To conductor and artistic director of the Singapore Youth Choir (SYC) Ensemble Singers Jennifer Tham, the voice is a gift – a gift that she has used to educate, entertain and effect change through her involvement in the choral scene in Singapore.
For Jennifer Tham, 55, music is such an integral part of her life that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when her love affair with singing began. It started out as a hobby that she indulged in by joining the school choir as her co-curricular activity (CCA) throughout her primary, secondary and junior college years.
“I think it’s more fun to sing with people, so I’ve always been in choirs, or at least singing with other people all my life,” said Jennifer with a smile.
Jennifer attributed her love for choral music – music performed by a choir, with each part sung by two or more voices – to the power of the voice: “Our voice is our first instrument. Because we are all born with one, it seems very natural to speak or to sing. Every voice is unique and special, and has meaning, which explains why we are sensitive to the sounds of certain voices, like that of our mother’s and father’s.”
“We use our voice to scold, cry, laugh and love,” continued Jennifer. “It’s a very powerful instrument. So for me, the draw of choral music is the voice.”
Renowned conductor Jennifer Tham serves on the World Choir Council, among other major choral organisations, and is a member of the Artistic Panel for this year’s Singapore International Choral Festival (SICF). Image source: SICF
Fresh out of junior college, Jennifer joined the Singapore Youth Choir (SYC) in 1981, when she was 19 years old. She recalled being “dragged along to the audition” by one of her friends, and did not know what she was in for.
“I was actually pretty clueless as to what kind of music the SYC sang, and what kind of choir it was, because in junior college we sang a lot of hymns, pop songs, arrangements from musicals, things like that,” shared Jennifer. “So this was the first time I actually joined a ‘real’ choir that sang art music, more classical music – a bit more serious than what I was used to.”
“But again, I enjoy singing. I also love learning, and I love music in general. So it all worked out for me in the end,” she said with a laugh.
Although Jennifer devoted a lot of time and energy to singing, when it came to choosing her career path, she revealed that making music her vocation was not her first choice. After graduating from the National University of Singapore in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Sociology, Jennifer worked in the programming and acquisition unit of the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, and subsequently in a school as an administrator.
“It [music] did not come first in my mind, not even second or third,” admitted Jennifer. “Unless you’re a world-class pianist or violinist or solo instrumentalist, pursuing a career in music is not an option. At the time, there were limited opportunities available to musicians.”
“But singing was a hobby that I wouldn’t give up for anything,” Jennifer added, sharing that she continued to sing with the SYC even while working full-time. By the mid-1980s, she had been promoted to assistant conductor, having begun to pick up conducting with other aspiring amateur conductors in the SYC. When the then-conductor of the SYC, David Lim, retired in 1989, Jennifer – who had left her day job and was working as a full-time freelance choir conductor – assumed his position.
Despite her keen passion for singing, Jennifer, however, remained ambivalent as to whether it was truly a viable career option. She revealed that in 1991, while waiting to join her husband for further studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, she had initially planned to pursue an MBA in Arts Administration rather than realising her interest in music.
“Back in those days, I did not consider making music my career. But it was something that I really enjoyed and, I was, I think, fairly okay at it – good enough to maybe win some trophies here and there,” she said candidly.
However, the confluence of good timing and Singapore’s growing music scene was the impetus Jennifer needed. Firstly, the nascent choral scene in Singapore schools had just begun to take off with the inception of the Ministry of Education’s Choral Excellence Programme in 1987. Secondly, in 1991, Jennifer received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Music, a clear sign that others had taken notice of her talent and promise. Finally, around the time of her arrival in Canada, Simon Fraser University had stablished a new music department. Hence, Jennifer switched to studying music, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music and Composition in 1995.
By the time Jennifer returned to Singapore in the mid-1990s, calls were being made for improvements to the quality of arts education in schools, as well as more support and encouragement for developing CCA music programmes. In line with that, Jennifer wanted to do her part by starting school choirs in Singapore because to her, “that is the largest market for choir conductors, and I think it still continues to ‘feed’ many of the young conductors today”.
The formation of more choir groups, in turn, created a demand for more conductors. “Opportunities for conductor training then were not great, so we all did the best we could with what we knew and what we had, and with the schools that we had. The good thing was that because of the Choral Excellence Programme, we were able to develop and improve the standard of school choirs by introducing quality repertoires, and sending the choirs on overseas tours to learn from some of the best choirs in the world.”
“By doing so, the kids develop a love for choral performance and for choral music,” explained Jennifer. “And I think once the kids are inspired and motivated, everything is quite easy from there. A lot of these kids are now young conductors themselves so this is, I guess, a good succession plan.”
A photo from Jennifer’s last concert with the River Valley and Dunman High School choirs in 2017. “The kids are important to me, because they are our future and our choral legacy. The collaboration between the two schools is special because the culture of both schools is so different, and the students have so much to learn from one other: confidence, courage, humility, sincerity, honesty, responsibility, respect, teamwork, discipline. The collaboration is now in its sixth year and this is their third combined concert.” Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tham
The biggest takeaway from speaking with Jennifer was how much she believes in using the voice as a means to effect change. As she explained the reasons for her belief, one can’t help but feel that choral music has been a seriously misunderstood art form in Singapore: the traditional representations of choirs performing sweet classical music have given rise to the misconception of choirs as simply being a platform for people to come together to sing a song in blissful harmony.
To Jennifer, it is so much more. Allowing the voice to evoke emotional and philosophical awakenings within oneself is a concept that she wishes more Singaporeans will come to understand and embrace. Through the SYC Ensemble Singers, Jennifer hopes to introduce cutting-edge contemporaries, break out of the mould, and exceed expectations by staging concerts which involve more theatrics and movements, as well as a wider variety of music genres.
“We perform a broad range of music, from sweet and light-hearted melodies to dark and even disturbing themes. We hope that by doing so, people can experience the entire spectrum of human emotions – a celebration of life with all its ups and downs.”
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign