Taking the LEAD!

What is it like learning and symphonising alongside peers from one of the top music academies in the world, under the direction of a world-renowned conductor?

In September this year, the NUS Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) participated in LEAD! The Orchestra Project for the first time, a collaboration between ConNext partner schools Haute école de musique Genève and the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki.

A total of 21 budding musicians made their way to Helsinki, Finland to spend two weeks with professional mentors to develop collaborative skills, leadership, and industry competencies in support of their artistic identities and future careers. They also performed with new friends from around the world, presenting three concerts across top venues across Finland, in Helsinki, Lahti, and Tampere.

YST Dean Prof Peter Tornquist shared that the LEAD! Project is one way in which YST empowers students to shape their own professional futures through working alongside like-minded international partners. “Today's young musicians need to prepare for a fast-changing future. They need to be adept performers, composers, producers and communicators; to collaborate across contexts and cultures; and to stay abreast of industry evolutions that we cannot foresee. We look forward to creating more such platforms for musical exchange and exploration.”

From amazing concert halls, inspiring music mentors and peers, to the unforgettable scenery of the Nordic region, the experience was truly unforgettable, leaving Leonid Datsiuk (Year 3, Violin), Stephen Mak (Year 4, Bassoon) and Alyssa Goh (Year 3, Violin) still buzzing when sharing their experiences at LEAD! 2022 a month after returning.

What were you most looking forward to at the start of the programme?

Leonid: Having a great time in rehearsals, meeting high-level musicians, and improving my leadership skills! I was given the opportunity to lead the Second Violins section, and while I’ve been section lead before, I was both nervous and excited as the same time as this time I would be working with conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and LEAD! mentors. Of course, representing YST, I had to do well!

Stephen: Though slightly nervous, I was looking forward to working on core symphonic repertoire with an internationally renowned conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, as well as top students from the Sibelius Academy and Geneva Conservatoire for the first time.

Alyssa: Since I will be graduating in one and a half year’s time, I was hoping to explore the other programmes of LEAD! that aim to guide young musicians to think about and prepare for a career in music. At the same time, I was prepared for the repertoire to be challenging, and the quality of the orchestral playing to be high, since we would be playing under the baton of an esteemed conductor, together with the prolific cellist Alban Gerhardt.

Much of the LEAD! Programme involved collaborating with the partner school students over many, many rehearsals. What was that like?

Leonid: It was very enjoyable! Besides the rehearsals, we also shared about our favourite recordings and musicians, from the likes of gypsy musician Roby Lakatos to Bartok.

Stephen: They were not only outstanding performers on their own, but equally outstanding performers as a team! Their ability to listen and react to each other’s musical nuances was mind-blowing and it basically felt like they were reading each other’s minds. This really made the whole collaboration a whole lot more fun and reminded me that teamwork makes the dream work!

Alyssa: The mentors encouraged us to rotate our seating positions within our sections, and this refreshing change helped us to get to know our fellow section members better! It was fascinating to find out how their experiences have shaped them into who they are today. Some of them have endured a great deal of hardships but they persevered because of their deep passion for music. This was very inspiring to me and reminded me not to take what I have for granted.

By the end of the programme, what were some of your takeaways?

Leonid: I got to work closely with violin coaches Aline Champion (Professor at the Geneva University of Music and first violinist at the Berlin Philharmonic) and Tero Latvala (violin faculty at the Sibelius Academy). We explored playing techniques, how to lead, play in sync, and support the rest of the orchestra, for example, when other instruments have important musical moments. Their advice really helped me expand my perspective on the pieces we were playing.

Stephen: I found myself immersed in music-making with my new colleagues! I was also reminded that there are plenty more skills needed for an orchestral musician to survive in the 21st century besides mastering my instrument. From being able to market myself via social media, developing a healthy mentality towards the honing of our art, and being able to maintain good relations with future colleagues, there are many more skills that can define and better equip a musician!

Alyssa: I was truly amazed at the effort that had been put into the career guidance aspect as there were so many areas to explore, from leadership, to communication, to networking, and even performance psychology! The mentors were so open and willing to share their knowledge and experience from their professional journeys.

What were some (non-music) experiences that surprised you during the trip?

Leonid: Apart from experiencing the new sights and sounds of Finland, such as travelling over to Suomenlinna, it was wonderful for us YST students to bond more. Usually in school, we are busy with our classes and activities, but on this trip, we were able to open up and share personal stories, such as why we came to YST. Even moments like unwinding after rehearsals became particularly special because we had this time and shared space together.

Stephen: I never thought I would be able to travel with my classmates halfway around the world to experience new cultures and play with such talented musicians. I felt a sense of warmth and unity with my international peers. Minutes before the second concert, I remember admiring a peaceful sunset by the dock beside the Sibelius Hall through a long horizontal window in the dressing room. It was the most sublime scenes of nature I've experienced, and it reassured me that whatever mistakes that I may make in this concert, life is bigger than those mistakes. 

Alyssa: During our rehearsal for the final concert, Maestro Jukka-Pekka shared that one of the most important elements of performing is to always make music from our hearts – to play it authentically, regardless of who we are playing it to, or how many people there are in the audience. Those words of wisdom made this the most emotionally charged performance of all the three concerts we played, and I think the audience could sense it. We were very surprised, humbled, and touched to receive a standing ovation at the end of our performance. Oh, I also found out that Finland is the land of Moomin (children's fantasy characters created by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson). The Tampere Hall we were playing at on the third day of our concert houses the only Moomin Museum in the world so there were Moomin statues all around the concert centre!

Needless to say, the trip was enriching for mind and soul for the students, each of whom came back with experiences that would continue to shape their education and careers, preparing them for the challenges of the 21st century.