01(15): How I started tickling the ivories, quit, then rekindled my love for music

Nicholas Loh Avatar

I can still remember exactly how I started learning the piano. My family had paid a visit to Plaza Singapura and as a boy at the tender age of six, I marvelled at the majesty of the grand pianos that were showcased at one of the top levels of the mall. For those who are familiar with Plaza Singapura, the store which showcased the pianos was, and still is, the flagship branch of Yamaha. I enjoyed visiting malls as a child because of the sheer myriad of products that would be displayed. Hitherto, I was intrigued with music. This first-time visit to Plaza Singapura was my first time in real-life seeing grand pianos displayed in their full grandeur.

Previously, I had known that pianos were common instruments used for music-making, and that pianos were perhaps among the most versatile instruments. One of my favourite shows as a child was “Tom and Jerry” and I remember one episode to this day. It was entitled “Cat Concerto”. As you might guess from its name, that episode has something to do with music. Basically, it featured Tom playing the well-known Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt. A single sentence summarises the narrative of the episode: “Tom fights off Jerry as he tries to disrupt his concert without missing a note on his piano.”

Here is a video of someone trying to synchronise her actual playing with the chronology of the episode!

As typical of Liszt, this piece is a somewhat show-off piece and is appropriate indeed for this episode. One thing I greatly enjoyed about the piano (or keyboard instruments in general) was its ability to allow the pianist to play more than one voice at once. Potentially, up to ten notes could be played in a single instant. The bass and the treble are covered. Thus, a piano is a “complete instrument” in its own right. I once learnt a piano transcription of Bach’s famous aria from his third orchestra suite in D Major, BWV 1068, better known as “Air on the G String”. This is one of my favourite pieces of music. The piano transcription was comprehensive in that it basically covered all the voices that would be played by the various stringed instruments. The ability to play multiple voices on the piano allowed me to cover the parts of the first and second violins, violas, and cellos.

So, as a six-year-old, I stood rooted to the ground as I appreciated the beauty of the pianos within the store and soon enough, I found myself sheepishly imploring my parents if I could learn how to play the piano. They replied in the affirmative. It wasn’t an immediate decision, though.

My parents had no formal musical training and they must have been surprised at my question. I constantly look back and am grateful that my parents had faith in me that I would learn it well, despite knowing that they were treading unknown territory. After all, I was the oldest child and I was almost always the guinea pig. I essentially served as a precedent to guide the path for my younger siblings to follow. It wasn’t an entirely smooth-sailing journey, but I am glad with where I am today. My situation is quite unusual in that usually, it is the other way around. In a society such as Singapore where many parents have a “kiasu” mentality (a fear of “losing out” to other people) and want the best for their kids, music lessons are authoritatively inflicted upon their children. The harsh reality is that many parents live vicariously through their children. They want their children to achieve their dreams because they were not able to do it themselves while they were younger.

I suppose a major factor that made my parents decide to support my endeavour was the fact that there was a well-known pianist who lived just a few floors above us in our block. She had students who would come from as far as Woodlands to her house for 1-hour piano lessons. She was a concert pianist who had studied music at university. Her fees were somewhat high, as you can imagine. Nevertheless, her students’ parents must have felt that it was worth it, given her impeccable qualifications.

What truly astounded me was what I saw when I first walked into her penthouse. It was my first time seeing a grand piano in a house. She had not one, but two grand pianos! Who in the world has two grand pianos in his house? It is already amazing that a house can have a grand piano. Most homes only have an upright! What was even more incredible that one of them was a Steinway! Of course, I did not know that I was playing on such an exquisite and fine piano when I first started lessons as I did not know about Steinway’s reputation then. Before I played on the Steinway each lesson, she would make it a point that I use the hand-sanitizer!

One of the first songs I learnt which involved playing both hands was a simplified rendition of the hymn “As The Deer”. It was a simple two-part piece (with each hand playing once voice). The hymn is based on Psalm 42:1-2 which reads from the Authorized Version:

1 As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
2 My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?

Fun fact: The word “hart” is a more specific word than the generic word “deer” as “hart” refers specifically to an adult male deer. You might then ask, “What is the word for a female deer then?” Well, I think the first line of a famous song from the musical “Sound of Music” is instructive. After all, “Doe, a deer, a female deer…”.

I enjoyed playing the piano initially but somewhat lost interest as I progressed through primary school. This can be attributed to various reasons. However, I opine that the most significant factor was that the popularity of computer games was experiencing burgeoning growth. My classmates introduced it to me while I was Primary 2. Naturally, I was intrigued by how computer games work. I was most fascinated with the fact that you could communicate with someone from another part of the world by simply transmitting information across the “Internet”, which was novel to us primary school students then.

It also didn’t help that progression in piano learning was marked by the milestones of passing the grade examinations of music boards (for ABRSM, the most well-known music board in Singapore, the grades range from 1 through 8). I suspect that many music students have their interest in music waned because a huge component of the ABRSM grade examinations is the “Set Pieces” section. Students are required to present three set pieces (each of which has a maximum mark of 30; the grade examination has a total mark of 150). Hence, the set pieces account for 90 of the maximum 150 marks. Parents who are results-oriented (*cough cough* basically the typical parent in Singapore) would thus encourage their children to practise the same three pieces over and over again. Each of the three pieces has its own category (A, B, C). For the grade examinations, there would be a range of pieces to choose from within each category. A huge factor that goes into the decision-making process for choosing which piece to prepare for the exam is its technical difficulty. Once again, it goes back to the marks. Whether the student enjoys the chosen piece is secondary to the technical difficulty of the piece. After all, to us, the ends justify the means, doesn’t it?

As such, I would imagine that in many cases, teachers choose the pieces which they think their students can score the highest marks in. Often, this is a piece which presents the least technical challenge. After all, for a teacher to continue attracting students, it is certainly helpful if he can speak of how his students have achieved stellar results in the music examinations. Of course, I was quite fortunate in that this concert-pianist teacher of mine was not like that. She allowed me to choose the pieces I wanted to play for the examination. Nevertheless, the monotony associated with practising the same three pieces incessantly for an examination got to me. When coupled with the increasing popularity of video games, other time-consuming activities, and increasing academic rigour, it is not difficult to see why so many students today abandon their initial musical endeavours. Many parents’ desires are insatiable. Their children must go for swimming lessons, ballet classes, tuition, taekwondo classes, and in some cases, even abacus classes for better mental calculation. Wow.

My first-ever piano exam was an ABRSM Grade 2 (2005), followed by a Grade 5 (2008). I think the reason I stopped lessons with my first piano teacher was that I was preparing for the PSLE. Furthermore, I no longer had much interest in piano. As such, the high fees were not justified, and lessons were stopped.

Shortly after I completed the PSLE, my parents got me to learn under another teacher within the same condominium complex. However, the arrangement was ephemeral. We changed piano teachers yet again and alas, I started attending a music school near my house. The teacher under whom I learnt piano would be my last piano teacher. I wasn’t a serious student. Nevertheless, I just did things for the sake of doing things, went with the flow, and managed to get my Grade 6 (2011), and Grade 7 (2013) exams under her tutelage.

On a fine afternoon while I was attending the music school, everything changed. On that day, while waiting for my turn to enter the room within the music school for my piano lesson, I listened intently to the piece that the student before me was playing. I liked it so much, but I did not know what it was called. I was determined to find out what it was called so that I could learn it. Eventually, the door opened and out walked the girl who had been playing that piece (which turned out to be one of her three set pieces for her Grade 6 exam). It was that day that I learnt about Dussek’s Sonatina in E-flat, Op. 19, No. 6: Rondo Allegretto (A2 of the 2013-2014 Grade 6 Piano Syllabus). It is a charming piece. I highly recommend you to listen to it!

Soon enough, I looked at music through a different lens and started learning all the pieces I liked, and re-learnt past exam pieces that I enjoyed thoroughly. Most importantly, I spontaneously learnt pieces that were beyond the examination repertoire of the grade examinations. I flipped through the music books that I had, and learnt one of Mozart’s most endearing piano sonatas: Piano Sonata in C Major, K545. I also learnt transcriptions of soundtrack from film, animation, and even games. This was done by actively scavenging the Internet for sheet music that other musicians had painstakingly transcribed.

However, one of the most serendipitous events that motivated me to aim for even greater musical heights occurred while I was a Secondary Three student in 2012, perhaps a few months after I had heard the rondo in the music school. At that time, I had already completed my Grade 6 and was preparing for my Grade 7 exam. One day, I was walking along the backstage of the school hall when I chanced upon my classmate playing on the piano. I knew that he was a bassoonist in the school’s symphonic band, but I never knew that he could play the piano. I found out that he was an accomplished pianist, percussionist, and violinist, in addition to being a bassoonist. This was a student who truly embraced music. I played my Grade 7 exam pieces for him and I was encouraged by his particularly kind remarks of my performance of the piece from the A category, a piece by Scarlatti:

When I encountered him in the school hall, before I performed my piece, he was playing Scherzo No. 2 by Chopin. It is a very famous piece. In fact, in the established general repertoire, it is over-played.

We became quite close and we would share our musical insights with each other. In fact, I am very grateful to him for introducing IMSLP to me. That platform has been useful in allowing me to obtain even the most obscure sheet music. All sheet music and resources on IMSLP are public domain! That helps many people because published music books in music stores are often expensive. Often, one is faced with the scenario where one is only interested in a particular piece among a set of pieces. However, music stores often will not sell the sheet music of a single piece that is part of a larger set on its own, unless the single piece is so famous to the extent that it gets its own product (e.g. the Pathétique sonata by Beethoven). As such, if one were to get sheet music from music stores exclusively, one would have to pay a lot.

Eventually, I passed the Grade 7 exam in 2013, which also happened to be the year I took my GCE ‘O’ Level exam. Due to the fact that I wanted to focus on preparing for the ‘O’ Level and that I had attained a milestone, I decided to stop lessons. Who could have known that that would be the last time I would have a piano teacher? From that point on, I self-learnt and prepared for all subsequent music examinations all on my own.

I actually did not want obtain my Grade 8 Piano initially, at least so soon after my Grade 7 exam. However, a few months before the GCE ‘O’ Level exam, in September 2013, I met another person in yet another moment of serendipity and inspired him to take up music again. He learnt the violin from a young age and attained Grade 8 when he was Primary 5 (c. 2008). However, from what he related to me, he did not enjoy it one bit. He saw it as a chore and had the mentality of “Good riddance” when he finally obtained the Grade 8 Certificate. He told me that ever since he passed the Grade 8 Violin exam, his violin case had been left dormant in his cupboard, untouched for half a decade. I am glad I managed to play a role in helping him rekindle his passion for music, because he is currently undergoing a Music Performance diploma at NAFA (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts), majoring in violin. I think life would be very different for him if I had not met him on my way back home from school one fine afternoon.

This person was also somewhat decent at the piano. He was self-taught as I knew that he had never gone for formal piano lessons. Apparently, his older brother learnt piano but stopped at Grade 6, if I remember correctly. So, he had a piano in his house. It must have been after the ‘O’ Level, sometime in December 2013, that I went to house and was surprised to see that he had purchased the Grade 8 Piano Exam Pieces book. I was impressed by his ambition and so I thought: if a self-taught person dared to attempt the Grade 8 exam on his own without having had any formal piano lessons ever, surely I, a Grade 7 holder, could?

My first day in junior college was 6 February 2014. There had been approximately a three-month interim period between the conclusion of my last paper of the GCE ‘O’ Level and the start of JC. It was during this three-month period that I chose which pieces I would want to play, based on what I felt was the most musically enjoyable. Remember that I was on my own. I had to learn the scales, arpeggios, and all the pieces on my own without the help of a teacher. It was daunting.

By that time, I had grown to like the music of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin (for sheer majesty of musicality, Bach’s music reigns supreme; however, Mozart’s melodies are unparalleled). Hence, my choice pieces were quite easily selected (for the Grade 8 Piano 2013-2014 syllabus):

I chose the following three pieces:
A5: J. S. Bach – Praeambulum, 1st movt from Partita V in G, BWV 829

B6: Mozart – Rondo in D, K. 485

C9: Chopin – Waltz in F, Op. 34 No. 3.

These are all such charming pieces. Even though I practised the pieces repeatedly, I never felt that they were stale. Somehow, now that my learning and preparation was entirely self-motivated, everything was different. I yearned to quench my thirst for musical prowess and perfection.

Eventually, I sat for my Grade 8 Piano exam. I still remember how that morning went vividly. It was around 9:30 am on 19 August 2014, Tuesday. I was having an Economics lesson and when it was appropriate, I told my teacher that I needed to take my leave to attend the exam. I then proceeded to the area outside one of the school’s auditoriums to have my last-minute practice on the piano while waiting for my father to come to the school to fetch me to the venue: Regent Music Centre Pte Ltd (Schubert) at Peninsula Shopping Centre. My exam timing was 11:15 am.

I remember telling the examiner prior to the examination’s commencement that I was feeling anxious. He reassured me and told me to remain calm. I suppose I was quite encouraged by his gracious gesture. Then, the exam started. “Would you like to play the scales or pieces first?” he asked. “Scales”, I replied, heeding the advice by my previous teachers to always play the scales first because they served as a form of ‘warm-up’ for one’s fingers. I remember doing the sight-reading section better than I normally would. The rhythm and note accuracy was great. However, the tempo was just too slow. I also played the three pieces somewhat well. After the exam, my father drove me back to the school and all I could think about were the aspects of the exam that had not gone as well as I had expected. When I returned, it a Physics class.

Soon enough, I received the results of the Grade 8 Piano exam and…

I had obtained a distinction as icing on the cake!

I was ecstatic. I had never achieved this before. Also, I achieved this without a teacher’s help. The highest I had previously attained was a merit!. I was incredibly humbled by this result.

After receiving this result, I was glad that I had attained this milestone. Having their children attain a Grade 8 qualification is something that many Singaporean parents hope for. For many Singaporean parents, this milestone would mean a sigh of relief as they no longer have to fork out money for expensive piano lessons or having to endure listening to the same exam pieces over and over again. For the children of such parents,such an achievement would also warrant a sigh of relief because it would mean they no longer have to “waste time” on music-making. They could now spend the time on hanging out with their friends, or dedicating the time on their academic pursuits. What is the one thing we see in common in the most typical mindsets?

Music is not treated as an end unto itself. Rather, it is used as means for something else. Parents and their children may use it for superficial “bragging rights” when “comparing” with other parents’ children; some use it to boost their portfolio for admission into prestigious institutions. What happened to the intrinsic joy that music is supposed to fundamentally spark?

Do the learners use the skills they have acquired from their musical training to learn pieces outside the examination syllabi which they would genuinely enjoy? From what I have observed among my peers, that does not seem to be the case. Most of my peers whom I have observed were somewhat glad when the ordeal of music lessons came to an end (either when they hit a satisfactory milestone or they stop lessons due to commitment issues, financial burdens, reluctance to practise, etc.)

I did my two years of junior college from February 2014 to November 2015. I then did my two years of full-time NS from January 2016 to November 2017. Then, I started my medical studies February 2018. From the time I passed my Grade 8 in August 2014 till the end of my first semester of my first year in university in June 2018, I entertained the idea of doing a diploma. Although Grade 8 is still seen as the “standard” end-game milestone for most learners of music in Singapore, I nevertheless knew of friends who went beyond Grade 8. Perhaps they (or their parents, hmm) wanted more of a challenge.

After the grade examinations, there are what we call ‘Diploma’ examinations. For Trinity College London and ABRSM, they each award three levels of music diplomas. For simplicity’s sake, let us only consider performance diplomas, since these constitute the diplomas that the majority of learners would take. For Trinity College London, the three levels are: ATCL (Associate), LTCL (Licentiate), and FTCL (Fellowship). According to Trinity College London’s website, an ATCL award is equivalent in standard to the first year of an undergraduate degree; an LTCL award is equivalent in standard to the final year of an undergraduate degree; an FTCL award is equivalent in standard to a postgraduate course at a conservatoire or university. For ABRSM, its three diplomas are DipABRSM, LRSM, and FRSM. They are equivalent to the ATCL, LTCL, and FTCL diplomas respectively.

All but one of the people whom I know personally took the ATCL. Regarding that one person, she took the LTCL. I do not know anyone personally took the ABRSM diplomas. This could be because of the disparity in the assessment criteria for the ABRSM and TCL diplomas. ABRSM demands a more holistic assessment of the candidate’s musicianship. There are more regulations associated with the exam and there is just a lot more to deal with. On the other hand, TCL places an emphasis on the performance component. Here is some information pertaining to the DipABRSM syllabus (with effect from 2015):

Having considered all the above information, I made the pragmatic decision to do the ATCL instead of the DipABRSM for the following reasons:

1) In strict consideration of qualifications, an ATCL is equivalent to a DipABRSM. The general public would probably not even know that there are three different diploma levels, let alone the differences between the music boards regarding assessment criteria for performance diplomas.

2) The presence of additional components of Viva Voce and Quick Study in the DipABRSM requirements strongly suggests that the weighting of the performance component is lower in the DipABRSM (60% performance; 25% Viva Voce; 15% Quick Study) than in the ATCL (90% before 2019 syllabus revamp; 10% Programme Notes). Considering that most people associate a Performance diploma with one’s ability to perform music, I feel that giving the performance component as high a weighting as possible is desirable. After all, we are not dealing with a general musicianship diploma, but a performance diploma.

3) I felt that I could excel more in the performance component than the Viva Voce and Quick Study. Hence, I felt that I had a much better chance of overcoming the hurdle of meeting the assessment requirements. It is easy to see why many people would be somewhat more uncomfortable with the requirements of the DipABRSM. There is so much more uncertainty associated with the non-performance aspects of the diploma. The fees for the diploma are certainly not cheap. I doubt anyone has the intention of failing when registering for the diploma examination!

4) Performing ability was, and is, ultimately what I, and probably many others, deem to be the most important element of being a musician.

Apparently, the ATCL examination I took turned out to the be one of the last of its kind as the Trinity College London diploma syllabus had undergone a revamp that would be valid from 1 August 2019. Among some of the changes include detailed programme notes no longer being required for the ATCL and LTCL, and that there would be increased mark weighting for performance. This would mean that candidates can be sure that their result fully reflects their performance standard.

By June 2018, nearly four years after passing my Grade 8 in August 2014, probably no fewer than a dozen people had asked me if I were going to take a performance diploma after finding out that I was a Grade 8 Distinction holder. My answer had been that I had no intention of pursuing a diploma as there were many things that deterred me from doing so. However, as time went on, I learnt more pieces and I felt that perhaps this next milestone would be a better reflection of my musical abilities and that it would certainly be a nice pat-on-the-back. Furthermore, as the wise words of a friend’s motto go: “Anything worthwhile doing will often be difficult, but doing the difficult is often worthwhile.”

Nevertheless, here were the issues that discouraged me from deciding to get a diploma in end-June 2018.

I only had short time frame to decide whether to register for the diploma examination. TCL Diploma examinations are held twice a year in two periods: mid-May through June and mid-November through December. The former option would not be feasible since I would still be studying in Australia during that time. I have only two major breaks as a university student every year (a winter break of around three weeks in July, and the much longer summer break of around three months from late November to late February).

Since the mid-year exam period was not an option for me, I could decide to do the examination either in November/December 2018 or November/December 2019. Remember the syllabus revamp I talked about that would be effective from 1 August 2019? Well, I considered the syllabus changes when I contemplated the two options.

At the time of decision-making (end-June 2018), I was of the view that the Programme Notes would offer easy marks, at least relative to the performance component. Seeing that the latter option had a decrease in weighting, I felt that I would have a much better chance of doing better in the old syllabus. Hence, being more inclined with the examination being in November/December 2018 period, I would have had to deal with full-time university commitments during my second semester of 2018 while preparing for the ATCL from scratch in only 4.5-6 months. 4.5 months would be the worst-case scenario (if I had gotten an exam date which marked the start of the examination period). Hence, when booking the exam date, I requested to be given a date which was as late as possible, since I would only be back in Singapore on 23 November 2018 (imagine the horror of getting an exam date before you fly back; they are very strict about exam dates and one can only change the dates without penalty under very limited circumstances).

I had no teacher to guide me. It had been five years, since 2013, that I had a formal piano lesson. I was treading on unknown territory as this was nothing like the grade examinations I had taken previously. There were so many more requirements, and the pieces were much more challenging. Anybody who thinks that an ATCL is a linear step-up from Grade 8 like the step-up from Grade 7 to 8 should reconsider his perspective. Doing the ATCL without any guidance from a teacher was unheard of since even the syllabus explicitly recommends the following:

I had absolutely 0 of the suggested 54 guided learning hours, and if one were to consider 900 hours over a 5-month period, that would work out to be an average of 6 learning hours a day every day just to prepare for this exam. That is excluding the fact that some of the hours are supposed to be guided. It is because of such proscribed requirements that it is quite common to take around 1-1.5 years to prepare for the ATCL (54 guided learning hours would be 54 weeks of weekly 1-hour lessons). The stakes were high as the examination fees were nearly 1k SGD.

Everything seemed to suggest this was a suicide mission.

Yet, the sheer sense of adventure was exhilarating. It also helped that I truly liked all the pieces I chose for the exam (more on that in another blog post).

So, the ambitious and perhaps over-confident Nicholas registered for the exam in early July 2018, while he was in Singapore for his winter break of a few weeks. In that short time in Singapore, I put in the effort in obtaining the currently-published music books which contained the pieces that I was going to perform. I had the choice of performing pieces absent from the syllabus list. However, I already had a full plate and I did not want to add another element of uncertainty. Besides, self-selected pieces were subject to prior approval. I had inspected the syllabus, and after much contemplation, I decided to perform the following four pieces:

1. Bach – Prelude & Fugue in A-flat Major, The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 862

2. Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 – ‘Pathétique’

3. Chopin – Nocturne Op. 48 No. 2

4. Rachmaninoff/Kreisler – Liebesleid (from Piano Compositions No. 2)

The examination had strict regulations regarding music protected by copyright. For the examination, I was required to present the examiner with photocopies of the sheet music of the music that I would be performing. To ensure that the music was not illegally obtained, I had to bring the original sources, and that meant having to bring legitimate music books.

Strictly speaking, I could have used music from IMSLP, since resources from that website are public-domain. However, I wanted to play it “safe”.

The pieces by Bach and Chopin were not an issue since I already owned reputable editions of The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I and Chopin’s Nocturnes. Hence, I needed to purchase books for the pieces by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff/Kreisler. Astute readers would remember that I mentioned how single pieces get published alone despite being part of a well-known larger set of works only if these single pieces are very famous. The Pathétique sonata was the perfect example. I managed to find a seller on Carousell who was selling a second-hand ABRSM edition of the sonata for only $4. How happy I was when she agreed to sell it to me for that price! Music books are typically very expensive and I was glad that I could a well-maintained second-hand copy which contained just the piece I needed.

On the other hand, attempting to procure the Rachmaninoff/Kreisler piece was an absolute nightmare. The piece is not that well-known because it is a piano transcription by Rachmaninoff of a piece for violin by Kreisler. The transcription is part of the second volume of Rachminoff’s “Piano Compositions” (the second of three volumes).

I called up stores. “Out of stock”, and “Check the other branch” were all I got over these phone calls. Time was tight and I had less than a week at that time before I flew back to Australia. There was no way I could wait for shops to re-stock. Over the course of a few days, I checked out Synwin’s two branches at Tanjong Katong Complex and Marina Square, a music store at the Esplanade, and music shops at Bras Basah Complex and Serangoon NEX which sold piano books, all to no avail. It was absolutely futile.

Can you imagine how ridiculous this situation was? Many music shops I visited were within the CBD area. I remember one afternoon where I walked from one location to another, under the unforgiving rays of the Sun. It was ruthless. It was a cycle of finding temporary solace in the air-conditioned music shops and trudging in vain to yet another location in the sweltering heat.

Then finally, as a last stand for one of the days, I decided to go to Yamaha’s flagship branch at Plaza Singapura, the place where my musical journey had begun nearly a decade and a half ago. It was a long walk from Marina Square. I was so disheartened when I realised that the store did not have the book. Before the leaving the store, I decided to ask the counter staff if they could help me probe their database to check if they had any other branch which had it.

Words fail to describe the joy I felt when I was told there was one last copy at Yamaha’s Tampines Mall branch. It was the only one of two copies left across all of Yamaha’s branches in Singapore (I was told there was another copy at Yamaha’s Thomson Plaza branch). However, I had already made plans to visit a friend briefly to collect some stuff from him that afternoon. So, that was what I did. I left for my friend’s house after leaving Yamaha’s flagship branch. After collecting the stuff, I made my way for the Tampines Mall branch. I chose the Tampines Mall branch instead of the Thomson Plaza nranch as it was more convenient for me. At my friend’s house, I gave the Tampines branch a call, asking if I could reserve the book. They told me that I would need to come by tomorrow, and if not, the reservation would be forfeited. To their statement I replied, “I’ll be there in 40 minutes”.

I gave them my phone number and off to the Tampines branch I went. I was unfamiliar with the region of Tampines and confused Tampines 1 (another mall) for Tampines Mall. No sooner did I arrive in the Yamaha store at Tampines Mall than I headed straight for the counter, telling them that I had a reservation. The counter staff opened one of the drawers at the counters and revealed a book. Yes, that was the book. I did a final check by flipping to the sheet music for the examination piece within the book.

By the time I purchased the book, it was 8pm – one hour to the store’s closing time. I had not eaten my dinner; yet I was satisfied beyond that which words could describe. The bus ride was unpleasant. It was raining and the roads were congested. The bus was packed. However, that didn’t matter. I finally obtained the book.

How apt that the name of the piece within this book was Liebesleid, which is German for “Love’s Sorrow”.

With the four books that I now had which contained the pieces that I would perform for the ATCL, I headed back to Australia for my second semester. I knew that I had to master all four pieces before I came back to Singapore to sit for the ATCL exam.

While in Australia, I learnt of this app called forScore. It is a paid app, and is used by many professional musicians. How it works is that instead of learning from the physical music books, you can instead learn from the digital sheet music. So, I scanned the relevant pieces from the four books and imported them as PDFs to the app. In retrospect, getting the app was an excellent decision. I should have gotten the app much earlier. This app offered me the following advantages:

1) I would not have to deal with the physical weight and space that is associated with the books. The app is on my iPad and the display is just perfect. The Apple Pencil truly allowed for a realistic experience of annotating the music just as I would with normal book-and-pencil.

2) I wouldn’t mind annotating the book as I deem fit to aid my learning. Personally, I treat books with a lot respect and the most I am willing to do to physical books is to put a faint mark with a pencil!

3) Since my iPad would usually be with me (I use it for a lot of my work), I could access the scores readily and study them with much flexibility.

To cut the long story short (well, this blog post has been quite long), I managed to finish learning the pieces in the short time I had. I was very glad when the administrators of the exam told me that they had given me one of the latest dates within the examination period: 19 December 2018. I was so grateful for this as I had nearly a month to practise even after arriving in Singapore on 23 November 2018.

Finally, the day had come. My examination time was 10:10 am. I had not tickled the ivories for two days leading up to the exam because I had been attending my church’s youth fellowship camp.

I was the second candidate for the day. I sat outside the examination room, thinking, while hearing the magnificent playing of the candidate before me: “It has been two full days since I touched the piano, four years since my last piano exam, and five years since a piano lesson“.

What could go wrong, right?

There were so many things that could go wrong.

Here was my examiner’s profile:

The piano was a Kawai grand. I sat down on the bench, and the examiner’s bench was on my right.

Before I knew it, the examination was over. I headed back to church immediately after the examination to continue my participation in the camp.

Then came the dreaded wait for the examination results.

On my registration form, I had indicated that I wanted to collect the certificate and results from Parkway Parade branch (the main branch) since that was where I took my examination. However, a few weeks after the examination, I requested for a change in collection venue to the Paragon branch. I was quite surprised when that request was granted.

On Wednesday, 13 February 2019, during my visit to National Gallery Singapore with a friend, I received an e-mail which I knew also had the scanned copy of the mark sheet attached to it. I did not check it immediately, for I feared that seeing a fail mark would kill the mood of what would be a highly enjoyable afternoon.

At some point during the visit, I was alone in the toilet and I had an internal debate: “Should I check the results only after I get home?” “I’m going to regret checking this if it turns out that I failed.” Eventually, I decided to check it after about thinking for about half a minute. Though it was only about 30 seconds, those 30 seconds felt like an eternity. I decided to do the rational thing. If I had failed the exam, then so be it.

I clicked on the blue-and-white Mail app icon on my Home Screen.

I clicked on the second e-mail under “All Inboxes”.

I flicked up and clicked on the attachment entitled “Loh Chieh, Nicholas.pdf“.

A chunk of text appeared – revealing the examiner’s detailed comments. My eyes darted straight for the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

“Total: 66/100”

I had PASSED!! What a relief! So many thoughts ran through my mind. I shared the news with my family and thanked God. I also shared the wonderful news with my friend. It was a joyous occasion indeed!

When I got back home that evening, I arranged for a lunch meeting with the doctor with whom I had done a clinical attachment. Since I intended to go to Paragon the next day to collect the result, I figured I might as well pay him a visit. After all, his clinic was one of the private suites in Mount Elizabeth Hospital Orchard (just opposite Paragon). It had also been a month since I had finished the fortnight-long clinical attachment with him.

Everything fell perfectly into place. I reached the music school at Paragon at 11am (as stated in the e-mail, it was the earliest I could go to collect the certificate and results). It was a painless process. There was this other lady who was a piano teacher collecting the results on her student’s behalf. She thought I was a piano teacher who was collecting the exam results on his students’ behalf. HAHAHA. After the collection of the certificate, I went for lunch with the doctor and other students who were doing their clinical attachment with him. We had an enjoyable time together at a Japanese restaurant.

For the ATCL, the pass mark is 60, and the minimum mark for a distinction is 80. I was slightly disappointed that I did not achieve a distinction, but oh well, I guess one cannot have his cake and eat it too. As I reviewed the examiner’s comments, I managed to draw some precious insights. First of all, what was most jarring was that I had actually fared worse for the non-performance component (10% allocated to the Programme Notes) than the performance component! How ironic. I had assumed the opposite initially!

Also, as expected, she felt that my best-performed piece was the first piece: the piece by Bach. I was not surprised by this as Bach is my favourite composer and an overwhelming majority of the pieces that I have learnt are by Bach. So, one mistake is that I didn’t focus on my strengths. The piece by Bach was the shortest piece among the four pieces and it only accounted for slightly more than 10% of the total performance duration (excluding breaks).

In retrospect, I might have gotten a distinction if I had 1) chosen to take the examination in 2019 instead of 2018 (having essentially an extra year to prepare), and if I 2) had chosen to focus more on Baroque pieces. Besides, 3) year-end 2019 is also when the new syllabus takes effect (where the performance component accounts for 96% instead of 90% of the marks). Who knows? Hindsight is 20/20 after all.

I definitely will take these learning points into account if I ever do try for the LTCL. Haha. With all that has been said, I nevertheless still remain grateful for the result I obtained.

To conclude this lengthy blog post, my final word to all aspiring musicians and current learners of music would be to seek the intrinsic joy that music can bring to the table. Music transcends languages, cultures, and time. Cultivate your musical ability and use it to learn music that is beyond that which is established within the music examination syllabi. If you attend a church, learn some hymns and edify the brethren! You could also learn how to play soundtrack from a particular film or game. Make your own transcriptions and covers. The list is endless! Don’t let a piece of paper or the prospect of getting a piece of paper extinguish the flames of passion for music. If it has, then, well, rekindle it.

Yours faithfully,
Nicholas Loh
15 February 2019

References & Further Reading:
1. https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g294265-d1640639-i281071598-Plaza_Singapura-Singapore.html
2. https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=Cat+Concerto
3. https://www.cmuse.org/classical-music-in-tom-and-jerry-cartoons/
4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykHabJpETTM
5. https://issuu.com/abrsm/docs/pianosyllabusissuu
6. https://us.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/diplomas/music-performance/
7. https://www.tcmexams.com/index.php/fees-and-forms/music-diplomas
8. http://www.boosey.com/shop/prod/Rachmaninoff-Sergei-Piano-Compositions-Vol-2/730459
9. https://music-and-musicians.com/wp/home/trinity-college-london/examiners/music-examiners-oct-nov-2018-exam-sessions/

One response

  1. 01(31): How I chose the pieces for my piano exam, and what I could have done differently – Nic Loh

    […] a previous blog post, 01(15), I discussed my musical journey from its very beginning. I highly recommend that you read it if you […]

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