15 June 2020

Are Musicians Essential?

The Straits Times’ sister paper, The Sunday Times, ran a straw poll in yesterday’s edition asking which jobs were thought of being most essential and which were least essential during the time of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Nobody with any knowledge of Singaporean attitudes will have been in the least surprised by the results.  Top of the list came doctors and nurses, with cleaners and food sellers coming on close behind – after all, it seems that few Singaporeans can clean their own homes or cook their own food.  Equally typical of Singaporean attitudes is what came at the very bottom of the list; artists. 

Of course, this finding ignited a mass outpouring of shock and horror from Singapore artists.  Many responded in remarkably silly fashion, criticising The Sunday Times and its correspondent (why worry about the message, when you can shoot the messenger?), suggesting that the sample of 1000 respondents was not typical (I can assure them, it is!), and going on to social media ironically boasting about their newly-sanctioned non-essential status.  But perhaps the proper response should not be to fight against this finding (which, all my researches over many years, have shown to be utterly typical of Singaporean attitudes to the arts) but to question why something which we artists regard as vital to humanity, is, in fact, not considered such by humanity at large.

It's not for me to argue the case for other branches of the arts – painters, sculptors, architects, designers, actors, film-makers, poets, authors, and so on – nor even to argue the case for those involved in the pop music industry, but I do feel inclined to comment from the perspective of a “classical” musician working in Singapore.

For us, music is vital to our existence.  It’s not just that it earns our income, but that it is such a significant driving force in our individual lives that, without it, we feel we would wither and die.  We know it to be an essential conduit for our emotions as well as for our mental well-being, and its countless ancillary benefits (extended concentration spans, increased mental capacity, heightened intellectual perceptiveness, palliative influence over Alzheimer’s’, etc., etc.) need no rehearsal here.  However, that is not how anyone else sees Classical Music in Singapore, and we must ask why that is.  Have we failed to get the message across, or do we as musicians have an over-inflated belief in the value of our own art?

Many Singaporeans believe Classical Music to be alien to their society, forced on them by their former colonial masters.  In this, they have been greatly influenced by Lee Kwan Yew’s dreadful speech in 1980 when he claimed that, if a Singaporean had the sort of brain that could memorise and comprehend classical music, said Singaporean should not waste energies on music, but instead turn to a career in medicine, law, or anything else which was seen then, as now, as being “essential” to the good of society.  By stating there and then that music should be provided exclusively by “foreigners” (whatever they are in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-transitory Singapore) he indoctrinated a whole generation of Singaporeans with the notion that classical music was alien to Singapore society.  That is an attitude which still persists to this day; ask almost any Singaporean who has tried to turn to a full-time study of Classical music, and you will find somewhere in their family group, strongly voiced opposition; the common belief being that they should really be learning something which is useful and will earn them a respectable income.

Beyond that ill-considered utterance of Lee Kwan Yew, Singaporeans have, since independence from Malaya in 1965, been so concerned in building a stand-alone society, that their focus for 50 years has been on creating strong commercial and financial foundations to society.  Again, that ethic has been so driven into Singaporeans, that they see no intrinsic value in anything which does not yield immediately tangible results in either a physical object or a clearly delineated financial profit.  Classical music yields neither, so it is regarded as a peripheral activity.

Assuming that our conviction that classical music is an essential aspect of daily life is correct, to inculcate that conviction into others is a matter for education.  And that is where Singapore fails miserably.  Yes, we do have a handful of world-class tertiary music colleges and, yes, there are growing numbers of highly able Singaporean students emerging from them, but in other respects, Singapore’s music education is abysmal.  Primary and secondary schools too often approach the teaching of music as a competitive sport.  Choirs and bands are shown to be successful only by winning awards and competitions, while other aspects of practical and theoretical music are taught with the sole view of achieving examination success.  Graded exams are not seen as stepping stones towards an eventual goal of a wholly rounded human being, but as goals to be achieved as quickly and as numerically largely as possible.  In only a very few rare instances is music taught for its emotional and culturally enriching benefits.

But there is one area of music education which is universally understated in Singapore’s music education at all levels, which musicians must learn if we are to become regarded as an essential part of daily life; the role of classical music in the totality of our society.  We equip our students with the physical tools of the trade – instrumental skills and composing techniques – but we do nothing to equip them with an understanding of their place in daily society.  Yes, we show them the benefits of music when presented to care homes, hospices and schools, but for music to be regarded as essential, we need to show them how music fits into society outside these specialist (if very important) environments.  We need, in short, to teach the context of music in daily life.  We do not do this.  How many graduating students really know how music affects the generality of the society in which they live?  They perform brilliant virtuoso pyrotechnics on the piano, which excites the pianophiles and leaves everyone else cold, they write complex musical scores, which excite fellow-composers but, again, leaves everyone else cold.  We try to bring music to the “man in the street” (as we once labelled the general public) by offering free concerts and colourful musical gimmicks; but, obviously, it fails.  How do we merge our music into society?

I have long believed passionately that fully rounded musicians are those who understand their role in society.  As part of our own society with an unavoidable bias towards what we do, we cannot really step back and look at our role dispassionately.  We need to study the history and see how our predecessors squared their musical lives with that of the societies in which they lived.  Music history is currently taught too often as an exclusive, society-alienated thing.  We tell our students that Beethoven was a great hero because he worked against society, and we hold up Wagner as a social outcast, Mozart is elevated above Haydn because the former was an exception to society, while the latter quite happily absorbed himself within it.  We compound all that by placing protective boxes around composers to alienate them further from the societies in which they lived; hence Bach lived the Baroque Box, Mozart and Classical Box, Chopin the Romantic Box, and so on.  That merely serves to distance music from the society in which it was formed.  Yet, if we can teach music as something which was not apart from, but an integral part of society, we begin to see how it has been essential rather than peripheral. 

In Singapore society, classical music is certainly not essential.  But it should be, and with careful nurturing of musicians so that they are less concerned with the exclusive technicalities of their craft, and more involved in the daily context of the world in which they live, it will be.


  1. Dr M,
    I would really be interested if you have an outlook of how people are relating to music (performed / shared / recorded / broadcast / live-streamed...) during COVID-19, what's changing, and what directions this could take in the future.
    Best, Peter

  2. I am so GLAD Singaporeans do NOT have to suffer your drivel about non-essential SSO concerts or xyz non-essential musical performances anymore in our local newspapers. Afterall, ink should not be wasted on non-essential music critics who have nothing essential to say in a pandemic.

    1. Whenever I write about music for a Singaporean readership, I feel that I am casting pearls before swine: thank you so much for confirming what had previously been merely a suspicion!

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