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