With a wealth of musical experience, performing across the world and working with internationally-renowned ensembles such as the Ex Cathedra choir (UK) and NOTUS (USA) to spearheading Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School’s Enhanced Music Programme, music teacher Miss Ng Sheh Feng has led many students to pursue their love for music. Needless to say, she is an accomplished music guide for many. However, there were many lows too.
When she first decided to pursue a music teaching career during her Junior College years, she faced many challenges. She applied and was unsuccessful for the MOE teaching scholarship. She decided to enrol in a Social Work and Psychology degree locally, but fortunately, her parents knew her interest and passion in music. Despite their own share of hardships, they were determined to send her for overseas studies to chase her dreams. That to her, was a golden opportunity and there was no looking back.
“My parents saw that I was unhappy, and they decided to support me studying music overseas. It was a tough time for my family, and I can never repay them enough for the sacrifices they had to make. "The decision was the right one, and I am privileged to be able to teach and guide so many batches of young people in music,” said Sheh Feng.
A life long journey
Through her experiences, she finds that music can provide a source of pride when students realise their accomplishments and perform a perfected piece for a rapt audience. After spending countless hours practicing scales, conquering techniques and memorising pieces, they will be able to see for themselves the success they can achieve through their own hard work and determination. In the area of music, hard work does not stop because learning and making music is a life long journey.
"I would have been a less effective teacher had I just stopped learning after graduating. I treasure every opportunity to learn about music and teaching, because it means that I become a better teacher to my students. So no matter how difficult it is to find time, I make sure to continue keeping in touch with the larger music scene, to keep working at my craft, and to keep learning. I encourage my colleagues to do the same, because we can never be too qualified as music teachers!" said Sheh Feng, an advocate for music partnerships, such as a Music Mentoring Programme with ACS(I), Arts Internships with The RICE Company, and collaborations with NAFA for her school's choral and band programmes.
Then vs Now
Music programmes in schools offer more than just after-school activities to keep students occupied. With the increasingly stressful lives that students lead nowadays, music programmes in schools are all the more important because they provide social and physical outlets for our students.
There are a variety of music programmes available in schools to suit the different levels, from the General Music Programme which every student goes through for at least 8 years of their school life, to the more selective Enhanced Music Programme (EMP) or Music Elective Programme (MEP).
“I am a product of the MEP myself, taught in MEP and started the EMP in AISS. I appreciate how these programmes in schools provide a conducive environment and community for students to grow musically,” said Sheh Feng.
When the MEP began more than three decades ago, it was a really important step in building up the pool of music talent in Singapore. Now, three decades later, we are seeing the fruit of that programme in the exponential number of musicians, music teachers, advocates and supporters of the arts.
However, the music and educational landscape has changed significantly and it is important for us to constantly re-evaluate the aims and focus of our music programmes. For example, the study of Western Classical music is apt if you are interested in becoming an orchestra conductor or composer but it might not suit the needs of students’ who are interested in audio engineering or electronic music.
There are also many options for students to explore and participate in music training such as the Singapore National Youth Orchestra, Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Children’s Chorus and many other community groups.
The importance of parental support
For some parents, pursuing a career in the music industry is a fanciful idea that their children will eventually grow out of.
“Parents might have the misconception that music is for the elite or that you can’t earn a decent living from a career in music. These perceptions are slowly changing as they become more well-informed,” said Sheh Feng.
The music industry is a very difficult one to get into, but if you work hard enough and know what exactly you want to work on, there are plenty of roles to explore. If you want to be a performing musician, consider whether you are willing to work non-conventional hours and locations. Your “office” could be your home one day and the concert hall the next! You should also be prepared to do a lot of travelling, especially if you work in different locations, or all over the world. Of course, there are many career options that allow for more regular hours and a fixed location such as music journalism, radio dj or music academia.
Being a musician involves a huge array of behind the scenes tasks that might not appeal to everyone. So if being a full-time musician does not appeal to you, there are lots of other interesting careers related to music such as music therapy, artist management and audio engineering that one might consider.
“Go with what your heart tells you. With many different music-related careers out there, there will be something to suit every disposition,” she said.
So, what does it mean to be a music teacher?
Paying it forward to those before you. We may never know how we have impacted someone until many years later which is why it is important to create opportunities for them to excel and hope that we have planted that seed of curiosity and love for music in our students.
"I treasure the time I have with my students, and try to listen to, guide, and journey with them. This strategy worked because I now have at least 15 former students who have completed their degrees in music; some are now pursuing their graduate studies, while others are in fulfilling music careers. Some even became my colleagues in MOE. It is truly a beautiful cycle as I am now teaching music to the son of my secondary school music teacher!" said Sheh Feng with a smile.