Play it Again, Penang!


Music flourishes best within a vibrant network of ensembles and schools, and aficionados and dreamers, like the one emerging in Penang.
But music education often takes a backseat to the sciences. A balance must be carved and opportunities created for those who wish to pursue musical careers – to which these passionate few can attest.

It would be difficult to discuss Penang’s classical music scene without mentioning Datuk Woon Wen Kin, founding president of the Penang Symphony Society, established in 1981, and leader of the Penang Symphony Orchestra (PSO), Penang Wind Orchestra (PWO) and Penang Junior Orchestra (PJO).

Datuk Woon Wen Kin.

His list of achievements and accolades is laudable, spanning from one corner of the globe to the other. But before all the success, Woon was a shipping clerk and then a full-time tuition teacher to school students.

His life took a turn when he managed to convince his father to send him to the Trinity College of Music in London in 1963. “It happened that my sister was a very good pianist. She wanted to go to England to study music and I thought, what about me? So, my father said OK, you two can go,” Woon remembers.

After completing his studies, Woon became the only Asian to secure a position in the London Opera Centre. However, after two successful years in that orchestra, his father beckoned him home. “It was a very hard decision – I had established myself as a player in the Western continent, which was not easy. I would be coming back to a (musical) ‘desert’. But my father was not well and my sister asked me to return,” says Woon.

His father passed on less than nine months after his return.

Students of SJK(C) Chong Cheng in practice.

Instead of opting to return to England, Woon decided to stay and start something in Penang. “I thought, if nobody does it, then there won’t be chamber music, orchestra music or even a good place for people to learn the violin,” he says. With a handful of students, a chance appearance in a charity concert at the Penang Chinese Girls’ High School put Woon in the newspapers and his popularity grew.

Woon established the PSO in 1981 – now the oldest full orchestra in the state – and his comfortable music studio on Jalan Chow Thye offers lessons in every orchestral instrument, including brass.

The trailblazer celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert last October that featured his old Chung Ling schoolmate and friend Tham Meng Kong, who had made his mark in conducting and teaching music in the US.

There is little hint of Woon slowing down as he closes in on a long-held musical dream – turning the PSO into a semi-professional orchestra. “Currently, all our players for our concerts are paid nothing. They are volunteers and we play four major concerts a year! We must pay the musicians. That is the sustainable way to move forward,” he explains.

Limiting the orchestra size to 75 players a performance and paying them a reasonable sum of above RM500 per concert would result in several things, he adds. Firstly, players who have moved outstation for greener musical pastures would be keener to visit home to play, and the overall standard of music would also be raised.

Additionally, parents may start to have a change of mindset away from thinking that music is not a viable career – a small step in reversing the stigma against the arts.

Woon says plans to turn the PSO semipro have long been in the works and he expects it to happen either this year or next.

SJK (C) Chong Cheng head of music education Ooi Chew Beng with an angklung set in the school.

Beyond the Classroom

A fertile ground for young musicians has traditionally been schools – even maestros like Woon are often former school band members.

As a subject, music was made compulsory for primary school students in 1983 but has since been slotted under the “arts education” component and fills just half an hour a week for pupils. (Art, the other component, is allotted an hour per week.)

While the importance of music as a school subject has somewhat dwindled over the decades, music-centred cocurricular activities have blossomed in pockets of schools, pushed by school boards, parent-teacher associations (PIBG) and sponsors.

SJK(C) Chong Cheng in Sungai Ara is such an institution. The primary school contains no less than eight co-curricular programmes, supporting its student population of more than 1,800 students.

Ooi Chew Beng, who heads music education in the school, says Chong Cheng has the traditionally common groups like the school band, choir and 24 Seasons Drums and additionally, a recorder ensemble, kompang group, lion dance troupe, harmonica ensemble and most recently, angklung group utilising the unique Indonesian instrument made from bamboo tubes.

Last year was a good one for music education in the school, with it picking up numerous awards like a gold medal in the National Primary School-level Music Festival 2018 for the Recorder Orchestra category, with pupil Janice Loo, 12, picking up the Excellent Conductor award; and three gold diploma placings at the Malaysia International Music Festival 2018 (in the National Children’s Choir Competition, Angklung Ensemble Competition and Recorder Ensemble Competition) in Shah Alam.

Rising to the top has been no easy feat. Ooi explains that financial support is very important, and a certain amount of costly expertise is needed to instruct the music groups. “There are so many different instruments involved, so we need to hire coaches from outside. This is quite expensive. The PIBG pays for it and it is due to their support that we have come as far as we have,” says Ooi, who has been teaching at Chong Cheng for 25 years.

Investments into instruments – be it the school’s RM60,000 timpani set, RM12,000 great bass recorder or any other part of the school’s large inventory – is also a substantial consideration and is one reason why many schools do not start certain musical co-curricular programmes. Support from the school board is needed and fundraisers are not uncommon when large purchases are needed.

Ooi, who is self-taught in many of the instruments available at the school and who is largely responsible for Chong Cheng’s variety of musical programmes (she has her eye on starting a gamelan group next), humbly understates her own role but says the individual teachers who come back to school on their own time to supervise rehearsals and practises are irreplaceable. “We’ve even had teachers fetch students to school for special practices,” she says, adding that supportive parents are another part of the equation for success.

Parents also fork out their own funds when out-of-state trips are organised for the students to perform and learn. “If you only stay and play in school, there will be little improvement. When you step out of Penang, however, you start to see the different levels groups can perform at. When the students come back, you can see a difference in their attitude and approach,” she says.

PPO in concert under the baton of resident conductor Ng Choong Yen.

Percussionist Ng Sok Wah debuting Musica Sinfonietta's timpani set in the 2014 "Big Bang!" camp concert.

Overseas expeditions for performances and cultural exchanges have now become commonplace for Chong Cheng music ensembles, with groups travelling to China, Indonesia and most recently last December, to Korea. “In my opinion, the number one thing that makes it work is interest. If the teachers have no interest to get involved, it won’t work. If the children have no interest, they won’t practise. But with interest, everything is easier,” Ooi concludes.

PPO chairperson Datin Seri Irene Yeap..

State Initiatives

The state government is trying to encourage interest in music through its support of initiatives that centre around the fine arts.

“We want to support not only the sciences but also the arts. Education should be holistic and I think music and the arts should be given equal emphasis,” says Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy, who also heads the state Education portfolio.

He says that music and arts programmes like dance are now usually undertaken in a private setting – a sign that parents are, to some level, supportive of their children being involved in the fine arts, adding that in Penang, there seems to be less stigma against the younger generation opting for career choices outside the traditional disciplines of science and mathematics, which is encouraging.

One major arts initiative that was started by the government was the forming of a state orchestra before the turn of the century. Originally known as the Penang State Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (PESSOC), the organisation went through a restructuring process in 2008 and is now known as the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO). It now receives a modest allocation from the state and is strongly backed by private sponsors and supporters.

Chairperson Datin Seri Irene Yeap says the PPO aims to make the arts accessible to everyone in the state – musical and non-musical communities alike. “We open our doors to all musicians in Penang and the northern region of the country. Our vision is to achieve as high a level of performance as possible, worthy of a voluntary community orchestra for the state of Penang. One of the things we wanted to do was reach an international standard in our concerts, and we have done this,” she says.

With an already impressive repertoire under its belt, the PPO, which has 80 members, has welcomed numerous international performers and conductors to share the stage in Penang – including pianist Yaron Kohlberg and cellist Yoshiko Ikemura just last year.

Our vision is to achieve as high a level of performance as possible, worthy of a voluntary community orchestra for the state of Penang.

“We run on a two-year calendar and we are very proud to have professional conductors and soloists writing in to perform with us. Our concerts are planned with a varied repertoire, suited for the level of our musicians as they grow and also for our audience’s enjoyment. Hence, programmes cover as wide a range as we are able to accomplish,” Yeap says.

Three generations – Lo Mei Yoke (right) with her student Celia Lim Jia Ling (back) and Lim's student Anniina Teh.

On the future, Yeap hopes to see the building of more concert halls in the state which can cater to different-sized performances and audiences. With Penang located between Singapore’s Esplanade and Thailand’s Prince Mahidol Hall – two noted performance venues – the state can leverage on its location to attract visiting international musicians.

Private Tutoring

One of the main reasons Penang has a steady talent pool in music is due to the availability of private music tutors in the state. Though a large number of woodwind, brass and percussion players generally start playing in school bands, piano and string players usually receive musical education outside school, often being put in private music lessons by their parents early in life.

Lo Mei Yoke, who teaches the strings (except for the bass, at which she is “very rusty”) and is also a founding member and rehearsal conductor of Musica Sinfonietta – the state’s youngest full orchestra which turns nine this year – started music by banging on a neighbour’s piano and organ.

Sensing her interest, her parents put her and her sisters into music classes and Lo began with the piano at age five, adding on the violin some five years later, with a viola being pushed into her hands sometime after that.

After finishing secondary school in Convent Light Street, Lo taught violin at a music centre for two years before heading to the Musikhochschule Köln, Abt. Aachen in Germany to obtain a performance diploma.

The Steinway Room in Bentley Music Penang.

Returning in 1994, Lo has taught music ever since, alongside playing in string quartets and other chamber groups. “Very recently, maybe over the last one or two years, I keep getting asked to teach the cello. I think people like the sound of the instrument; however, cost is a consideration – a good set of strings for the violin is RM200 to RM300, but for the cello, it’s RM1,000,” she says.

Lo notices that nowadays, more people are able to afford the basic investment in instruments, which is perhaps a reason why there is more diversity in the kinds of instruments that are being learned.

She thinks ages five or six is a good time to start, though she has taught students as young as four. The majority of her clientele are in primary and secondary school.

Lo advocates getting musicians together to play, adding an element of fun and companionship to the musical equation. “At first, most kids come because their parents bring them, but somehow, some of them catch the spark. A lot of times this is through playing in the orchestra – when we have camps, they realise this can also be fun and if you do well, it can be most gratifying,” she says.

In the end, music is about achieving something and having a good time along the way, says Lo. “The goal is to see how far they can go. Everyone is different and you don’t have to play like a professional to enjoy music. It has to be that you feel a sense of achievement and you are enjoying what you are doing.”

Bentley Music Penang branch manager Low Hui Yong (front, second left) with the team at the store in Gurney Paragon Mall.

Additional Support

The learning and playing of music is also made possible by entities that support and offer the basic necessities players need, and beyond. Music stores and retailers like Bentley Music are essential for music to survive and flourish in the state.

Bentley Business Development Director Lewis Hooper says that whether or not it is about getting last-minute replacement parts for visiting performers or general small accessories, it is important that musicians have a solid store to rely on.

Bentley, as a whole, carries over 30 recognised brands including Taylor, Sterling, Pearl, Mesa Boogie, Tama, Ibanez, Zildjian, Jupiter, Hofner, Jim Dunlop and Vandoren for its three categories of instruments: combo (also referred to as rock ‘n’ roll – which includes guitars, drums and keyboards), orchestral and piano.

Notably, the company also distributes Steinway & Sons pianos, as well as those under its family brands of Boston and Essex. This puts them in the centre of the Steinway piano competitions in the country, which Bentley uses to create a platform for young pianists to improve and perform – both in competition and in subsequent non-profit concerts that they organise.

Bentley Music Academy Director of Academic and Artistic Development Kevin Field.

Bentley Music Penang branch manager Low Hui Yong says at least two or three of such concerts, where all proceeds go to charity, are organised every year with a good mixture of young, rising local performers and established international musicians featured.

“In Penang, we are not only focused on retailing, supported by our team of musicians who have a great passion for music, but on promoting musical events as well. The culture of music is so important in Penang and we want to help make it easier for people – whether they play an instrument or not – to come and attend concerts and performances,” she says.

The culture of music is so important in Penang and we want to help make it easier for people – whether they play an instrument or not – to come and attend concerts and performances.

An interesting upcoming collaboration between Bentley and PPO is expanding this initiative to promote the love of music everywhere. Slated for the Christmas season this year, the “Twas the night before Christmas – A Festive Spectacular” concert will take place in both KL and Penang, featuring students from the Bentley Music Academy (BMA) Youth Orchestra, Ensemble 24+ (the adult learning performance group), as well as the BMA Youth Chamber Choir, side-by-side with the PPO under the baton of BMA Academic and Artistic Development Director Kevin Field.

“The ultimate objective is the shared experience of live music performance; to learn sideby- side and exchange ideas, skills and memories; and to make a very special event for many people to enjoy,” Field says.

On the prospects of opening a BMA branch in Penang to offer lessons and musical tutorship, Field says that there is thought going on in that direction. “A natural development would be to expand to Penang in support of the heritage, quality and long-established music performance traditions on the island. There is plenty of discussion about opening an academy in Penang – but all in good time!”


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