Hitting The Notes

Fresh from receiving the 2015 Cultural Medallion, global toy pianist extraordinaire Margaret Leng Tan reflects on what Singapore means to her and what she wants to share with Singapore youth.




ver since Dr Margaret Leng Tan left Singapore at 16, she has punched well above her weight in the global arena. In 2002, she became the first Singaporean to perform on the main stage of the famed Carnegie Hall in New York, and is internationally renowned as a leading figure in experimental music, representing Singapore at arts and music festivals around the world.

In recognition of her achievements, she was awarded the Cultural Medallion by Singapore’s President Tony Tan Keng Yam in October 2015. The Cultural Medallion, which started in 1979, recognises individuals who have made significant contributions to Singapore’s arts and cultural landscape.

Declaring that great things come in small packages, Dr Tan, who is as adept with her words as she is at the piano, said in her acceptance speech: “My toy piano is tiny. Singapore is tiny. But both pack a hell of a punch.”

She plays her signature toy piano as well as a gamut of quirky “instruments” from squeak toys and whistles to teapots, on the world’s most prestigious stages. Back in Singapore to receive the country’s highest cultural honour, she is pensive and sentimental about the place where she was born. “The Singapore that I knew has vanished,” she says, caught up in the SG50 mood of nostalgia and reflection.

She had visited an exhibition of works by Lasalle College of the Arts students, who had drawn inspiration from the photographs of George Porter, an American living in Singapore between 1965 and 1970.

Porter had spent much of his leisure time documenting the city. “Seeing those images really brought back a wave of nostalgia for me,” says Dr Tan, who grew up in the Balmoral Park area in central Singapore. She remembers climbing trees and riding her bicycle up and down slopes.

“I have learnt a lot, seen a lot, and itʼs time to give back... Hopefully, I accomplish my mission so that these youth... will see and hear the world with new attentiveness, alertness and mindfulness.”

Dr Margaret Leng Tan


Leaving Singapore to study at New York’s Juilliard School at 16 was a life-transforming experience, and not only in terms of her musical development. She says: “I found that the humanities course at Juilliard was mindopening. We were encouraged to think, draw conclusions from the facts, critique. It was a liberating experience.”

In 1971, she became the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in musical arts from Juilliard and decided to remain in the United States, where she sustained herself on a diet of classical music recitals and private teaching. Many classical musicians have taken that very same route into retirement, but Dr Tan soon became bored.

“I was playing the same repertoire as everyone else. Yes, you may have your own interpretation, but you’re basically interpreting someone else’s music, and being re-creatively creative, rather than being directly creative,” she says.

Meeting composer John Cage in 1981 changed her life. It marked the start of a collaboration which lasted until his death in 1992. As she once said, her life journey could be broadly classified into two phases: BC and AC – Before Cage and After Cage.

She says: “John Cage gave me the opportunity to be directly creative. His work, especially his later work, makes the performer a co-creator.”

To perform his music, she had to understand his philosophy, so she read his book Silence and spoke to him. His lesson in mindfulness has since defined her career.

“He not only taught me how to listen to music and the world around me, but also how to live life in a more forgiving way, with a much more Zen approach to life,” she says.

She is particularly fond of Cage’s definition of error as the inability to adjust immediately from preconception to an actuality. “Being wrong doesn’t necessarily have to be a dead end. ‘Wrong’ can be a way of exploring avenues you haven’t thought of.

It can be very forgiving,” she explains. This thinking has empowered her to experiment with all sorts of novel music-making methods, from plucking piano strings to purchasing her first toy piano in 1993 to play Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano.

“Every performance is like travelling along a road of discovery. Even a bad performance is a catalyst that teaches you a lot more, if you are open to learning from it,” says Dr Tan.

She wants to share these philosophies with the younger generation. Apart from conducting private music classes in the US, she is most concerned with the state of youth in Singapore.

As a senior figure of stature and experience, the 70-year-old says: “I have learnt a lot, seen a lot, and it’s time to give back.”

On her recent trip to Singapore, she conducted workshops for students from the School of the Arts and Lasalle, during which she sought to entertain rather than to teach.

“If the students are entertained, they will remember what I say,” she reasons.

“Hopefully, I accomplish my mission so that these youth, rather than being glued to miniature iPad or iPhone screens, will see and hear the world with new attentiveness, alertness and mindfulness.

Just like she does.

Dr Margaret Leng Tan dons a clownʼs nose during her whimsical Cabinet Of Curiosities performance at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015

Dr Tan performs with a range of musical devices, such as toy pianos, squeak toys and percussion instruments.




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