Cheng Jin Koh

For the April 2017 edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Cheng Jin Koh, a second year undergraduate student from Singapore.  Cheng Jin’s major at Juilliard is composition, but in addition to composing music, she plays a number of instruments including the piano, violin, viola, and the Yangqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument. Read on to learn more about Cheng Jin’s artistic accomplishment as well as get to know her life outside of music.

Listen Cheng Jin perform and some of her compositions on soundcloud (https://soundcloud.com/cheng-jin-koh/tracks).

CJ playing with SCO

Cheng Jin playing the Yangqin with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Why did you decide to study composition rather than focusing on one particular instrument?

I felt more confident playing Yangqin than the violin or piano despite learning piano and violin at an earlier age. It was tough for me to decide between Yangqin and Composition, because it meant either sacrificing more (for the time being) my performing life or my composing life. After majoring in Yangqin at the School of the Arts Singapore (SOTA) (http://www.sota.edu.sg/) I even thought about furthering my Yangqin studies in a conservatory, but then I felt strongly that composition (which I started only at 15 – a late age compared to most) was what I really needed to delve more into. The gratification that I feel hearing my music come to life in different versions through perceptions of musicians is what made me hold onto composing. Composing does not restrict my sound world to just one voice or one instrument, but exposes me to many with an astounding, vast amount of possibilities. I love the freedom and creativity associated with it, and love the inspiring collaborative processes with musicians playing my music. I am a shy and introverted person, and only in composing I can be truly expressive and extroverted. It is my way of giving back to the music world with maximized individuality as I inquire more about the art of music creating, making, and sharing.

CJ playing in Singapore National Youth Orchestra

Cheng Jin playing in the Singapore National Youth Orchestra

Can you describe the Yangqin to our readers who are not familiar with this instrument? When did you begin playing it and why?

CJ with standing Yangqin

Cheng Jin with her Yangqin

The Yangqin is a Chinese hammered dulcimer with roots from Persia and the Silk Road regions. It is played with light, bamboo-made rubber-coated beaters. One note is made up of 3-5 strings, so unlike the common western string instruments we know, if 1 string snaps, the note can still be produced. I started playing it when I was around 7, some years after starting the piano and violin. My mother told me she really liked its soft timbre and that kick-started my journey with it. I joined a Chinese orchestra in my first elementary school playing Chinese music with my brother playing the Erhu, and fell in love even more with the Yangqin. It is actually a very versatile instrument – chromatic, wide in register, with many sonic possibilities, and that was why I wanted to major in it when I went to SOTA.

Watch and listen to Cheng Jin play the Yangqin with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Your compositions have been performed by a variety of orchestras including the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra as well as at several composer’s workshop such as those at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Cleveland Institute of Music. Can you describe your feelings when you see and hear a full orchestra playing a piece you created?

When I first heard the SSO reading my first orchestral piece when I was 17, I couldn’t believe it – I was filled with wonder and amazement as their sound enveloped the hall. The orchestra that I have admired for years is playing my music….it was such an unforgettable moment as if it was a dream. I am not exaggerating – I felt so grateful to hear my music stirring to life through their dedication and expertise. The music on stage always sounds better than my own imagination because it is now real and absolute. Another best takeaway was to be immediately informed of things I can improve on, be it as tiny as a note change, a different dynamic marking, to something as large as overall sound balance. Composing is active – I do not only write music in my room and present it to others, but also learn to craft it better with others’ interpretation and suggestions. It is really a humbling experience for me.

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Cheng Jin with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

You were born and raised in Singapore, a small country full of a diversity in culture. Can you tell our readers a little bit about the cultural diversity found in Singapore?

“Regardless of race, language or religion” – as recited in our pledge, Singapore is home to multiple races and religion as part of a huge cultural “Rojak” (in malay: eclectic mix). Our people include Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and many more races. In a single vicinity there can be a Buddhist temple, a church nearby, and a mosque across the street! Our first language is English, so it helps us communicate despite our own differences. Most of us speak two languages – English and our mother-tongue! For the Singaporean Chinese sometimes even in dialects as well, such as Hokkien, Cantonese, etc. In school we have Racial Harmony Day where we can learn more about other races, and even in education we were taught since young to embrace all cultures and even get to experience cross-cultural activities! We have different holidays and celebrations too, such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, Deepavali, Vesak and so on to commemorate cultural and religious festivities. The wide array of food specialties, art, literature etc. we have, demonstrates the exquisite richness of each culture, making it accessible to all as subtle forms of daily inspirations.

CJ in Brooklyn Botanical Garden

Cheng Jin at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden

Can you tell us a little about your family?  Do you have siblings? Pets?

My parents are a great support to my endeavors. I also have an older brother, a younger sister, and a pet terrapin.

What do you miss most about Singapore other than family and friends?

I really miss the hot weather. It can get to around 33 C, or 92 F in the day. The hot weather prevails all year, and we have no other seasons other than summer. As much as I love snow, I never realized how much I love being warm until I came to US and experienced really cold and harsh weather. I miss having the quirky Singapore accent and food around too – they are truly irreplaceable in my heart.

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A collage of some of Cheng Jin’s favorite Singaporean food

What do you love most about NYC?

As a tropical girl, I believe the snow is one of the most beautiful creations. I experienced my first snowfall during my audition here – I remember staring at it in bewilderment through the transparent glass in school before my composition interview. Central Park is another sanctuary that provides me respite from the urban, digital structures and hectic school life. I also love the artistic variety here as shown through numerous museums and performance halls.

What is your favorite thing about being a student at Juilliard? What is the most challenging part of being a student at Juilliard?

CJ in St John the Divine

Cheng Jin at St. John the Divine Church

It is hard to have a favorite because I really love everything here. I love absorbing knowledge within the environment – the library is like a paradise with its never-ending, fragrant-smelling, sometimes yellowish scores, and immense video/audio collections. Our teachers are committed and wonderful, and lessons with my composition teacher Dr Robert Beaser are always insightful. Being around listening to like-minded friends in casual settings or concert halls are extremely motivating. I love working with friends on music too! Being in Juilliard also brings the MET Opera, NY Phil, Carnegie Hall artists and musicians near to me, since these are all in close proximity. Musicians that I heard on YouTube from Singapore now can be seen and heard live! For example, I was able to hear the Juilliard String Quartet, the Vienna Phil, Marc-André Hamelin, Waltraud Meier and many fabulous international musicians live.

CJ in Nyphil

Cheng Jin at the NY Philharmonic

The most challenging part of being a student here is to go for all concerts available. We seem to have concerts every day and because of classes it is not possible to go to every concert. The thought of what I would have missed on is sometimes shattering but I am comforted by the fact that I am going to as many as I possibly can!

 

What is your greatest aspiration?

My greatest aspiration is actually quite simple. I really want to connect with people with my music. When I went to Cebu, Philippines as part of the SOTA Global Perspectives initiative, I found great meaning in teaching music and art. I hope to bring the transformative and therapeutic power of arts to people all around the world.

Watch/listen to one of Cheng Jin’s pieces performed by Juilliard students
Violins: KJ McDonald and Mitsuru Yonezaki
Cello: Philip Sheegog
Viola: Hannah Geisinger

What is your greatest non-music related aspiration?  What do you hope to accomplish in your life outside of the performing arts world?

My greatest non-music related aspiration would be to learn as many languages as possible! I am now learning German at Columbia University as part of the BCJ exchange (http://www.juilliard.edu/degrees-programs/barnard-columbia-juilliard-exchange), and I hope to learn more in future. Having a grasp of languages help break barriers not only in music but in life as well.

If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?

It would be to split my soul into many complete versions of myself. This would help me go to more than 1 concert or show on a day if there are 2 conflicting performances, or travel to concert halls when I am physically unable, or even to teleport back to Singapore to take a look at my family and friends when I become homesick.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

It is April, which means the end of the semester is near. Keep the spirit going because every decision you make is worthwhile no matter the results!

CJ with friends KJ McDonald, Carmen Knoll, Philip Sheegog and Theo Chandler

Cheng Jin with friends

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Michelle Lim

For the first Eye on Culture of 2016, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Michelle Lim.  Michelle is a third year dance student from Singapore, a country commonly described as a place where “East meets West.” In addition to discussing her cultural background and her passion for dance, choreography, photography, and videography, Michelle shares her experience as a Juilliard student leader and provides advice for potential applicants.

Interested in applying for a leadership position?  Positions available include Orientation Leader, Orientation Chair, Programming Assistant, Diversity Advocate, Colloquium Peer Leader, Resident Assistant, and Hall Coordinator.  Applications are due no later than Friday, January 29th.
Michelle Lim

You were an orientation leader two years ago and an orientation chair this past year. What made you want to be a student leader at Juilliard? How would you describe this experience? What did you gain by being a student leader?

My main motivation for becoming a student leader stemmed from my want to get to know the incoming students in the school. We are all so busy practicing our craft that it’s so hard to meet everyone despite being in such a small school! Coming from a different country, I remember how I was afraid of not knowing anyone and being alone in such a foreign place. Orientation was a time of uncertainty and fear but also a time that I made my best friends in this school, many of whom are outside of the dance division. I don’t know if I would’ve met as many people if I missed out on orientation!

I wanted to continue meeting all the amazing talent that’s in this school and help anyone who may be needing help in transitioning into this crazy city that is New York. Being an orientation leader my sophomore year, allowed me to usher in the incoming class and get to know people from all the different divisions in an environment that was fun, new, and exciting. After that, I was hooked! I became one of the orientation chairs my junior year and it was incredibly fulfilling sharing the Juilliard experience.

Being a student leader, I got to collaborate with my schoolmates on a common platform outside our disciplines to create an experience for other people. It helped me work on my public speaking skills and my overall confidence in myself. It also allowed me to work and have a closer relationship with the staff in the school, and it’s just so wonderful creating friendships with people as we all work towards a common goal.

With fellow students in the Dance program

What is your advice to students who may be hesitant to apply for a student leadership position but would like to develop their leadership skills and/or be more involved in the Juilliard community?

My biggest advice is to know that there’s nothing to lose, regardless of the reasons behind that hesitation. If it helps, ask a friend to apply for a leadership position along with you! You can even ask someone who is a current leader to help you. Whether you believe it or not, the application process is actually really fun. Do not let the process intimidate you–you got into Juilliard! That’s an audition much harder than a leadership application (haha).

These skills that you will obtain from the leadership experience is for you and it will take you further than your college career. There’s so much to gain from the first step of application to the execution of the position. Taking on a leadership role in school is a way to practice these skills in a safe, supportive environment where mistakes are times of learning and achievements are times of celebration 🙂

How old were you when you began dancing? When did you decide that dancing was more than a hobby and a potential career?

I started dancing when I was 3 years old. My parents enrolled me in a little studio in a mall, so I went through the baby ballet route. My tIMG_7837eacher recommended that I move to a better dance studio called the Singapore Ballet Academy (http://singaporeballetacademy.com.sg/), and I started taking the Royal Academy of Dance graded examinations there.

When I was 11, my ballet teacher at the school, Mei Sing Cheah, told my dad about this new arts school that was opening called School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA – https://www.sota.edu.sg/). She was appointed as, and is still currently, the Head of Dance in the school. It was new and huge departure from the “traditional” schooling system that most Singaporeans go through and that I would be part of the pioneering batch. My dad told me about it and I remember really wanting to go to SOTA.

My dad told me that if I wanted to leave the regular schooling system and pursue dance, that I had to commit to it and I did. The school opened in 2008, and I left the secondary school I was already in. I graduated with the pioneering class in 2012, and now I’m here 🙂

 

 

You attended the School for the Arts in Singapore before coming to Juilliard. Tell our readers a little bit about the school, and how did attending it prepare you for Juilliard’s Dance Division?

SOTA is Singapore’s first pre-tertiary arts school that caters to 13-18 year old students and offers training in Dance, Film, Music, Theater and Visual Arts. It also places emphasis on the Integrated Arts and Literary Arts. Students who attend the school also have to study the Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, English Literature, their Mother Tongue languages (mine was Mandarin) and Mathematics alongside the arts. In the final 2 years, students have to undergo the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) certificate, and in recent years the student have the option to take the IB Career-related Programme.

I gained so much while I was in this school. Having to go through the IBDP examinations, I was exposed very early on to subjects like Anthropology and Theory of Knowledge that aided in the development of critical thinking. It was very hard to jungle academics and the arts at the same time. I feel as though SOTA helped me become very independent and a more consistent hard worker.

I was exposed to dance styles such as the Graham and Limón techniques that is unavailable outside of SOTA at the pre-tertiary level. I was also exposed to a lot of ballet repertoire as well as engaging in the creation process a work. My modern dance teacher, Silvia Yong, gave me opportunities outside of school at her husband’s company called The Human Expression Dance Company (http://www.the-dancecompany.com/about-us/). Here I was a part of the Second Company, an apprentice in the Main Company, as well as Assistant Stage Manager and Assistant Production Manager for a few shows. This definitely allowed me to have experience in the professional dance scene in Singapore, as well as gave me opportunity to gain experience in production.

I feel that my overall experience definitely helped me to become more versatile as a mover as we had to juggle ballet, modern, repertoire as well as dancing in the choreographic style of any newly created work. The sheer workload that the IBDP examinations had to offer definitely trained me to better manage pressure and time.

You were a choreographer for the fall 2015 Choreo/Comp. What was that experience like?

It was tough but so incredibly fulfilling! First of all, congratulations to all the choreographers, composers, and dancers! It was such an amazing show and I’m so incredibly proud of everyone.

It was a crazy journey for all of us. I was working with Michael Seltenrich, who is also an international student here. It was really difficult finding a language that worked for the both of us. It’s always a challenge wheIMG_0520n two artistic minds are working together! We had a central idea with a lot of conflicts the approach to it. We definitely worked it out in the end and I feel that the dance and music gelled in very nicely with each other.

I had a very supportive cast of dancers despite all the blows we had to take. I’m incredibly blessed to have them (Taylor LaBruzzo, Guy Levi, Miranda Wienecke and Alex Soulliere), as well as Dana Pajarillaga and Daniel Ching for stepping in. Everyone was so supportive and open to all the ideas I brought to the studio.

If you had to choose, would you rather choreograph or dance?

I don’t know if I could answer that! Both choreography and dancing have their special places in my heart, I don’t know if I prefer either one of them more at this point.

Other than dance, you have a passion for photography and videography. How did this passion develop? What do you like about being behind the camera?

I love watching YouTube videos and looking [at] beautiful photos on the internet. Good music while surfing Tumblr and watching Youtube videos was something I loved to do in my free time back in high school. I love how people can create realities out of everyday things and make me see the world through their eyes. I guess this is also why I love choreography. I love creating new content and sharing it with people.

I have never had any form of training in photography and videography. One of my older brothers is a freelance photographer and videographer, and I would watch him edit his work and he would share little tips and tricks that he had with me. Slowly I began to take photographs and film videos for fun. I love capturing and sharing what I see, and I especially love it when my work makes people happy or helps someone in anyway.

You will graduate in May 2017. What would you like to do after you complete your degree?

This interview is filled with loaded questions! haha. Well, I’d definitely want to give myself some time to relax before I start working. I also want to travel and see dance from different cultures and experience those cultures. Ideally, I’d love to dance with a company that would allow me to grow as choreographer. I also see freelancing as an option. At this point, I’m open to whatever the world has to offer me 🙂

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This interview series is called Eye on Culture, so let’s talk about the culture in which you were raised. Singapore is considered to have a very unique and diverse culture.  In a few short sentences, how would you describe Singaporean culture to readers who do not know much about the country?

Singapore is hot and humid; its summer all year round and it rains a lot. It’s actually pretty similar to New York City in many ways. It’s a melting pot of cultures and people come from everywhere in the world for business or just to have fun. It’s pretty crowded in the city, with at least 5 million people on a tiny island (size ref. to Manhattan below). [The population of Manhattan is approximately 1.6 million and the population of NYC in total is about 8.5 million.]

map

A lot of people live in apartment style housing and it’s pretty easy to get to anywhere you want in the country. The food is incredible and affordable. We don’t have any natural resources so most of our things are imported. Our education is pretty top notch. It is also incredibly safe.

Singapore is commonly described as a country where “East meets West.” As someone from Singapore, would you say that it is an accurate description? Why or why not?

I would think it’s pretty accurate. A lot of our pop culture is influenced by the western world. I also remember growing up to my dad singing his favorite songs by American artists. Unlike our neighboring countries, Singapore is probably the one Asian country whose citizens are mainly English speaking. Our late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew enforced the learning of English and our Mother Tongue (MandarinIMG_8059/ Tamil/ Bahasa Malayu depending on our race) in the education system, so all Singaporeans are pretty much bilingual. When we first became independent, we were a small country without any natural resources, so speaking English was a way for us to advance faster with the western world.

Has the culture in which you were raised influence you as a dancer? If so, please describe.

It definitely has! Growing up, I would watch and learn so many forms of dance from all the different racial groups like traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian dance. This has definitely informed the way I move as well as widened the possibilities of choreography. My family has also been such a huge influence on me. My dad’s Singaporean and my mom’s Filipino so I was also part of a mixed heritage. It definitely taught me to be open to different perspectives people had based on their own upbringing and I feel that being sensitive to that is very important to an artist. Getting through the education system in Singapore also definitely trained me to work hard in whatever is handed to me and to plan ahead for how I want to excel in my field.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I hope your winter break was fruitful and well spent with your loved ones! I wish you a wonderful and inspired year ahead, and if you ever visit Singapore, let me know 🙂

If you want to see a sample of Michelle’s videography skills, take a look at this hilarious video of Cory Owen (Director of International Advisement) and Josh Guillemot-Rodgerson (3rd year dancer) doing the Spicy Noodle Challenge!