For this edition of the Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Tengku Irfan (www.tengkuirfan.com/). A third year undergraduate piano and composition student, read on to learn how Irfan uses different types of art to inspire himself, stays relaxed in NYC, and what he misses most from Malaysia.
You began your piano lessons when you were seven years old. Can you tell us more about your first experiences with the piano?
It all began when my dad bought an electronic Yamaha keyboard, where I would try to follow the piano keys and play the short pieces that were offered on the keyboard. I remember that there were pieces in every genre, and I was attracted to the classical pieces and couldn’t stop listening to the demo and playing around with those pieces. It was then I realized that I was having fun playing piano and it soon became a serious hobby and a real passion. As my parents saw this, they thought that it would be a good idea for me to start piano lessons.
As someone who had participated in the Juilliard Pre-College program, how was your transition to becoming an undergraduate experience here?
The transition to college was smooth yet it was also very different from the Pre-College program! During my Pre-College years, I was used to going to school every Saturday. However, when I started my first year in the College Division, I stayed in the dorms and came to school every day. In a way, it gave me more time to focus on my musical goals yet it gives more space for me to explore around the city and its great offerings. During Pre-College, it was more of a challenge juggling between academics and the music courses since I had to go to an academic high-school during the weekdays.
What are some aspects of Malaysian culture that you wish were practiced in the United States? Are there any bits of US culture that you take home or with you on your travels?
I wouldn’t say that this is a culture to be practiced, but rather a culture of food! I wish there’s much more Malaysian food in the US! I usually eat rice everyday back in Malaysia and even though Malaysia is known for its spicy food, I like to eat plain and simple. My favorite food is just plain chicken rice. However, I do like to eat junk food too, especially Twisties, which you can find only in Malaysia! It is a very crunchy and tasty corn snack… And in return, being used to the food in the United States, I realize that I got used to eating burgers and pizzas and I do the same when I go back to Malaysia (aside from eating Malaysian cuisine) or travelling anywhere around the world. In a way, this made my taste more diverse (hopefully!). Although I admit despite staying for years already in the US, I still do not have the US accent!
You’ve traveled quite a bit. Are there any experiences that have stood out to you? Or, are there any locations you suggest our readers visit?
All the places that I travelled are extremely memorable to me! Many years ago, I went to visit Moscow, Russia, to perform and have masterclasses. During a free day, I managed to visit the Red Square! I was very young at the time, and at that age I only felt overwhelmed by the grandeur and the size of the place even though I didn’t know much of the history at that time. However, looking back at this memory I continue to treasure it until today. Another one of the unforgettable places that I visited was the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. The church is very beautiful and it has a rich history with the greatest composers who worked there (Bach was strongly associated with the place, as he worked as an organist for a long time in the church). Again, these are only few of the many, many places that are memorable to me!
Do you have a favorite location in New York City that you suggest new students visit?
Central Park of course! It is such a great place to relax and to appreciate the beautiful nature there… It is contrasting to the busy, city-like atmosphere of the rest of New York City! I usually like to go here during my breaks and weekends. Sometimes I would bring a close friend with me to chat while walking around the park, and at times I would just stone by myself, fully immersing myself in the calmness and tranquility of the place.
Not only are you a composition major, but you’ve also been known for your ability to improvise. Can you tell us more about where you find inspiration? Can you share your secrets with us?
I usually try to fiddle around with ideas whether it be on the piano, the computer, or scribbling down on a paper. When I improvise, the spontaneous impulse dominates more and I try not to worry too much whether it is musically good or not. I think about the latter much more when I am composing, when I take the initial ideas that I have and craft and develop it, hoping that it would turn into something more meaningful. For me, it is easier to get inspiration from elements [that are not musical] such as different cultures, activities, things, and people in everyday life. This would helpfully give me inspiration musically and it makes the composing process more interesting.
Are there any family members, friends, or teachers who have had a memorable impact on where you’re at now?
Ever since I started Juilliard Pre-College, my whole family moved with me to the United States, and it was a big adjustment for all of us! Finding jobs for my parents, education for my younger sisters… Therefore, my family had a big impact on me since my first years in the US, giving moral and emotional support in my earlier years. Also, my teachers at Juilliard help me grow not only as a musician, but as a person too. Not only I see them as teachers, but they are like family too since they are also concerned about my well-being and my growth as a person. The friends that I have in Juilliard are very welcoming and friendly. They all have a strong sense of collaboration in the school which is a great thing to have.
As a piano and composition double major, how do you balance your demanding schedule with the pressures of NYC?
I always have breaks, every hour or two after I practice I will do something outside music, whether it be playing video games, walking around Central Park, or hanging out with friends. I usually don’t practice or do work in a long stretch because then it is easy to lose concentration or be physically tired. It is easier and way more effective for me to do work in smaller chunks than focusing on it for a long period of time.
If you had to pursue a career that was not related to piano or composition, what would your dream job be?
Recently I have been focusing more on conducting. I know that conducting can be tied to piano playing and composing, but it has a different set of skills and challenges that one has to conquer. I just came back from conducting the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra for their 20th anniversary Gala Concert and it was a rewarding experience! Not only do I have to communicate my ideas well, but I also have to plan very well what to rehearse since time is always very limited in orchestra rehearsals! However, I really enjoy the challenge and I hope I can further pursue conducting in the future! If it is a career outside music… I know I have no experience in this field and that I am also a picky eater, but I would like to be a chef one day. I admire people who cook and I watch cooking shows on TV sometimes and I am impressed by the craft, the innovation and the detail that it takes to produce a balanced, tasty dish.
Do you have any advice for incoming Juilliard students?
I would say that they should make full use of the opportunities that Juilliard has to offer. This can be through the activities surrounding your major, but also making full use of the events and the concerts during the year, including ones that are different from your own division! As a musician, I learn and get really inspired by watching the drama and dance performances in school! Also, when they have a break, they should explore around NYC! Lincoln Center is blessed with its historical concert halls and great orchestras. Also, one can’t miss Broadway and musical theater while being in New York (again tickets are usually expensive but one can always hope to be lucky!)! And last but not least, be sure to get rest too if you can!
Is there anyone you would like to thank, or anything else you would like to share?
First, I have to thank my family (for travelling all the way just to be with me and for sacrificing a lot). My teachers (including those in the Pre-College and College Divisions) especially my major teachers, Yoheved Kaplinsky, and Robert Beaser for constantly believing and supporting me and always motivating me to work hard and to try new things…… And my close friends, who continually help and inspire me in my everyday life. Even though summer is ending, I am looking forward to starting the next school year! It will be a busy year but I look forward to reuniting with my friends from school and to the new classes ahead!