Keeping the music going

It has been said that music heals, connects, and empowers across space and demographics. Amidst larger challenges in society, the arts have been a source of inspiration and support. But since March 2020, the NUS Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) has had to close its performance halls to the public due to the pandemic.

Performances and live events are the lifeblood for a music conservatory, for its students and faculty, and the wider external community it serves.

How did YST keep the music going?

Taking the music online

Amid the implementation of full telecommuting/home-based learning arrangements, YST continued to find new ways in music-making, pedagogy, and production.

While students were unable to perform to in-person audiences, they became more involved in running livestreams and producing their own shows. The graduating Class of 2021 curated, produced, and performed UNMASK 2021, a virtual concert narrating their undergraduate life. It was staged at Victoria Concert Hall and interspersed self-filmed videos with live performance. On the other end of the undergraduate journey, the freshmen cohorts from 2020 and 2021 successfully navigated the challenges of collaborating and making music during the pandemic, presenting imaginative new pieces that they created together for their First Year Creative Projects.

YST began to embrace alternative presentation formats. The on-going Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) Lunchtime Concerts series, which began in 2007, was put on hold for most of 2020, returning in virtual form in October 2020. The final virtual concert of 2020, titled WARES and WAVES, interweaved poetry and original music created by the Conservatory’s Text and Music class in response to the Tang Shipwreck collection housed at ACM. The GENFREE concert series saw YST students, faculty and alumni exploring fusions of musical genres in a series of livestream-only concerts in collaboration with restaurant and jazz & blues club Maduro.

Associate Professor Brett Stemple, Vice Dean, Ensembles, Research & Professional Awareness, shared, “Before COVID, we were already embracing technology, interdisciplinary connections, student creative agency and collaboration. The pandemic brought numerous pedagogical and production challenges for us, but also spurred us to innovate and further embed these elements in our approach. As a result, we have not only taken our music online, but also been able to energise it with new sparks including storytelling, multimedia, animation and alternative presentation modes.”

Remembering community

Drawing on platforms like Zoom and pre-recorded videos, YST continued with a range of community outreach projects, such as performing at the Singapore Hospice Council’s Silver Jubilee Charity Show, organising a Zoom party for Institute of Mental Health patients, and volunteering at Sengkang General Hospital, Ren Ci Hospital, and more.

“Making music amidst the pandemic has certainly presented a new set of challenges for me, especially as a wind player. Amidst safety measures, events were cancelled, and playing and practicing together was also restricted. This took a hit on my morale initially and I really missed the human connection in music-making,” shared Music & Society-French Horn major Linnet Sim. “Through all this, it has been very meaningful to be able to keep up with music-making and community engagement virtually. I feel fortunate to be able to bring comfort and entertainment to various groups of people through music, and it is a great reminder of why I love doing what I do!”

The Conservatory continued to engage the wider musical ecosystem, staging Symphonies Simple & Philharmonic Friends, where the YST Orchestral Institute performed alongside young musicians (around 10 to 12 years old) from the Kids’ Philharmonic. As a pilot for returning to live audiences, this concert also featured a small, invited audience for the very first time since March 2020 – held with the nod from the Ministry of Education.

Light at the end of the tunnel

As Singapore began transiting to a safe and sustainable re-opening and encouraged by the success of staging Symphonies Simple & Philharmonic Friends, YST was hopeful of organising its first public concert.

Finally, the opportunity came in October 2021. The Conservatory successfully staged two public concerts - Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and the faculty recital Of Salt and Pepper..., where up to 200 audience members were allowed. Both were nearly fully subscribed.

Mr Joachim Theodore Lim, YST Artist Faculty, who performed in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, said, “It felt really great to be performing again in front of a live audience; to feel their energy and attention, and to reciprocate in dialogue through our music. That is something that is difficult to replicate in ‘virtual’ performances. Our experience in the pandemic truly reminds us how precious it is to have a stage and audience, even if they may take different forms.”

Since then, YST has managed to hold numerous other public concerts and continued its digital offering. But whether the sound of music continues to reverberate through its concert hall or YouTube livestreams, the Conservatory will be sure to keep the music going.

Take a listen

Orchestral Institute: Transfigurations
The spell of transfiguration is one that ennobles the human will, enabling a fearless and decisive shattering of boundaries—the illusory line between an artist and their art, life, and death. The composers featured on this programme were both 25 years of age and in the prime of their youth when they penned the works to be performed, each bringing decidedly different musical approaches to artistic and spiritual transformation.

When Milo tin cans, rock music and Western as well as Chinese percussion instruments collide - a grooving, rambunctious percussion quartet composed by Mr Per Andreasson (drummer of Swedish rock band Royal Republic), performed by YST percussion students and directed by percussion faculty Mr Jonathan Fox.

A production featuring intricate rhythmic play and a thrilling diversity of timbres - the fruit of many months’ collaboration, from preparing instruments and the piece, to working with the composer and publisher, to recording and post-production.

Suite Ensemble (in collaboration with the Asian Civilisations Museum)
Taking inspiration from the Materials and Design galleries at Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), musicians from YST’s Text and Music class have created six unique musical movements in response to a piece of history or culture. Curated by Dr Chen Zhangyi and Dr Sara Florian, this musical suite intricately interweaves ACM’s objects with the talent and creativity of YST musicians.

Faculty Recital: “Of Salt and Pepper…”
The T’ang Quartet joins forces with YST faculty, alumni and students, bringing flavourful connections between the young and the seasoned, the new and the old, and across varied styles and textures.

Listen for: 
- A quintet featuring the tuba in full bass-brass glory accompanied by string quartet, in a world premiere by Malaysian composer Ms Adeline Wong

- A Brahms string sextet with the T’ang Quartet, cellist Mr Qin Li-Wei and SSO Principal Violist Ms Zhang Manchin

- A septet where string quartet meets the mellow sounds of the flute, harp and clarinet