It all started at the age of six when Lin Xiangning first asked her parents to send her for piano classes. It took two years of persuasion before they agreed.
“At kindergarten, I heard my teacher playing a clavinova and I was captivated,” she recalls. “My parents initially thought it was only on a whim that I said I wanted to play the piano, and expected me to lose interest after a few months. But I was very persistent about it.”
After just a few months of lessons, Xiangning enjoyed playing the piano so much that she told her parents that she wanted to be a pianist in future.
She progressed quickly and went on to win her first piano competition at the tender age of 10. “I was probably too desperate to learn it, so I caught on pretty quickly.”
From then on, the budding musician began to dream of performing abroad, and had the opportunity to do so in an internationally prestigious music festival when she was just 14.
Today, however, the now 22-year-old finds that she is exactly where she needs to be – back home in Singapore, pursuing her master’s degree in piano performance at the Yong Siew Toh (YST) Conservatory of Music.
She explains, “At YST, I find that things are constantly evolving and changing. We have performances almost every day of the calendar. The school is also very encouraging of diverse pathways, which makes me feel like I have so much more room to explore how I’d like to progress with my music.
“For example, I have a friend whose career expanded so much more during his time in YST. Now, not only is he a wonderful violist, with the school’s support, he has delved into the fields of sound engineering and visual art installations.”
Xiangning (centre) with coursemates at their Commencement ceremony in 2019
Xiangning’s experience at school has opened her eyes to the possibilities with her music, especially for someone who’d only ever thought of wanting to be a performing pianist.
Just as she raced through her piano foundation lessons as a child, the ambitious Xiangning had initially wanted to complete her undergraduate studies in just two years, before heading overseas for graduate studies.
However, some of the joy of learning waned as she overloaded on her modules. Although the talented pianist had no trouble maintaining her grades, she realised she wasn’t making the most of her education as it was hard to fully absorb everything she was being taught.
So like a passage of music that switches its tempo from allegro to andante, Xiangning changed her mindset and opted to slow down.
Xiangning co-curated Springing in 2019 where the finale item featured all participating musicians on stage.
At NUS, she has found avenues to satiate her curiosity and fuel her creativity. For example, she appreciates that YST organises symposiums where artistic researchers are flown in from all over the world so that students can engage with them.
In the final year of her undergraduate studies, she also had the opportunity to team up with coursemate Muse Ye to curate Springing, an interdisciplinary performance by students from YST.
There were many obstacles, such as persuading her peers to perform for the event when it was happening close to the dates of their senior recitals, and creating a musical number that could involve all the performers and their different instruments.
However, what she described as a tough challenge eventually turned out to be her biggest achievement at NUS. In seeing the event through, she felt she had grown as a person too, as Xiangning explains, “I had never done anything like this previously. Organising it taught me to keep my cool, and to be empathetic but also firm enough so the show can go on.”
Xiangning (first row, first from left) with Professor Thomas Hecht and fellow pianists at Prof Hecht’s Studio Concert in 2019.
There is also a strong culture of mentorship at the Conservatory. In Xiangning’s case, she was able to build a strong foundation in her undergraduate years under the tutelage of Associate Professor Albert Tiu, while the current mentorship of Professor Thomas Hecht brings her a different artistic perspective.
“Prof Tiu opened me to the world of sounds, and Prof Hecht is helping me figure out how I can improve on consistency of sound production – how I can dissect a piece of music almost like you would a recipe. He has a systematic way of thinking which helps me, because I’m a very structured thinker myself.”
Dr Hecht identifies Xiangning’s biggest challenge as a musician as her over-reliance on feelings to play well.
Xiangning shares, “When I’m feeling right, it sounds right, but when my feelings are off, I lose my way. His advice to me is to have my ears, head, and heart on the same page so I can consistently reproduce the textures and intensity I want. That was advice that I really needed.”
One of the things she appreciates most about her journey at NUS so far is how the school has shown her that as a performer, branching out into neighbouring disciplines will only enrich her understanding of music, and never discount from her artistry.
“Two semesters ago, I wanted to do further studies in historical musicology, and then last semester I thought, ‘Maybe music semiology would be really interesting too,” she recounts animatedly.
“Every semester here is so different. I feel like I'm growing along with everything that's changing, and I just need to walk the steps and I will get to where I should be eventually.”
And supporting her on this journey are the very individuals who were at first sceptical of her enthusiasm for music – her parents.
She says with a smile, “I’ve even made my parents come to enjoy classical music, which I think is a big feat. My mum used to fall asleep every time I played but now she looks genuinely engaged. That means I am getting better at communicating through my music, and that is always the goal!”