Tang Tee Khoon on classical music in the digital era

When Covid struck and life was upended, Tang Tee Khoon didn’t sit around waiting for the storm to pass. After the concert series she planned for April 2020 had to be cancelled, the violinist turned her thoughts to the pandemic’s impact on the livelihood of musicians and artists.

“I started to think, if the pandemic lasts six to nine months, what are artists going to do?” recalls the 37-year-old founder and artistic director of Chamber Music and Arts Singapore (CMAS). “So let’s maybe bring our audiences online and connect with them – even though we can’t meet face to face – and bring quality arts to them through electronic means.”

That was how The Glasshouse was born. To bring the virtual creative sphere to life, Tee Khoon put together a team, including illustrators and an art therapist, to create content, and launched the platform in August 2020.

That speedy pivot turned out to be opportune: The Glasshouse’s four programmes caught the attention of Singapore’s Ministry of Education and National Institute of Education, the French Embassy and Norwegian Cultural Centre in Singapore, and a music conservatory in China. Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC booked it for engagement sessions as part of its mental wellness series for residents. And Singapore Teachers Academy for the Arts invited CMAS to run a workshop for teacher-leaders, on creating learning and teaching materials using music and arts for personal development for youths.

At the heart of The Glasshouse are the monthly modules intended for audiences from young children and children with special needs to young adults. Through original illustrations and curated soundtracks, they tell interactive stories of iconic composers to the younger ones, or dive into deeper themes – like resilience, determination or friendship – with the youth, using music and art to create opportunities for reflection and expression.

Adding an element of therapy to music is rather niche in Singapore, Tee Khoon says, and delivering it on a virtual platform would make The Glasshouse probably the first of its kind. And the timing of the interest in The Glasshouse points to a growing awareness of mental health. “There’s a sudden steep concern for emotional and mental well-being that maybe wasn’t as steep before the pandemic, because we could still cope with the pressures,” she says. “With the pandemic, it was [in our faces], and suddenly, we found ourselves having to address it.”

Musical development

A passion project, Chamber Music and Arts Singapore was formerly known as the Tang Tee Khoon Grand Series, which ran its first concert in 2009. Since then, the charity has organised regular performances and worked to put Singapore’s music scene on a par with the world’s best classical music festivals.

This month, it stages the Beethoven250 concert series at the Esplanade, a celebration held over from 2020 for the composer’s 250th birthday. Tee Khoon performs Beethoven’s complete 10 sonatas for the piano and violin with Italian pianist Luca Buratto.

A particular affection for chamber music led Tee Khoon to champion it in Singapore, after she returned in 2009. While an undergraduate at New England Conservatory of Music, her mentor, Donald Weilerstein, formerly the first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet, taught her to be more aware as a musician.

“I fell in love with the intimacy of playing with a small group of people, and that communication one needs, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal – it can be quite attractive,” she says. “You are listening, contributing, and pinging off one another, and sensing the room, individuals and yourself. The chemistry within a quartet is a fascinating dynamic.”

At the time when Tee Khoon started working on building local interest in chamber music, the scene was quiet, but things have changed since then. “I’m not saying I’m the cause of it, but I think it has generated awareness,” she says. “And other [returning] musicians who studied abroad who have an interest have started concerts and projects, and it’s become more vibrant now.”

Personal mission

Tee Khoon first picked up the violin at four and a half, and soon, she was “burning through pieces very quickly”. From winning the National Music Competition (now the National Piano & Violin Competition) grand prize at the age of nine, she went on to become only the second violinist to be loaned an 18th-century J.B. Guadagnini violin by the Singapore National Arts Council. (Now, her main instrument is one by German luthier Stefan-Peter Greiner.)

Through the years, her relationship with music has continued to evolve. “In the beginning, it was instinctive, and then in my teenage years, I used it as an outlet for my emotions,” she explains. “In my conservatory days, as a music student, I was fascinated by it and I was learning a lot… Now, I have many other ways to express myself, through verbal [means], writing, projects, friendships, relationships.”

Concurring with a sadly familiar sentiment, Tee Khoon says it’s challenging to make a living as an artist in Singapore, because of the country’s emphasis on economic metrics as measures of success. “It [places] almost no value on other measurements, and that’s an antithesis to a charity that focuses on bringing arts and music to the community,” she says.

“It’s something that I feel is detrimental. As a society, if we keep going this way, we’ll become like a dry piece of leaf.”

Feeling the responsibility to effect change and nurture an environment for music appreciation used to affect Tee Khoon, but she has come to embrace the mission and her role in it. “There were times when I felt I had to make sacrifices, and I felt maybe even frustrated [thinking], why is it that I have to do this?” she recounts. “How I resolved those conflicting feelings was [to think] somebody else didn’t do it for me, because the platform wasn’t there.

“If nobody built that for me, I’ve got to build it for the next generation.”

Below are Tee Khoon’s three tips for managing your bandwidth.

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