Composing his next movement: YST Conservatory’s new Dean on developing a modern music education

If Norwegian composer Dr Peter Tornquist were to describe the tempo of his life since arriving in Singapore in February, it would probably be molto allegro (a musical term meaning “fast and lively”) and even fortissimo (“loud”).

As the new Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST), his schedule has been jam-packed with a symphony of musical activities.

Whether it is attending concerts at the Victoria Concert Hall or watching Conservatory student recitals, he has made time for it all.

“Even on Sunday afternoons,” the 58-year-old shared with a laugh, adding that he feels like he has been in Singapore far longer than three months “because there’s been so much happening”.

But it is all part of his plan. “This has been a strategy of mine to accept every invitation and make myself available for everything. By taking a deep dive into YST and Singapore’s musical activities, I feel like I’ve been able to get up to speed very quickly,” said Prof Tornquist, who took over the reins of the Conservatory in February.

Prof Tornquist’s excitement at orchestrating a new era for the school, a process he compares to composing a new musical score, is apparent in how his eyes light up when describing his new role as being “at the right time of harvest”.

“I’m finding so many projects, ideas and initiatives that are ready to be kickstarted,” he enthused. “The fruits are there, and so much more is waiting to bloom.”

Adapting to new tunes

As a man constantly seeking a lyrical adventure, it was little wonder that he decided to leave Norway – where he was the Principal of the Norwegian Academy of Music from 2013 to 2021 – for Singapore when the opportunity arose.

“The centre of the world used to be somewhere between the United States and Europe. But that has slowly changed, the world is now moving eastward,” noted Prof Tornquist, whose compositions have been performed by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta. 

Singapore called out to him, with its ever-changing developments and vibrant cultural mix. “There is a mindset here of never being fully contented with things as they are, but always looking at how to take it one step further,” he mused.

He feels the same spirit emanating from the corridors of the YST. “We’re a world-class conservatory, but we are always wanting to do more and better. This is quite genuine and refreshing,” he observed.

The mindset may be impressive, but it is also imperative. Much has changed in the music world over the last two decades, with the digital revolution rendering centuries-old methods of musical education obsolete.  

In the past, teaching music used to be straightforward. “Learning took place through having a very good teacher, a very strict curriculum and making students copy as much of what the masters had done before,” he explained.

But with creative talents now unleashing endless streams of original music on digital platforms like Spotify and YouTube, and the pace at which digitalisation has changed the world, that is no longer enough.

“They (students) simply cannot copy the masters,” he said. “They have to think independently. We have to train students to teach themselves, and to reinvent themselves every time something changes.”

“That is what I bring to the mix – an understanding that we have to be nimble, that we have to be constantly changing,” he said.

Making space to hit the right notes

He aims to help YST students push their musical boundaries, by providing them with ample space to explore collaborations and ideas – similar to being in a start-up.

The school’s Orchestra Hall – typically used for rehearsals – will be undergoing a major technology makeover as it transforms from practice space to experimental lab.

Big screens and sophisticated sound, lighting and broadcast equipment will all be installed as the hall becomes a “playground for students”, he said.

Beyond the physical spaces, he is also focusing his attention on the school’s educational offering, reviewing the current curriculum (which was designed in 2018) to ensure it stays applicable in the light of the ever-changing modern-day music scene.

Just as he infuses his works with live electronics and musical improvisation, he is also looking to introduce improvisation as a core tenet into modules. “A key part of music-making is being creative; it’s about how quickly you have to adapt,” he said.

These initiatives are just some of many, coming as the Conservatory approaches its 20th year since founding. “Even as we celebrate this milestone and look back on our achievements, we’re continuing to evolve new ways forward.”

Beyond music, Prof Tornquist is also adapting to Singapore in other ways: running and eating. This seasoned runner has already pounded the trails of MacRitchie Reservoir, West Coast Park and the Botanic Gardens.

Chicken rice is also growing on him, as evidenced by the wide grin emerging at the mention of local food. “It’s wonderful, it’s brilliant, it’s a mix of everything,” he said.

While he continues to adjust to Singapore and YST, he already knows what to tell his new batch of students on their first day of school – which is still a few months’ away. 

“Be curious and be bold. Make full use of your time here so you can grow as much as possible,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity.”

He is leading by example, as he prepares to leave for yet another concert at 7.30pm. “All part of the job,” he says enthusiastically. Making every day count, poco a poco (“little by little”).