Benjamin Loh on Singapore's Music Scene
ANOUK DYUSSEMBAYEVA | JANUARY, 28 / 2021
Photo of Benjamin Loh, provided by Benjamin Loh
Benjamin Loh, Singapore Steinway artist, graduated with a B.Sc. in Economics from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, then pursuing a Master of Music in Piano Performance at the Manhattan School of Music, studying with Dr. Marc Silverman. In 2005, he was given the Special Recognition Award by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) for his contributions to the Singapore National Arts Council.

A successful piano teacher and performer, he has raised many of his students to win prizes in local and international piano competitions, with others continuing their education at prestigious institutions. Benjamin was faculty of the Asia International Piano Academy & Festival (AIPAF) from 2008 to 2014, being their International Advisor for seven years. He has given lectures and masterclasses at the John Perry Academy of Music, the Hotchkiss Summer Piano Program, the Colburn School, Eumyoun International Music Festival and DMZ International Music Festival, the 1st Bangkok Piano Symposium, among others.
You graduated from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, before continuing your music studies. What led you to decide to pursue piano performance?
I had wanted to major in music right from the beginning but my mother, who came from a very traditional Chinese family, felt that it was not appropriate for boys to pursue music as a career. She was afraid that financially, it might be a struggle, especially if I had decided to start a family, which I never did. But after working for two-and-a-half years in the corporate world in Singapore, I realized that I would only live once, so I decided to give music a try. Music teaching has always been a passion and until today, I have no regrets.
Please tell me a little bit more about your education and the experience behind it. In what ways has it impacted you as a pianist?
During my time at the University of Pennsylvania, when I was in business school, I was actively involved in music making activities. I was part of a residential living program called the Arts House, where three floors of a college high rise residential building were dedicated to housing students who had interests in the arts. There would be monthly informal concerts and I had a fun time playing chamber music, solos and piano duets with like-minded people. I also took quite a few music courses as electives.

With regard to my course at the Wharton School, much of it has come in handy when managing my own investments. Being trained in a business school environment has definitely helped me approach life in a more level-headed manner.
Because the music industry is changing so fast, institutions also have to adapt. What do you do to keep up and prepare students as best as possible?
Apart from honing their musical skills, I often tell students that knowing how to manage their personal finances and investments is crucial. Many musicians live in their own world and all they can think about is music, but the practical aspects of being financially stable is very important as well. Music institutions should require students to have wealth creation and management classes.
You studied in Singapore and the United States. What, in your opinion, are the differences in the educational approach, and the overall music industries?
Studying in the States definitely opened my mind to a lot of things. Just being in a different culture exposes you to different ways of doing things and different perspectives towards life.

When I was growing up in the 60's and 70's in Singapore, the education system was still very rigid, both academically and musically, and coming to the States changed all that. The American education system values diversity and is not about a one-size-fits-all kind of mentality. The Singapore system instills discipline, whereas the American system encourages creativity.

For many years and up until today, much of the private music lessons in Singapore are geared towards taking practical exams conducted mainly by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and the Trinity College of Music, both of which are from the United Kingdom. They would send their examiners twice and year to Singapore to assess students in scales/arpeggios, pieces, sight-reading and aural. These exams run from Grades 1 to 8, after which there are three higher-level performance diploma exams. Recently, competitions have also been the rage in Asia.
How has the pandemic changed your approach to education? How are performances and live streaming concerts going?
During the two-month lock down in Singapore, I was conducting Zoom lessons every day. It was awkward at first, but I soon got used to it. By tweaking the settings on Zoom and getting students to use a good microphone and speakers, results were encouraging. Nothing beats in-person lessons, but online classes have opened new doors for me to teach students outside of Singapore.

Last year, I taught at online festivals purely through Zoom and have judged live streamed competitions as well. In Singapore, live performances have started but with limited audience capacity due to safe distancing measures.
What does the current music industry in Singapore look like? Where do you think it is heading?
The level of Classical music appreciation here in Singapore has definitely gone up significantly in the last 10 years. As much as we have many tiger parents pushing their kids to excel in their instruments, at the end of the day, they still prefer their children to take up more lucrative professions such as medicine, law, finance and so forth. But the good thing is that with rising affluence and increased interest in music education, the audience base has also gone up quite a bit.
What problems do you see in student's education and in how they are preparing for the industry?
I see a lot more piano competitions coming up all over the world and parents are getting so obsessed with sending their kids for these events that sometimes their musical development gets affected.

In Singapore, for example, with young kids, they are drilled on a few competition pieces which they rehash year after year just to win prizes. As a result, they have very limited repertoire, poor sight-reading skills and only a shallow understanding of Classical music, in general.

Parents and some teachers don't realize that too many competitions is a bad thing. Students need time to learn more repertoire in order to develop a deeper understanding of the different composers instead of regurgitating what they hear on YouTube. That's why many so-called child prodigies stagnate once they hit the age of 18.
In what ways has the education changed when you were studying compared to now?
With the internet, the world has moved at a much faster pace than when I was growing up. The good thing about this is that students have a whole spectrum of performances on YouTube that they can refer to. And with so many competitions out there, students are constantly being challenged to push themselves outside of their comfort. So generally speaking, pianists of the present generation are playing at a much higher level now than before, at least from what I hear at competitions.
How do you assess and understand that someone has talent and potential?
Talent comes in many forms and in varying degrees and it is not until you spend an extended period of time teaching a student will you know how much potential they have. When a student plays well at a young age, half of the credit is likely due to his parents or teacher, but the true test is how much they blossom when they reach the age of 18 and beyond. Many so-called child prodigies impress with dazzling technique when they're young, but when they reach 18, they sound very ordinary because they never develop much imagination or creativity.

In my 30 years of teaching, I have only come across a handful of students who pick things up very naturally in every aspect. These are students who have natural technique, learn and memorize very quickly, and who have that X-factor when it comes to expressing themselves. Of course, many things such as good technique, musical interpretation can be acquired through hard work, but the truly gifted ones need very little drilling and spoon-feeding.
Apart from academics, what should the students do in order to be most ready for their future career?
Humility and EQ are things that are crucial to one's career. One must learn to be humble in order to improve and must have emotional intelligence in order to work well with other people. Grit and perseverance are also qualities that ensure continued progress. Very often, talented kids give up after losing in a few competitions. The really successful ones learn to reflect, pick themselves up, and move on after bouts of failure.
If you were to start out as a pianist now, what would you do and how? (taking into account the digitalization, technologies)
In this digital age, there are so many more options. Online teaching has become quite the norm and allows one to cast one's net much wider. But if I were to start from scratch, building one's base locally is the first step. And with social media and YouTube, one can certainly reach out to a much wider audience than before.
Do you think it is becoming harder, or easier, for performers to find a job?
The level of playing these days is getting higher and higher, and there are more and more accomplished players compared to 50 years ago, so it's definitely a lot more challenging to get recognized as a performer. Here in Asia, there is still a stronger interest in sending kids for Classical music lessons and music teaching is quite a big market.
Were there any difficulties you experienced when you began your career?
I was very fortunate to have the right connections here in Singapore and managed to build my student base quite easily with recommendations from other musicians. I was also performing quite regularly in chamber concerts with members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra that I had known since my student days.
What, in your opinion, does it take to become successful in the music industry?
Talent and hard work are absolutely necessary, but beyond that, one's personality, grit, determination, humility, and a strong passion for music are vital ingredients to success. Networking is also important.
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