Have you ever wondered about the life of a violinist with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra? We go behind the scenes to interview one of them – Thong Wei Ling – and here are the insights we got from her!
1) What made you take up the violin in the first place?
When I was a kid, I always followed my mum to Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) to accompany my sister to attend piano lessons. Every day, she had to practise very slow and had to throw her fingers very hard on the white and black keys. This is known as finger tapping exercise. My sister cried often in the beginning as her fingers were very painful. As I disliked finger tapping, I persuaded my mum to let me learn the violin, a cute instrument that I can carry around. My mother agreed to let me try and I attended the violin audition at NAFA. During the audition, I had no problem with the listening and singing skills but I was quite uncomfortable holding the bow. I passed the violin audition and was admitted to the School of Young Talents (NAFA) at 6 years old.
2) Are there any other instruments that you play? If so, between them, which is your favourite and why?
I play both the violin and piano. The violin is my main instrument and favourite. I will not say that it was not stressful being a NAFA student. In fact, it was the complete opposite – one had to maintain a high standard of playing the violin in order to remain in the Young Talents Program and advance to the next grade. As such, I put a lot of effort to practice daily. I learnt to play the piano at 8 years old because it could help me in the violin aural examination and piano accompaniment. As the years go by, playing the violin has become a part of my life. Practising my pieces are exciting although at times quite stressful; when we were preparing for exams or competition. Whenever I could play a perfect piece on stage, the sense of achievement is so great that the long hours of hard work are worthwhile. It is a bittersweet feeling. I can no longer imagine the rest of my life without my instrument.
3) What are some of the challenges that you face as a violinist?
Some challenges I faced as a violinist are overcoming stage fright when playing as a soloist. High expectations and difficult techniques from a teacher are also challenging to face as a violinist. I realised that a flexible vibrato is one major challenge that every violinist has to face at some point of their music career. To be able to have a flexible vibrato, you must have a steady grip and good control of every finger. Your fingers should not be too tense, in order to produce good sound quality. Personally, intonation is one of my biggest problems and I have been working hard to improve. Unlike the pianist, a violinist has to depend on his inner hearing to be able to play the ‘correct’ note. Lastly, time management is the most important element because being a violinist, you need to spend hours to practice daily. I would like to quote a phase by Mr. Heifetz on the importance of daily practice.
“ The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”
– Jascha Heifetz
4) How do you cope with these challenges?
I once remembered a professional pianist told me that eating a banana an hour and chocolate 30 mins before a performance can help the performer to overcome stage fright. However, I personally feel that self-confidence is the most effective way to overcome stage fright. The way we carry out our practise is also very important; one must practise in a correct manner. Otherwise, it is a waste of time. Practising in sections help us to focus on the little details that we often miss out if we are not meticulous in our work. This will help to sharpen the practise sessions and bring our musical skills to a higher level. It is important to keep working on the difficult section to build confidence in the piece. We should also seek help from the music teacher when we are facing problems. Through the hard work of practice, we must always learn to enjoy the learning process and develop a strong passion for music.
5) As a collective, in a symphony, what do you think are some of the difficulties that is faced?
As a section leader, I must study the score thoroughly and must be firm with my section-mates in the areas of articulation, bowings and phrasing. I have to make sure that everyone in the section has the correct bowing technique. It is also crucial to ensure that the section sounds as one single voice. Most of the time, the tutor teaches the members the correct bowings and phrasing. As a member of the orchestra, I learn to blend with the other members in the orchestra and listen to one another. I must also be observant to the conductor and other sections so that I will be able to convey any changes or messages to the section.
6) What are some of the pieces that you personally enjoy?
Personally, I enjoy listening to pop and rock music, movie soundtracks and classical music. Some concertos that I enjoy are the Tchaikovsky Violin concerto in D major, Op. 35, Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 and Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 22 in D minor. The concerto I enjoy listening to the most is the Sibelius Violin Concerto, Op. 47.
7) Between school and SNYO, how do you balance your time?
Frankly, I am still learning to improve my time management skills. I always feel that I do not have enough time to finish all my planned activities on most days. I am trying to do the more important tasks first and those less important ones later. Music is my priority and I will try to practice as much as I can unless there is a test close by or school assignment to be handed in. During weekends, I put in more hours to practice the school and orchestra pieces too.
I enjoy rehearsing and playing music alongside my fellow young musicians in SNYO and am grateful to SNYO for widening my musical horizontal and playing skills with the guidance of professional tutor and conductor. I have learnt to appreciate different kinds of music, listening to my partners more carefully and enjoyed learning from my senior team-mates. Most importantly, I have learnt to work in a team rather than an individual. I have also acquired the skill to sight-read faster, better fingering, better bowings and improved on my rhythm. The SNYO also trained me to play my pieces with passion and feelings.
8) Do your family/peers support you as a violinist?
Similar to the mentality of many Asian family, my parents were dead set against me for pursuing the musical arts as a career in the beginning. They felt that a career in the arts is a difficult journey filled with setbacks and disappointments. However, I know that my passion is in music. This love for music pushes me to better myself to prove to my family members and peers that playing the violin is more than a mere past-time. Without my beloved instrument, I will be restless and feeling emptiness. I have worked doubly hard to convince them that I am serious in making music my career. With hard work and commitment, I am always among the top music students in my cohort, excelling as a performer in both chamber and solo performances. I performed with the Informatics Orchestra during the Summer Programme in Indiana University Jacob School of Music and won the Excellence Award at Raffles International Competition. Seeing my commitment, my parents have finally relented their stance and they now fully support me to pursue my dreams.
9) Do you think classical music is dying to the youth?
Few youth like to listen to classical music – most of them prefer to listen to pop songs and enjoy music from Korean groups. Yet, I do not think classical music is dying to the youth. Singapore has built Esplanade Concert Hall so that all Singaporeans can engage in the musical art scene in a first-class facility. Maybe we can present the classical music in more interactive ways. For instance, having a group of orchestral to collaborate in a live drama theatre together with choir and dance may create excitements among the youth. Currently classical music is also a popular entertainment of choice in wedding and company corporate events. Lorong Boys is a group of 5 schoolmates from Yong Siew Toh Conversatory. Founded in 2014, they bursted onto the Singapore music scene when their spontaneous performance on the MRT train went viral on social media and they became famous overnight. They have since collaborated with one of the pioneering figures of Xinyao, Dr Liang Wern Foo, on the theme song for the latest drama series Life’s Blessing of Mediacorp Channel 8.
In the present society, there are many children who have picked up a musical instrument at a young age. This is because the parents believe that classical music are able to stimulate the brain and make their kid more intelligent. I strongly feel that classical music will either increase or decrease in popularity with time but it will not disappear altogether. Music has really branched out over the past decades and people listen to all sorts of music. And, there is always a group of young people fond of classical music.
10) Scales vs Theory – which do you like better? (While theory provides knowledge, it’s very factorial and deadpan, while scales are a torture to practise.)
Scales and theory are both important to a musician. Scales are part of the fundamentals of theory and are also important to violinists. I like scales more than theory. Scales can be in major or minor etc. Violinists need to work on scales daily and it helps to improve on intonation and position. It is an integral part of musical performance. On the other hand, theory is able to help us to understand the music better by analysing the functional harmony used in the accompaniments and most importantly, the harmonic progression of the piece. It gives added meaning to the piece and can bring out the essence of the piece.