Tay Teow Kiat



Tay Teow Kiat (Dr) (b. 27 November 1947, Singapore–) is a musician and conductor. Considered a pioneer and the founding father of Chinese orchestral music in Singapore.1 Tay established and built up various leading Chinese orchestras in Singapore and is a prominent conductor both here and overseas. For his contributions to the Chinese music scene in Singapore, Tay was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Music in 1993.2

Early life and career
Tay grew up in a working-class family where he was the second youngest in a family of five siblings. His father was a lighter man, selling amenities on a barge on the Singapore River to ships, and his mother was a housewife. His three older brothers left school early and joined their father’s trade to help lighten the family’s financial burden.3


When Tay was 13, he developed gastric ulcers and had to take leave from his studies at Chung Cheng High School for half a year. During this period, he learned how to play the mandolin from one of his brothers.4

Tay had a natural affinity for music. Having enjoyed learning the mandolin, Tay then picked up the di zi, or Chinese flute, with his friends when he returned to school. Later, he joined the school’s Chinese orchestra and was assigned at first to play the qin qin, a two-stringed Chinese lute. Then he was assigned to play a plucked string instrument known as the da ruan. Due to his earlier experience with the mandolin, he picked up the da ruan very quickly. Seeing that he was a quick learner, the orchestra’s teacher-in-charge then assigned him to play a more difficult instrument, the san xian, a long-necked plucked string instrument. None of his orchestra mates played the san xian.5

There was neither any teacher to learn from nor any available books on how to play the san xian. Nevertheless, Tay was determined to learn to play the instrument. He borrowed records but since his family was too poor to afford a record player, he had to go to a friend’s house to listen to them.6 He basically learnt to play the san xian by listening to records and experimenting on his own.7

During those days, there were only two works featuring solo pieces for san xian: Da Lang Tao Sha and Shi Ba Ban. Tay remembered listening to these records countless times and eventually performed a san xian solo on stage playing Shi Ba Ban when he was in secondary four.8

The process of learning the san xian aroused in Tay a great interest in Chinese music. At the same time, he was made the president of the school’s Chinese orchestra.9

In 1968, Tay completed his ‘A’ levels and was offered a place in Nanyang University (now known as Nanyang Technological University). However, Tay decided to enroll in the Teachers’ Training College (now the National Institute of Education) instead as he felt that he needed to work as soon as possible to help out in his family’s finances.10

After graduating from the Teachers’ Training College, Tay went on to teach at Siglap Secondary School. In 1980 he joined Dunman High School as a Chinese language teacher.11

While holding a full-time job as a teacher, Tay continued to pursue his interest in Chinese music. He held Chinese music classes in community centres, music and clan associations, and also organised orchestras for various organisations. He was a much sought-after teacher and his reputation as a teacher and conductor grew.12

In 2000, the Ministry of Education appointed Tay as Music Director of the East Zone Schools’ Chinese Orchestra Development Centre. He was responsible for developing Chinese music training programmes for schools located in the east side of Singapore.13

In 2005, at 58 years old, Tay enrolled in the Beijing Normal University and completed a PhD in Chinese music conducting. Tay retired from teaching in 2009.14

Artistic career
Tay was largely a self-taught musician and conductor. He came from a humble background where music enrichment was not part of his formative years.15 However, with a natural talent and through his involvement in the Chinese Orchestra in school, Tay quickly picked up various Chinese instruments and became an expert san xian player.16


While at the Teachers’ Training College, he was invited by the Mountbatten Community Centre and Quan Sheng Yin Yue She, a music organisation, to start Chinese orchestra groups in their respective organisations.17

Tay was a dedicated teacher. At the Quan Sheng Yin Yue She, he was supposed to teach only two nights a week but he was there all seven nights. The allowance he received was spent on buying new instruments for the group.18 As Tay had to put together the orchestra, he made it a point to learn the various instruments personally so that he could teach the members. Tay could play more than 10 instruments. The only exception was the wind instruments, which he was unable to play due to health concerns.19

The Quan Sheng group thrived under Tay’s leadership and during a performance at the former Radio Television Singapore, he made such an impression that they invited him to start a Chinese Orchestra for the station.20

In 1974, the Radio Television Singapore Chinese Orchestra was started with Tay at its helm. Later it became the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Chinese Orchestra. It is now known as the City Chinese Orchestra and is funded by the National Arts Council. The orchestra has performed in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia as well as recorded two albums. Tay remains its music director and conductor to this day.21

In 1980, Tay was transferred to Dunman High School. Soon he was tasked to take charge of the Dunman High School Chinese Orchestra. Under his baton, it became a prominent school-based Chinese orchestra. In 1992, Tay led the orchestra to Shanghai and Beijing to perform where it received impressive reviews.22

In 1982, Tay went to Shanghai where he met san xian expert Li Yi from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.23 As Li got to know Tay better, he suggested that Tay consider being a conductor instead of a san xian player. Heeding Li’s advice, Tay switched his focus to conducting.24

In 1985, Tay was invited to be a guest conductor of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, making him the first Singaporean to conduct a professional Chinese orchestra in Shanghai. He was very well received.25


Tay’s reputation grew and he has since been invited as a guest conductor for various Chinese orchestras in China.26 He has also served as the adjudicator for international Chinese music conferences and competitions in the United States, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.27

Not one to rest on his laurels, Tay continued to seek improvements in his conducting. In 1999, he returned to Shanghai and studied conducting under Professor Cao Peng of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music for six months.28

Tay’s prominence in the Chinese music world is testified by the fact that he was featured in a book published in 1999 on the history of traditional Chinese music in China. The book was written by the former president of the China Nationalities Orchestra Society, Piao Don Sheng.29

Retired from teaching in 2009, Tay continues to be active in the Chinese music scene mentoring and grooming younger musicians. He is currently the music director of Ding Yi Music Company, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts City Chinese Orchestra, the Dunman High School Performing Arts Centre, as well as the president of the Singapore Chinese Instrumental Music Association.30

Stylistic conventions

Tay’s conducting style has been praised by music critic Yu Qing Xin as being “rigorous, accurate, robust and lucid, processing a strong sense of proportion while retaining a degree of unfettered grace”.31

For Tay, a conductor does not simply lead the orchestra to play what is on the score. On the contrary, he believes that a conductor has to delve deep into the composition and discover things that even the composer himself may not have realised initially. In a way, the conductor has to recreate the music.32

Tay sets high expectations for himself. His best performance is always the next one.33

Family
34
Wife:
Tan Wah Chwee.

Sons: Tay Yi-Chung and Tay Yi-Cheah.

Awards
35
1989:
Pingat Berebolehan (National Day Efficiency Award).

1991: Ministry of Education Commendation Plague.
1993: Cultural Medallion for Music.
1997:
Long Service Medal (Education Service).


Appointments
36
1984: Adjudicator for Art Trophy Chinese Music Competition in Beijing.
1992: Judge at 2nd International Sizhu Composition and perform competition in Shanghai.
2007: Judge at China Central Television Chinese Folk Music Instruments Competition.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat
2. National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Music. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/music/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-music
3. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

4. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat
6. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
8. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat
9. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat; Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
12.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat

13. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
14. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
15. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

16. 月儿高 [Yue, E. G.]. (1980, October 4). 有水准,有深度 [You shui zhun, you shen du]. 新洲日报 [Sin Chew Jit Poh], p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
20. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg; Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat
22. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
25. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperS
27. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 553. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
28. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
30.
Ding Yi Music Company. (2012). Music director - Dr Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.dingyimusic.com/our-family/music-director.html

31. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
32. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2001, October 22). 红楼断肠化蝶相依 [Hong lou duan chang hua die xiang yi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2001, October 22). 红楼断肠化蝶相依 [Hong lou duan chang hua die xiang yi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Oon, C. (2013, August 9). Orchestra pioneer Tay Teow Kiat lives and breathes Chinese music. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
35. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tay Teow Kiat. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tay+Teow+Kiat; Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 553. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])

36. Phan, M. Y. (1994, August 30). Cultural Medallion Award winner sets high standards for Chinese orchestra. The Straits Times, p. 2; 胡文雁 [Hu, W. Y.]. (2008, March 11). 郑朝吉有一双会说话的手 [Zheng Chao Ji you yi shuang hui shuo hua de shou]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 12 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts