Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The 8th CSS Composer of the Month for 2021 is Albert TAY! Albert is an internationally acclaimed composer-conductor who has delivered keynote lectures and professional development courses for musicians and educators, and has given workshops for choral and instrumental ensembles. An Associate Member of CSS, he is the founding director of the Kodaly Academy of Music (Singapore), which has been spearheading the Asia Kodaly Symposium (AKS) in collaboration with the Kodaly Institute of the Liszt Academy of Music. Most recently, Albert was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit of the Republic of Hungary for the promotion of Hungarian classical music culture and the Kodály Concept in Asia.
Interviewer: GU Wei
Tell us about your musical journey! How did you get into conducting, composing, and music education?
I’ll attempt to be succinct but at the same time, being brought up with traditional values of 饮水思源 (bear in mind where one’s happiness comes from), I would like to pay tribute to the many mentors and teachers who were helped made me who I am - please indulge me as I leave some interesting nuggets of history here for posterity and for my own reminiscences for looking back when I grow older!
I started off learning the electone at Yamaha’s Junior Music Course where I had a lot of fun! Interestingly, serendipity led to my Yamaha teacher Mrs Tan teaching my daughter and son as well! It was very educational for me to observe how she taught my kids and I’m really super glad I had her lay the foundations for me! I then went on to piano lessons and absolutely loved practicing, improvising and writing tunes on the piano. I could do this all day, everyday during holidays, stopping only for meals, toilet breaks, or when the family wants to watch prime time TV. My love of orchestral music began with a quaint, makeshift Indian stall selling an assortment of newspapers, books & magazines right opposite my piano teacher’s place. There, I discovered and awaited eagerly, regular magazine issues of “The Classical Collection” and the accompanying cassette tapes that recorded the symphonies, piano works etc. of masters like Bach Beethoven Brahms. My earliest choral experience was being roped into the school choir at the (now defunct) Griffiths Primary School to join in the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) by my favourite school music teacher & form teacher, Mrs. Bernadette Thong. I could still recall the handwritten manuscript, simple one page arrangement of Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower). Nothing sophisticated like the stuff most choirs do nowadays, but it was a beautiful and sincere arrangement suitable for children and the Zeitgeist.
I was in the Music Elective Programme (MEP) back at my alma mater Dunman High School. But being quite the free spirit, independent learner and voracious reader - I finished that Roger Kamien textbook from cover to cover within weeks of receiving it and was a real troublemaker in class! I was quite the angsty “emo” teenager! Aside: Sorry teachers for giving you all such a hard time! I’m emulating you now and paying it forward by being extra kind to my angsty/weird teenage students now! :)
Formative years in the choral excellence programme at Tampines Junior College choir under Mr. Nelson Kwei was really inspiring and rekindled my love for music. It was here where the opportunity for music leadership inspired me to become a conductor. Through Mr. Kwei, I was introduced to my first voice teacher Mr. Thomas Kuek. Mr. Kwei also introduced Dr. Zechariah Goh to me who helped to open up a special opportunity to audition for the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) as a voice major (there wasn’t any conducting major). Army helped give me space and time to understand what I wanted, and I dropped Communication Studies (journalism and writing was my other love) at Nanyang Technological University and entered NAFA immediately! If not for them, I might never have started this music journey!
Entering NAFA was life-changing and perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt intellectually engaged and emotionally excited about going to school to study something that I was deeply interested in and passionate about.
Things really picked up from there. I joined The Philharmonic Chamber Choir (TPCC) under Maestro Lim Yau for 2 years with solo bass-baritone William Lim as my ‘desk partner’. The brief experience at TPCC completely revolutionized my sound ideal and how I hear and approached European romantic music. As a young voice major at the time, the golden opportunity to sing in such a fabulous choir beside an illustrious and humble soloist on a weekly basis was a fantastic education in itself.
Another major milestone for me was meeting mentor Ms. Jennifer Tham. With the blessings of Mr. Richard Adams who was Head of Music at the time, the first conducting module at NAFA was started by the choral conducting class where Jen and I sat down and discussed what were the skillsets a conductor should have. Although each module lasted 6 months within each academic year, Jen was really kind to this music nerd and gave me free ‘lessons’ for the next 6 months and this lasted till I graduated! I eventually joined the SYC Ensemble Singers for a good 7-8 years where I spent the best years of my 20s as her assistant conductor there and in the school choirs, singing avant-garde music of living composers, touring to various countries for music festivals, symposiums etc. These precious experiences were the best music education anyone can get here and inform my practice and outlook to this day.
The spark for serious composition study came in NAFA Year 2 - composition was a compulsory module for all students at the time and I loved lessons with Dr. Zechariah Goh so much that I seriously explored switching to composition as a major. It was not meant to be, so upon graduation, I took up composition lessons with Dr. Kelly Tang, Mr. Leong Yoon Pin and continued to work with Dr. Goh as well. Childhood preoccupation and play was now a serious intellectual activity. Marrying these with a study of orchestration, studying alongside both Western and Chinese instrumentalists back at NAFA etc. really helped develop my sensibilities as a conductor for orchestral forces, something that came in really handy here and abroad! I personally think composition should be a compulsory study for all conductors and music majors!
Jen really drummed into me the idea that conductors of school choirs are not only artists but also music educators too and that we must thus act and teach as such. The idea of a character and values-based music education that is at the core of my practice, was also largely inspired by her. As a young conductor then, I remember experiencing real culture shock at the stark differences between some of the schools I taught. The fact is that for some of these children, Extra-Curricular Activities like choir (ECAs as it was known back then) was one of the very few opportunities where they can experience quality art-making. I was determined to do right by these children and be the best music educator I can be.
So naturally I participated actively in the all sorts of masterclasses and workshops here and overseas. I was in just about all the programmes and masterclasses that the Young Musician’s Society (YMS) organized back in the day, and this was where I eventually got to meet and was inspired by another beloved mentor, Dr. László Nemes, director of the Kodaly Institute of the Liszt Academy of Music. One thing led to another and studying at the Kodaly Institute became a reality. There we had to learn EVERYTHING to a high degree of proficiency be it in voice, piano, conducting, score-reading, solfege, ear-training, pedagogy etc. We were trained first and foremost, to be fine musicians, then as educators. You can read more about it in another interview I did for the Central and Eastern European Chamber of Commerce (Singapore) here.
Congratulations for being awarded the Gold Cross of Merit of the Republic of Hungary earlier this year! Could you share with us your goal and motivation for promoting the Kodály method in Singapore?
Thanks! I was never into la chasse aux diplômes so it was a genuine surprise and a huge honour to be nominated by the Hungarian Ambassador István Szerdaheyli for the Gold Cross. To actually be awarded a state decoration like the Gold Cross by the President of Hungary was just absolutely surreal!
My own personal goals and motivations for promoting the Kodály Concept in Singapore (and beyond), is enshrined in the following Asia Kodaly Symposium Mission:
Having experienced first-hand how these ideas and tools have had a transformational impact on so many of my own students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, I truly believe that sharing this with Singapore and the rest of the world is what’s needed to create a more equitable, and musically literate world! Imagine a world where everyone reads and understands music at a deeper level, perhaps everyone will be better equipped to appreciate what living composers are trying to express with their music! On a personal level, I’m also motivated and inspired every time I meet and learn from a new speaker for the Asia Kodaly Symposium and/or the local Studiorum Series. It has helped me keep up-to-date by constantly learning from some of the foremost thinkers and brilliant musicians/educators from around the world. But I’m not the only one doing this! I’m glad to say that there are many Kodály Institute alumni in their respective spheres who are also doing good work right here in Singapore and in every other corner of the globe!
What are some of your upcoming projects we can expect?
The pandemic has made long-term planning a real challenge. But my team and I are embarking on a myriad of things ranging from the International Kodaly Certification, app development, Schola Cantorum Singapore Academy (a new training programme for children) and the next Asia Kodaly Symposium in 2022. Do subscribe to our newsletter here if you’d to be informed about our latest projects!!
Do you have any advice for aspiring Singaporean conductors and composers?
If we do not compose and perform the Singaporean music of today, we will not have Singaporean music for tomorrow! Please keep writing/conducting more, share your work with others and practice 40 hours a day! 😄