Universal Sound

Hearing-impaired pianist Ron Tan provides opportunities for musicians with disabilities and connects them to a world of similar artists through his talent management company.

BY TOH EE MING

H

earing-impaired pianist Ron Tan still remembers his first concert at Nanyang Polytechnic in 2011, where his self-penned composition, Bridge of Freedom, earned him a standing ovation and moved audience members to tears.

The song was inspired by a bridge where he had sought refuge during tough times. Playing to a live audience was an emotional experience for the self-taught musician, who recalls being belittled during his formative years because of his disability.

Tan, who lives with 80 per cent hearing loss, says: “I felt so recognised, and I worked so hard for this.”

Tan started taking an interest in the piano when he was 17, when he learnt how to play the instrument by tinkering with it at music shops. Despite naysayers and his inability to hear certain frequencies, he persevered, playing regularly at a bar.

But he did not stop there. While studying at Republic Polytechnic, he and his classmate clinched gold at the IMPACT! competition organised by the Centre for Enterprise & Communication at the end he of 2012. Their winning idea was a talent management company for special needs performers as well as abled musicians called Inclusive Arts Movement (I.AM).

“Being deaf, I know the challenges people like me go through. I hope to help ensure that they are included in society, and to remind them of what they can do,” he says.

Right: Deaf pianist Ron Tan learnt to play the instrument by watching others play and experimenting on his own. Left: Through I.AM, Ron Tan (third from left, standing) hopes to provide opportunities for the differently abled via the performing arts, and promote inclusivity between them and the typically abled.

 

BREAKING NEW GROUND
While his desire to uplift the disabled community in Singapore was strong, Tan lacked the experience to run a talent management company. As part of the competition, though, he and his partner got to attend workshops in Singapore and Thailand. This opened their eyes to how social enterprises and non-profit organisations operate, and fired them up with new ideas.

Then came the final push, when the duo took part in Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs programme – which helps youth to start or scale up their social enterprises – where they were mentored. Though they did not win funding for the idea they pitched, they were inspired by the people they met through the programme, who encouraged them not to give up on their dreams.

DETERMINED TO OFFER AN ARTS PLATFORM FOR SPECIAL NEEDS PERFORMERS, TAN OFFICIALLY CO-FOUNDED I.AM AS A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN 2013.

While juggling this with his studies, he tirelessly recruited musicians.

“It was a challenge getting them on board, as they were concerned that the company might be exploiting them for profit,” he shares.

However, Tan managed to persuade some talents to showcase their skills, and I.AM now has a stable of four disabled artists and about 20 abled artists.

A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
I.AM has come a long way from its initial struggles. Among those that it has helped is Danial Bawthan, a hip-hop artist with muscular dystrophy. He credits Tan for kick-starting his music career and pushing him out of his comfort zone. “Previously, most of my music was pre-recorded with computer software, but performing live with other musicians was a totally different kind of training,” he says.

With Tan’s help, he got the chance to perform live on TV alongside local celebrities for the 2016 President’s Star Charity. Then in 2018, he landed his biggest gig to date with I.AM at the True Colours Festival – the first and largest gathering of artists with disabilities to perform at an event in the Asia-Pacific region, featuring 20 acts.

Describing the festival as eye-opening, Bawthan recalls quick chats in between rehearsals with international musicians from the US, the Netherlands, Brazil, South Korea and New Zealand. They helped him realise that the strength of the human spirit and passion can overcome physical limitations.

“Being deaf, I know the challenges people like me go through. I hope to help ensure that they are included in society, and to remind them of what they can do.”


Ron Tan

“We might not speak the same language, but as soon as we stepped onto the stage to perform, we just looked at each other and nodded. We understood each other perfectly because art is universal,” he explains. He added that dancer Rodney Bell’s manager has since approached him to consider performing in New Zealand.

In addition to their concert gigs, I.AM’s artists have also performed for clients such as Far East Organization, DBS Bank and Ben & Jerry’s, as well as collaborated with homegrown talents like Jack & Rai.

In September 2018, Tan was among the recipients recognised at the annual 5th Silent Heroes Award ceremony, where he won the Hearts of Humanity Category (Care & Disabilities).

Despite his achievements, he fears that I.AM might fade from the public radar. With most clients hiring them on an ad hoc basis, it is difficult to keep the momentum going, especially as most of his performers hold full-time jobs.

However, the idealist is determined to press ahead. Currently working as an events manager, he hopes to eventually run the social enterprise full-time. In the long run, he hopes for I.AM to go beyond being a collection of artists, to embodying a movement for “people to be whoever they want to be”. He dreams of opening a cafe, complete with a playground for adults and a stage for artists.

“As long as I know I’m making a difference, making people smile, that’s good enough for me,” he says.




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