Tang Tee Khoon, artistic director of the TTK Grand Series concerts, and Singapore’s foremost chamber musician, was just nine when she gave her first concert. Then a tiny child with big glasses and a violin, she wowed the world with her prodigious talent. Yet despite having travelled the world and achieved global acclaim, for Tang, home is Singapore, where her heart and music remains. She sits down with Options to share her journey.

SINGAPORE (March27): Somewhere in the archives of several Singapore newspapers is a picture of Tang Tee Khoon, then nine years old, in a puffed-sleeves dress, with big glasses, a violin tucked under her chin, and a look of intense concentration on her petite, serious face. “Tang Tee Khoon, 9, wins award for Best Performer”, read the headline.

A violin prodigy, Tang was only four when she first started learning how to play the violin, and by age seven she had already started performing publicly. Tang, whose mother is a piano teacher, blew everyone away with her quick grasp of the notoriously difficult and temperamental instrument.

Then came the Best Performer Award at the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is history. She would go on to win the award two more times, and at age 12, made her concert debut with the NUS Symphony Orchestra. Over the next two decades of her incredible career, she won a string of awards, including the second prize at the Klein International Competition in the US, first prize at Kocian International Violin Competition in Czech Republic, the Myra Hess Award in the UK, the Martin Musical Scholarship (UK), the London Symphony Orchestra String Scheme Award, the Singapore Shell-National Arts Council Arts Scholarship, and the Tan Kah Kee postgraduate scholarship.

In fact, she completed her postgraduate degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, while performing as a soloist with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Singapore Arts Festival Orchestra, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, and other orchestras in the US, Europe and Japan. In 2009, she became one of only two musicians ever to be loaned a rare J.B. Guadagnini (1750) violin by the Singapore National Arts Council. The violin, worth an estimated $700,000, was on loan to Tang between June 2009 and May 2011, and with that she performed a special violin recital in August 2009.

She also went on to perform as a soloist and recitalist at Kioi Hall Tokyo, Banff Centre for the Arts Canada, St John Smith’s Square London, and at Singapore’s celebration of 40 years of diplomatic ties with the Philippines as soloist with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra.

Early years

Her list of accomplishments could, of course, fill several pages, but anyone who meets Tang expecting eccentric, precocious or diva-like behaviour would be gravely mistaken. Looking far younger than her 36 years of age, Tang comes across as somewhat guarded at first, but the apprehension melts away to a genuine warmth and humour when the conversation takes a turn towards the personal.

Tang says learning the violin was tough, but it was spurred on by her mom, who wanted her to learn something different. “She had no knowledge of how to play the violin, but she researched and hired a private teacher and sat in for lessons with me,” Tang recalls. “My mom said I took to the violin like a duck to water. It was a tough instrument, but whatever it was, it fitted me like a glove. I progressed really quickly from there and by five, was playing in school concerts; and then by nine, I had won [the competition].” And it has never really stopped since, she says. “It just snowballed. I am an 80’s child, and back then there were really few young people who performed classical music. And once you can do it, you get pushed on stage, and I was in demand for concerts maybe once or twice a month.”

Over a cup of hot chocolate, Tang opens up about her journey as a child prodigy, and to this writer’s surprise, reveals that even as she wowed the world with her talent, she was often lonely, withdrawn, and struggled to balance between her studies, career and social life; all while being far from home and her family and friends.

After a meteoric rise in both her profile and demand as a young violinist, at just 17, the opportunity came for her to be the renowned pedagogue and violinist, at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio at first, and then the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, US. At the time, she was still in junior college and had not finished her studies. “He only took two or three students a year, out of hundreds, and so there is no saying, ‘Can I come next year?’. Everything was in place for me, so I had to give up my studies and go,” she says. “It was a very, very tough decision to make, and I sat down with my friends for months, talking it through. And I also did not have any family in the US, so I was alone.”

But pack her bags she did, and she studied under Weilerstein for four years, an experience she cherishes. “I trust him with all my heart, and he had a way of connecting with his students that many other teachers can’t. He’s able to get you past your ‘blockages’ as a performer. Every performer has challenges when performing, be it mentally, physically or spiritually, and he’s able to intuitively help you jump through those hoops,” she says. “Because to go on stage is a huge demand on your mental and emotional strength and maturity.”

Hiding herself

But it was during those years that she found herself vulnerable and withdrawn, being the only Singaporean in the class. In between trying to find her roots and make a career and life outside of Singapore, she was also dealing with culture shock and cultural differences. Even though she had already travelled across the world by then, as a young performer, it was easy to deal with the travel because she knew she would always come home. “But when you’re trying to make a life [abroad], you don’t know if you’re ultimately going to end up making a base there. I think that was where I started to be more vulnerable, because you’re trying to find your base, and your rock, to see if you can find your way and if there’s going to be stability there,” she says. “And it’s not easy, because you need a community around you, if you do the arts. And it’s a very fluid environment with people who move around and have a lot of aspirations.”

She adds: “And then with other students who had far different backgrounds to you, it was a lot of culture shock that left a lot of scars. As a young girl you had a perception of what community and friendships should be, and figuring out the other person’s perspective was not easy. But as decades have passed, I’ve learnt [from it], and I can understand what happened. I’ve learnt that once you figure out the other person’s perspective, you have to find a middle ground, because no one else is like you.” She realises now how much she used to hide her inner self from her peers, because she felt they had nothing in common. The only thing they had in common was music, and that is all they talked about. “I didn’t realise it then, because it was about survival,” she says.

The moment it struck her that she had hidden so much of herself was when a good friend from abroad visited Singapore back in 2010. They had had to go to her home in Geylang (back then) to put down their instruments so they could go sightseeing. “When she came to my home, she was shocked. There was no trace of Western culture in my home. It was so Chinese, all that rosewood furniture!” she says, laughing. “But why was she so shocked? Because I didn’t share this part of myself. When she expressed that she never knew this side of me, that was when I realised that I didn’t reveal much about myself.”

Tang also went on to study under Europe’s foremost pedagogue, David Takeno, in London, for four years. She was completely taken with London – she loved the vibe, the arts scene, and the life in the great old city. “I love London, artistically. It’s incredible. It’s my favourite city in the world, and moving away was one of the most emotionally difficult things for me,” she says. However, she adds: “[London] could provide all the artistic things, say, input and inspiration. But one thing it could not provide for me is that the system was very traditional, wages were very similar across the board, and you had to fit in.”

She explains that much of the music industry is like that, for musicians. It is either you work as a musician on one level for a long time, or you go up to “superstar” level. “There is very little in-between. And for me personally, I did not think, for many reasons, that that was going to happen for me,” she says. One major reason why she did not think that the “superstar” level was going to happen was that she knew herself. “It’s not just about the playing, it was the lifestyle. I know I’m not the kind of person who can sustain alone for long, on the road. You need to be able to live on your own and not create roots, but I did not think that was anything near what I wanted in the long run.”

After four years studying under Takeno, she spent a year performing around the world, but inevitably found herself back home, where her heart truly was. “And everything fell into place,” she adds.

Making a difference

Then the J.B. Guadagnini violin loan happened, and with that came high-profile concerts and appearances. Inspired by the violin and the nascent classical music scene in Singapore, Tang then conceived the Tang Tee Khoon (TTK) Grand Series in 2009, which is a series of concerts that showcases the finest in classical music and brings together prominent musicians from around the world. She is currently its artistic director. This series of evening concerts and concerts for children, now in its 13th edition, is the result of Tang’s labour of love and has been hugely successful, bringing the music of Beethoven and Mozart, and many more, to local audiences.

However, Tang’s journey is far from complete. She has a bigger goal in mind: To create a truly robust and inclusive environment here, where musicians can thrive and have the same opportunities as she did. With that in mind, in 2019, she came up with the Homegrown Series. The Homegrown Series is how she plans to create unique platforms for exceptional Singaporean classical chamber musicians to connect Singaporeans with quality classical chamber music, and to grow opportunities for young and upcoming local musicians. “We really wanted to create these platforms for exceptional local talent, who maybe have trained abroad and want to come home, or are in the same position I had been in before I returned, and are looking for a place where they can have steady work and a place to hone and share their skills,” she says.

The inaugural Evening Concert of this series was held in November last year, to critical success. “Our executive team is so busy, but we are focused and we love what we do. All our partners and sponsors understand what we do and are so supportive,” she says. “To have that kind of support for so many years is something precious and something we cannot take for granted.” Aside from the Homegrown Series, the TTK Grand Series also holds internships and a Young Artist-in-Residence programme, which is designed for talented young classical musicians below 21 who want to develop their craft through close study with the international artists of the TTK Grand Series.

Asked where she sees herself in five years, Tang laughs. “I am always amazed how people can answer that. A lot of what I do depends on what happens around me, how much resources I have, but I would like to create sustainable programmes for the youth, special needs and elderly,” she says. “Very broadly, I want to create programmes which can provide the bridge between beneficiaries and artists, something that provides a steady relationship between the two; ultimately, the pairing of artists and beneficiaries in a meaningful, and sustainable way.”

For now, Tang is focused on achieving her goals, and almost wistfully, she says it would be very difficult for her to ever “put down” her violin, as it were. She has, after all, spent her whole life in what she says is not always a loving relationship with her instrument. “But now the way I see it, I can do a lot of good with it, and it has given me the means to make a difference,” she says. Perhaps, after years of hiding her true self, Tang has now come into her own, and found her inner song.