never last forever - musicians need to roll with it themselves just like everyone else, and make the kind of music that will fuel the wildest celebratory parties, comfort those who have lost something precious, and record down our stories to be remembered by future generations. 

In the mood of celebrating SG50, Adrian would also like to share with you an upcoming concert by BHSO on 25 Jan (Sun).

“JOY!”, the “Overture in C – The Story of Story” offers a rare glimpse into Mr Monteiro’s rich and diverse musical personality. Incorporating a line from the well-loved national song, “One People, One Nation, One Singapore”, which he composed in 1990, the Overture tells the history of Singapore – how the country began from a sleepy fishing village through to modern day.

“JOY!” will culminate in the performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. The symphony is often best known for the theme, “Ode to Joy”, featured in the choral finale of the last movement, inspiring hope and joy among audiences worldwide. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 will be presented by the 80-strong orchestra, comprising primarily amateur musicians with a passion for music, and will be conducted by music director and conductor, Adrian Tan. The orchestra will be joined by soloists as well as trained and amateur singers of “The Joy Chorale”, formed by the Singapore community, and led by chorus mistress, Khor Ai Ming.

Tickets are available through SISTIC
Student/Senior Citizen/NSF: $8
Standard: $15
Package of 2: $12 each
Package of 4: $10 each
10% discount for PAssion Card 

Other Information
Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra Website:
Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra Facebook Fanpage:
Adrian Tan Facebook Fanpage:


  1. Hi Jenn,
    I find this interview very inspiring! Especially on pt 3. Agree wholeheartedly. Will try and see if I can get Jo to go for this. : ) Have a lot to learn on music! Only my middle child is learning music. He really loves to listen and play music.

  2. See you there! We will be going too!


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