Tan Tzu Kuang (Year 4, Piano) was named winner of the 2018 YST Conservatory Concerto Competition. At the grand finals which were adjudicated by Maestro Hans Graf, he performed MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 23, accompanied by the Conservatory Orchestra under the baton of Principal Conductor Jason Lai. The other grand finalists were Wang Yuqi (Year 3, Cello) who performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107, and Shayna Yap (Year 3, Piano) who performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37. In addition, the Conservatory Orchestra performed Let me run 'til I fade away, a work by student Ding Jian Han (Year 4, Composition).
We sat down with Tzu Kuang in the midst of an action-packed senior year, to hear about his musical experiences.
How did it feel winning the Concerto Competition?
Honestly, I didn’t expect it. When I first came into YST, I felt very far behind compared to others. The first time I competed in my second year, I injured my left hand from over-practising and had to drop out as I wasn’t prepared enough. So this year when my name was called as departmental finals winner, I was thanking the judge while crying! It was pretty dramatic and really funny. But in that moment the memories of the pain and hard work just flashed by and I felt that my efforts truly bore fruit. Winning the grand prize on top of that was the icing on the cake. The real prize for me was performing with an orchestra – something you don’t get to do often!
What inspired you to pursue music?
I didn’t initially like piano that much. But when I was 11 or 12, a teacher took me to see a recital by Yong Sue Yi (’08, Piano), a second-generation YST student also studying under Mr Albert Tiu. I still remember that she played Beethoven’s Appassionata and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2. Her performance inspired me so much that I said, “this is what I want to do”. I began working really hard to catch up with other kids who were more advanced.
Over time, I’ve learnt to not just practice hard but also practice smart. At YST, I try to get involved in as many things as possible – and in that process I’ve learnt to practice more efficiently.
What makes an efficient practice session for you?
I use a trick where I practise for 30 minutes, then take a 10-minute break. And it has to be a disciplined break such as taking a walk and having a conversation with someone, reading a book, or doing a bit of homework – not just playing on your phone. Then I go back to another 30 minutes of practice. I find that this makes my mind the most efficient rather than burning long blocks of time. Other than that, my practice methods are also specific to the piece and situation.
What are important qualities of a good musician to you?
I feel that you need to be open to new experiences beyond your major, and learn to understand and like different things. Time management is also very important! It’s really important to have time for yourself and know when to take a break – even if it means having half a day to feel centred again. I believe a musician needs a certain amount of time to be bored – boredom sparks creativity and serves as a reset button.
We know you sang as a cast member in Fix(,) the Musical, and also sing jazz outside of being a classical pianist. Tell us about it!
Before Fix I had sung R&B and soul, but this was my first time singing in a musical. We rehearsed for three to six hours a week on top of regular schoolwork; sometimes we even rehearsed at 6.00am because no other time fit all our schedules! It truly took everyone’s 100% for the musical to work. The experience also helped my performance anxiety – when you have to be in the zone and in character, nothing else matters.
Up till my final year, I’ve also been singing in the NUS Jazz Band. Doing things outside of my major is liberating – there’s less pressure and more freedom. It also makes me a better classical musician. Becoming a jazz singer helped my rhythm a lot. It takes an even stronger sense of pulse to be rhythmically free while still connecting with the band!
Very nice! What are some upcoming music activities that you’re excited about?
A lot of my activities are on hold now as I’m preparing to audition for collaborative piano Master’s programmes in the US. Collaborative piano is really fulfilling for me – there’s a lot to learn besides piano-playing itself, such as analysing poetry or pronouncing foreign languages. A recent highlight for me was meeting Martin Katz at the Collaborative Piano Institute this past summer!
The collaborative pianist’s challenge in auditions or festivals is that you may only get 30 minutes with the other musician before performing. Such exposure actually helped me in the Concerto Competition, where there’s not much rehearsal time with the orchestra – it helped to be as efficient as possible, and communicate my ideas from the start.
This season I will be performing in my studio recital, playing George Crumb in the Modern Music Matinee on 27 October, a piano duo with Lin Xiangning (Year 4, Piano) in Petit Fours on 8 November, and also accompanying for a voice student’s junior recital.
So many of my experiences here have helped me become a better musician – from the close guidance of the Piano department, to classes and opportunities in areas such as composition and contemporary music. These explorations have sparked my diverse interests, and for that I’m truly appreciative!