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There was some discussion, I have a few friends who have kids who are around that age where they’re getting started on music. I have gone through the mill myself, and I have some opinions about this.

Before everything else, I want to say that however critical I sound about what’s gone down over the years, I am on balance more satisfied than dissatisfied about the music education I received. Similarly I talk about some of the mistakes my parents have made but I don’t fault them when it comes to effort. There are other students who only went at it for a few years, and then they quit in a huff. Obviously I have it better than them. To do anything, you need three things, talent, hard work and opportunity. I’m a lucky guy because I have had all three. That said, there are roads that I wish I hadn’t gone down and a few that I’m still a little divided about whether I should have gone down that path or not.

Also, one of the main points I will make is that a musical life is a different thing for everybody. That would mean that depending of what kind of a person your kid is, my advice may or may not be relevant. But I think the value here is in the sort of questions that ought to be asked from time to time, and obviously it’s for you and not for me to find the answers.

I studied the piano for 10 years between 5 and 15. I was sorted into a class with talented people, and we did a few things that were probably quite unconventional for people that age. We analysed music. We had to write music as projects. We went through the ABRSM grades. Possibly everybody felt that you had to be better piano players.

It was a difficult and lonely time, looking back. I didn’t necessarily think so but when you’re a kid you don’t really have anything to compare it with. Like everybody else, I probably didn’t like practicing, and I was not a very good player. I’ve never been very good with my hands. But I have a pair of excellent ears, I have perfect pitch, I can listen to a lot of things and tell you what everybody’s doing. It’s just a different kind of talent. Some people can play beautifully, but ask them to play something that’s not written down, ask them to improvise, ask them to write original music, ask them to play by ear, they’ll screw it up.

I suppose back in the old days, piano classes were only for the rich and wealthy classes. Singapore really only had a middle class in the 1970s. In fact I don’t really know whether it still has one. During the 80s, music instruction was pretty old school. It was drill, drill, drill. I went to Yamaha music school, and you know, they were run by the Japanese, and while I didn’t have Japanese instructors, they left their imprint on everything. Discipline was everything. You were supposed to practice all the time. They frowned upon you having fun. It was all about conformity, keeping your head down, and “being humble”.

So I was stuck in this cycle where things were depressing, and because they were depressing, it was harder to work at the music. It was just this painful slog that I had to go through, my just wanting to get it over as soon as I could. I didn’t really like the music that much. The classical music people were quite uppity about all other forms of music, and often cautioned us about listening to too much “inferior” music. Perhaps I didn’t like my music teachers very much and they reciprocated the sentiment.

But here’s where the issues become muddy: I wasn’t failing. I was doing just enough. I scraped grade 6, grade 7 and grade 8. If I had quit before grade 8, I would probably be regretting it today. In a way it was like a marathon – you had to slug it out until the bitter end so that you could take home the prize. There was always this sort of ambivalence about the whole thing. There were good things about a classical music education. It was probably the most structured of all the types of music, and you learnt things that you could apply anywhere else. Today – and this would be a pretty snide comment, but not far from the truth. I’m grateful for my classical music background because it made me understand jazz. It’s like saying the one and only use for Internet Explorer is to enable you to install Chrome or Firefox.

Still, it taught me so much about music. It’s basically impossible for me to know how my musical life would have turned out without it. I can just take apart a piece of music just by hearing it a few times. I know who’s doing what. I know if a musical idea’s interesting or it’s trite. I know about ornaments, but then again, I don’t give a shit. I know what belongs to what scale and what harmonises or doesn’t harmonise. (And even if it doesn’t harmonise, so what?)

So there were two things I now know about those lessons that I didn’t know back then. First is that my teachers actually did have some appreciation for my talent, even though they were screaming at me all the time. What happened was that they did tell my parents something, but they chose to withhold that message from me, and there was some mix-up, I used to be very puzzled at my teachers telling me “you think you’re very great, and you’re just complacent”. It didn’t make sense to me, because why would I think that I’m great when all you ever do is scold me? Second is that people who did make it through that class were very well placed to do something musical with their lives. I’ve seen people in that class turn out to be conductors of choirs, university professors, nominated members of parliament (who are also performers on the side), etc etc. But it’s a little hard to see the larger picture when the only thing you hear are people bitching about you.

I don’t hate classical music, but it’s almost certain that I admire it more than I love it. I’ve listened to the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th hundreds of times and till today, I’m really impressed with – the duh duh duh DUH is really famous. But what it really is to me is how many ideas he can squeeze it with that duh duh duh DUH. There are literally hundreds of “duh duh duh DUH” in those 10 minutes. It is rich with ideas. Extremely rich. Beethoven took the duh duh duh DUH and made it into everything but the kitchen sink.

But in many ways it can be extremely sterile and conservative. These are a bunch of guys whose primary job is to suck up to nobility and whose secondary job is producing music. They’ve only decided – and this was barely two hundred years ago – that augmented 4ths are OK. At least it’s not as bad as the Chinese pentatonic system, and I heard that they only have five notes because it’s the only way you can have a scale where nothing clashes with anything else.

To be sure there are a lot of people out there who will take the other side of the argument, that classical music is a superior form of art, and in many ways it is. But I’ll leave that to them. The main point I’m trying to make is that music education has to take into account the preferences of the student. You cannot impose a certain style and taste upon an individual. He is who he is.

They’re doing research now, and one of the things is that different people have different preferences when it comes to music. Understanding a person’s taste in music is very very revealing of his inner psychology. There are studies done about this. I like complex music (thus I don’t completely hate classical) but I also like my music to be slightly chaotic (which is why I prefer jazz). Conversely, take somebody like my sister, she’s a classical person and I could never convert her to jazz. Hip Hop didn’t exist in those days, it hadn’t gotten big. Chuck D had barely gotten to know Flavor Flav when I got started with music. I once read a comment that somebody said, “why is it that the greatest music is sad music?” Ultimately it tells me more about the person who said it than it does about music in general.

Is taste subjective or objective? People differ amongst themselves when it comes to which genres of music they prefer. So the classical guy will turn his nose up at rap, the rap guy will turn his nose up at rock, the rock guy will turn his nose up at funk, etc etc. But for people who like the same genre, or the same artist, there is broad agreement. If you were to choose the best Rolling Stones albums, most people will agree that they are “Exile”, “Sticky Fingers”, “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed”.

Music is NOT a universal language. Sorry guys, there are a lot of feel-good inspirational people who would have you believe otherwise. Music is more like nations and religions. It is the marking of a tribe. Any given piece of music will not appeal to everybody. Every genre of music has a certain philosophy, and if you buy into that philosophy you will buy into that music. I’m more happy with music that has a lower emotional content, that’s why I like jazz and hip hop. The emotional vocabulary of classical doesn’t always agree with me. The vibe doesn’t match. Until the modernists, classical music does not favour exotic rhythms and harmonies. It’s too neat and orderly. Even Beethoven is too neat and orderly. It’s pretty oppressive.

It would not be possible for me to listen to classical music all day, much less play it for an hour or two a day. If I had been playing jazz music instead, I would have been less disinterested. There’s no guarantee that I would have mastered it, but it would have been a less unhappy experience. So here’s the first big message for people who want to train their kids in music: make sure that what they’re playing is compatible with the person that they are. My choice of instrument, though, is absolutely the right one. I’m a pianist, the architect, the schemer of schemes.

I’d have been much happier with a kind of musical education that had more to do with composing and arranging than performing. But you know those crazy Japanese guys, they always want to hammer square pegs into round holes. They want all the kids to be pianists, I don’t know why. You had all the crazy things they said: “read the music sheets. Total fidelity to the printed sheets”. OK, that’s good for an orchestra. But something more like the jazz philosophy, where you learn theory and you have a looser set of rules would be more up my alley. “Play what’s on the page, don’t play by ear”. Don’t play by ear!!! WTF!!!

So some of you might be wondering, “why doesn’t he just quit”. It wasn’t obvious that I was failing, people around me had limited imaginations and limited options. The music that I liked was looked down upon. What can you do? At least it taught me something about the world we live in, and I think that was how I came to the conclusion that I’m going to be leading a very miserable life if I allowed other peoples’ opinions to be dictating what I did with my music. First and foremost, I have to go my own way, second, I have to obey the law and after that pleasing everybody else is some kind of a bonus.

That brings me to the first piece of advice that I would give to a parent who’s getting their kid started on music education. From time to time, check whether it’s the appropriate musical education which suits the type of musician your kid is. And – surprise, surprise – he is what he is, not what you want him to be.

If you look at the way that classical music teachers are being portrayed, they are tough taskmasters, possibly even sadistic, as in the movie the “Piano Teacher” with Isabelle Huppert. There is also “Page Turner” and “Shine”. Of course, if you’ve watched “Whiplash”, it’s also no different for jazz. These are caricatures in movies and they stretch the truth quite a bit, but setting a kid on a music journey is something that’s long and arduous. (Of course, the fact that it’s long and arduous could be said to build character and could be seen as a good thing, but don’t be blind to the fact that it’s long and arduous).

Be aware of the alternatives. What’s going to happen is usually a compromise between what’s out there and what kind of person your kid actually is. A more general point that applies to parenting in general is that it’s just a really bad idea to be forcing something through. The kid has to have some input, he has to think for himself, do some internal evaluation.

My next point is that music is a universe unto itself. Because of my unhappy experiences, I wasn’t willing to talk about them to the guys at school. Probably the shame of not measuring up. In many ways I was a runt of that “advanced class” and I’m sure that most of them could play better than me. But I’m also sure that I have a better musical brain than many of them. You could say I had a unique skill set.

I built up a Chinese wall between my musical life and those around me at school. It wasn’t a secret that I played the piano, but the details were not really talked about. I participated in no music ECA, be it a band or a choir or a Chinese orchestra. I’m not saying that the ECAs that I took were lousy ones, or that wanting to avoid musical ECAs narrowed my options – I remember leaving secondary school with an A2 grade for my ECAs, hardly an indication that I had wasted my time. But I knew that if I had to make music for my ECA, on top of all the time I was spending on the piano, I wouldn’t be happy about it.

That was not ideal. I think my mother wanted me to have a Grade 8, and she didn’t want me to fail. But there was no coherence about what is going on. And in many ways this reflects the Asian mentality. You have to do well in music, work hard and play the piano beautifully. But you are not allowed to be a musician. It was totally bonkers. Then you work so hard for fuck? After a particular tough music lesson, I asked her why I had to study music. She said, “it’s good for you to learn how to relax”. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

So we had a situation where my study of music did not lead to any discernible improvement in my social life, which is pretty much the point of it all. Some people learn it to jam with their friends. Some people learn it for their church. I wasn’t learning it for any real reason at all. Maybe, I suspected, it was to satisfy my mother’s vanity. But possibly she believed that what she was doing was absolutely the right thing.

Well until I was 16, I could say it was somebody else’s fault. I’ve had opportunities after that to form a band and set something up, and I never did anything, and the time’s ticking away. As anybody who’s ever read any band biography would know, setting up and managing a band is an extremely fraught business. The amount of give and take is really incredible. The ability to share a creative vision with another person who’s different from you is so difficult.

So here’s the second point: Understand how music is going to be integrated into the rest of your kid’s life – if it serves a social function, or what.

The same year that I quit classical piano – something that was a year or two overdue – I started turning on to other types of music. Nirvana was about to take off. It was a special time, in the words of a documentary, “the year that punk broke”. I think that 1991 – like 1983, 1977, 1966, 1971 or 1964 – were vintage years for pop music. In 1992, I started discovering what was going to be known for a brief time as “alternative music”. Of course, Nirvana was not the first punk band, and neither was it the first great punk band. Before them were the Pixies, Husker Du, the Sex Pistols and the Stooges. But they were the ones who broke into the mainstream into a big way, and blurred the line between the alternative / underground / independent label culture, and the major labels.

It was the year that I began my record collection for real. The first album that I bought with my own pocket money, on cassette, for $5.50 instead of the customary $8.90 because it was a budget title, was Led Zeppelin 4. I wanted to find out what this fabled “Stairway to Heaven” sounded like, and I wanted to figure out if all this stuff about it playing a satanic verse when flipped backwards was true. Around the same time I befriended somebody from school who seemed to have a really hip taste in music.

I had been tired of listening to Firehouse and White Lion and all that bullshit rule the airwaves, but this was a refreshing burst of fresh air. That friend of mine was attuned to all the music that was going on in the UK. The pop historians will know that the period from 1987 to 1997 was an astonishing time for music in the UK. In fact, from 1977 to 1997 was some sort of a golden age. There was madchester. There was shoegaze. There was C86 indie pop. U2 was getting turned on to all this stuff when they made “Achtung Baby”. 1992 was as good as anytime to get acquainted with pop music. Yes, it was a bummer that I didn’t live through the 60s but the early 90s were as good, maybe even better.

So here’s the thing. Together, me and my friend exchanged tapes. We exchanged opinions over what was good and what wasn’t. We talked about the relative merits of U2 and Nirvana. After Spin or Rolling Stone or even BigO magazine (this was the main music magazine of Singapore during the 90s) came up with their year end list of albums, we would talk about which one belonged there and which one was overrated rubbish.

I had my wonderful pair of ears that could x-ray any piece of music that got popped into my stereo set. I was a bona fide second musical education for me, this time in pop music. Unlike the classical music education, this one emphasized creative listening. This one was less listening to a person in authority, and more like you were playing the critic, trying to figure out how the critics thought, trying to understand what kind of merit they saw in the recordings that were acknowledged as classics. Understanding what was possible and what was not possible. Understanding what typical records were like, and understanding what were the outstanding qualities in those classics. I think I didn’t listen to enough music during the classical music education. It was just drill drill drill, and maybe some people felt that having an extensive music collection was a frivolous thing. Maybe there was too much emphasis on sheet music, and with that too much emphasis on playing exactly what’s written down.

But that’s wrong. You have to trust your ears, and you have to trust your heart. You can’t have your music teacher leading you by the nose and telling you this is right, this is wrong. You have to have a mind of your own, your own opinion about things, it’s absolutely essential in any musician’s education.

That friend of mine was a useful resource. He turned me on to rap music. He explained to me why Madonna and Prince were the greatest. (I don’t agree but I understood some of what he was saying.) In 1992, he hunted down an expensive import copy of “Blue Lines” by Massive Attack and generously allowed me to copy it onto cassette. This was quite a while before it became a commonly acknowledged masterpiece. He’s a great Bjork fan and incredibly Bjork’s “Debut” wasn’t the first I had heard from her. She was a guest vocalist on 808 State’s “Ex:El”. Primarily we think of her as being something of a fashionista but in the intervening years I’ve revisited “Post”, “Homogenic” and “Vespertine” and come to the conclusion that she’s also something of a musical genius. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a great fan of FKA Twigs.

Well, he’s got a great pair of ears and the miraculous thing is that he was not educated in music at all. So it surprised me not at all to find out that he once had a gig reviewing music for a Singapore magazine which had a circulation of thousands.

I probably acquired anywhere up to 100 cassette albums. No mean feat for somebody who – well, I get a certain amount of pocket money, and I never asked for more than that. I basically had 3 items of expenditure: transport, food and cassettes. I bought the bare minimum amount of food: no snacks, just meals. Anything more, and I’d have less money for music. Building up the canon one by one. The most popular titles were available on cassette. The slightly more obscure ones, only on CD (and therefore, with a few exceptions, out of reach). Occasionally I would find a rare cassette copy that I wouldn’t find anywhere else. That’s how I got my Steely Dans, my Joni Mitchells and my Patti Smiths. Well I’m a little more squarish than my friend and I was more interested in 60s and 70s rock than he was. A few years later I would educate myself in jazz music in a similar manner.

So, the third point: Understanding that listening to music is one half of the education. You cannot just be playing one hour every day if you have no understanding of what the end product is going to be like, or understanding why it matters to the end product. Listening is a crucial part of musical education.

For me, there is a third musical education, and this time it wasn’t that much of an eye opener. One day, I wrote a song that wasn’t disappointing, and it wasn’t a piece of crap. I had written my first composition (because it was homework) at the age of 8, and it was only when I was 21 that I wrote something that sounded like it could work. But that’s less dramatic, and that’s certainly an adult education, albeit one that rests on the foundations laid by the first two educations.

It’s pretty essential that I create some product at some point. The next 5-10 years will be essential. I hadn’t done very much up till now, but there’s one thing that’s crucial: if a song pops into my head and I think that it’s good, I write it down, and maybe I’ll file it away, but I’m sitting on maybe 50 of these songs. A few of them are pretty good. Almost none of them have lyrics. But it’s always very useful to have a good arsenal. The one thing I forced myself to do was to keep on writing music. Why? Because I looked at Brian Wilson, I looked at Paul McCartney, and I looked at Stevie Wonder. These are the masters, but I couldn’t help but notice that they did most of their good stuff when they’re young. It’s a cautionary tale. So you have to keep on writing when you’re young, lest you grow old and lose your mojo. I was doing the equivalent of freezing my eggs.

Being an artist is, to a larger degree than I’m maybe comfortable with, a social activity. Unfortunately one element is essential, which is how are you going to be a part of a scene, how are you going to collaborate and work with others. At the moment, I have musical visions and I’d probably be hell bent on producing that. And then what? The next 5-10 years are essential because I need to have something done before I get old.

Ultimately, being an artist is like being a politician. It is a form of public service. You volunteer your time and effort and you hope to shape the world that you live in, as well as be of service to other people. You translate your vision into reality. There will always be people who are not going to like you, and instead of doing nothing you still have to work, and you still have to take the fruits of your labour and pimp it around to people. Half of your work is about making the other half of your work count.

I don’t expect that I will ever be a popular musician. But at the same time I’m also not expecting that I will grow old without having anything to my name. It’s easy to work in stealth mode, and sometimes it produces the best product, when you’re away from pressure. But sometimes I have to put myself in front of other people and maybe that will force myself to consider that I can’t always be hiding away, that the clock is ticking, and I’m not going to live forever.

So, to recap, here are the three things that you have to remember when you’re planning for your kid’s musical education.

  1. From time to time, check whether it’s the appropriate musical education which suits the type of musician your kid is. And – surprise, surprise – he is what he is, not what you want him to be.
  2. Understand how music is going to be integrated into the rest of your kid’s life – if it serves a social function, or what.
  3. Understanding that listening to music is one half of the education. You cannot just be playing one hour every day if you have no understanding of what the end product is going to be like, or understanding why it matters to the end product.
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