From Austria to Singapore
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Exactly 10 years ago, I arrived in Salzburg. Enamored with old-world Europe and empowered with a deep sense of purpose of wanting to absorb all that was possible from my new cultural environment, I was dizzy with a miraculous disbelief over my newfound status as a music student. My short time in America liberated me from that notion that it was impossible to do a second degree in music and I was doggedly determined to get to and stay in Europe, with the same degree of intensity that I put into getting out of Singapore. Over time, that initial idealism has faded and my former enchantment with Europe has morphed into a less romantic, more sober appreciation—I still love all things ecclesiastical, la dolce vita, the gilded opera houses, leisurely boulevards, cool summer nights and old cafes where the literati philosophise over cake, coffee and crinkled newspapers, the changing of the seasons and their rhythms, the anticipation over the first appearance of seasonal produce at farmers’ markets.
Why do you want to leave Austria, the land of classical music?
I enjoyed many aspects of life as a music university student and learned so much but as the years went by and especially in the aftermath of my graduation, I became increasingly aware that it was also a very hermetic system that we were thriving in; an institution expanding and overproducing graduates (often socially disengaged and depoliticised). There is a disproportionate number of graduates to jobs available, where supply vastly exceeds demand and as a result, many choose to retain their student status indefinitely so as to defer confrontations with the dismal socio-economic realities of job scarcity, low pay, and short-term, part-time positions. Is it even the land of classical music making or does its future belong to Asia? I think that images dominate the public imagination such as the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concerts, the Salzburg festival that capitalizes on the historical coincidence that this was Mozart’s birthplace, and composers such as Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert, Brahms, etc. were all associated with Vienna, and there is an undeniably strong alpine folk music tradition.
Among the many people I know, it is only Patrick, an indefatigable pianist friend who adores Schumann and Brahms, who seems to believe in the music-making utopia that I once thought existed. He works as an accompanist for a number of violin professors and is living his dream. What about the stories of the vast majority of graduates? Where do they go and how can one reconcile this gaping disparity between the number of over-qualified instructors and a limited pool of amateur students? There have been no surveys or follow-ups done on the Mozarteum alumni. The university in essence is a conservative institution and its modus operandi is expansion not contraction.
There is a 1804 quotation from Beethoven where he writes to Gottlob Wiedebein: ‘You imagine that it would be easy to make your way here. But that is difficult, for Vienna is swarming with teachers who try to make a living by giving lessons’. More than 200 years later, this statement rings even more true than ever, with Eastern Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese musicians, all wanting a slice of the pie. The majority of piano graduates cannot sustain a full-time performing career and so end up falling back on teaching as a safety net and an alternative source of income. I believe that being a full-time music teacher is economically unviable here, unless one belongs to the higher echelons of being a famous professor where students from all around the world would flock to you and non-stop invitations stream in.
After 10 years of living in a quaint Baroque town with a population of 150,000, with throngs of international tourists making it easy to cursorily gloss over its provincialism, there was an unquenchable, irrepressible gnawing ache for the dynamism of city life. I figured along the way that it wasn’t enough to live like an aesthete for the rest of my life, passively consuming and digesting the tragic beauty of opera plots, their nefarious villains and doomed heroines. Rather, I simply want to be relevant to the society and community I live in. I think it takes leaving one’s place of origin to deeply reconnect with it and there is so much more that we can do in being a more non-judgmental, compassionate, inclusive, and diverse society. At the same time, I am going back and being a middle-class Chinese-Singaporean who plans to teach classical piano, I hope that I will not be unconsciously instrumental in reproducing social privilege and elitism.
Today the movers are here, adeptly shifting things and tapping up boxes. There is always something poignant about leaving, the emptying out of a space, its connotations of abandonment. My senses feel dull from the torrent of email exchanges related to sorting out the logistics of the move. I am unsentimental about saying farewell. Soon, there will be a new space filled with love, lightness, music, and warmth.