Composing with Courage

“Composition goes beyond just knowing its grammatical structures or having a wide vocabulary – it requires you to understand music as a language.” 

This statement speaks not only to Ding Jian Han’s craft as a composer, but also a deep personal journey in composition. He shares, “The first time I really got exposed to composition was in Secondary 3 or 4 in the Music Elective Programme, where I had to write a full-length piece with a theme of Singaporean nationalism. I first had to do background research and listen to tunes from the different cultures in Singapore, and reflect on what nationalism even meant to me personally. It was such an intriguing and fulfilling process that really drew me in, and one that I still enjoy in different works even up to today!”

Starting out in composition came with its difficulties. Jian Han shares that when he joined the Music Elective Programme in Secondary 2, his peers were “way ahead” in terms of performance and theory knowledge. He credits his music teacher then, Mdm Goh Meei Yunn for her help and encouragement, which led him to continue with music and eventually decide to pursue it professionally.

Reflecting on his path, he speaks with gratitude towards his mentors. “Prior to coming to YST, I sought advice from Dr Chen Zhangyi, a YST alumnus who is currently an Assistant Professor in the Composition faculty, and has been a very inspiring and important mentor in my life. My Major teachers, Assoc Prof Peter Edwards and Mr Martin Jaggi, helped me develop a solid foundation in composition and discover my own voice as a composer, while being extremely supportive of my growth as a person.”

Jian Han taking a bow at the 2018 Conservatory Concerto Competition, where the Conservatory Orchestra premiered his work  Let me run ‘til I fade away .

Jian Han taking a bow at the 2018 Conservatory Concerto Competition, where the Conservatory Orchestra premiered his work Let me run ‘til I fade away.

An especially significant learning experience was working with Visiting Artist Steven Schick in 2017, when he conducted a concert with one of Jian Han’s works being performed. “At the time, I was struggling with knowing my vision for the composition, as well as communicating effectively with the musicians. But Mr Schick was extremely patient in working with me and the musicians to bring the piece together. He even insisted that we do a good-quality recording of the piece for my own archival, which was such a kind gesture from him. Working through this experience was truly a game-changer for me, that spurred me to grow even more as a musician.”

Since then, Jian Han has brought his works to numerous stages. His work, Let me run ‘til I fade away., was premiered by the Conservatory Orchestra at the 2018 Concerto Competition Grand Finals, and his Duet for Clarinet in Bb and Contrabass received 3rd Prize in the 2018 Asian Composers League Young Composers Competition. He was awarded the 2018/19 S R Nathan Music Scholarship in recognition of his strong performance. Outside of classical music, he also enjoys songwriting, and has composed for two musicals. Following YST, Jian Han intends to pursue further studies in Germany, having experienced its culture and music scene during a semester exchange at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media in his third year.

Jian Han receiving 3rd Prize at the 2018 Asian Composers League Young Composers Competition.

Jian Han receiving 3rd Prize at the 2018 Asian Composers League Young Composers Competition.

If composition involves expressing one’s voice through the language of music, it also requires courage to make personal and artistic choices. “Over the past four years, I’ve learned to break through personal challenges and barriers, and discovered what I like, don’t like, and want to do with my music. There will always be questioning voices that say your music is too ‘conventional’, ‘avant-garde’ or ‘not appealing to a mass audience’. Ultimately you need to remember who you are as a person, and be confident in what you seek to achieve. It’s not easy, but it’s something that will continue to drive me in what I do.”

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