No O levels, but these teens are in NUS music school

THE STRAITS TIMES
THURSDAY, AUGUST 17 2006
BY JANE Ng

 

Photo description:
CLARENCE LEE, 16
He was in Sec 3 in Canberra Secondary last year. He started learning piano at four and has a diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music. He cried when he learnt he got into the conservatory. He said: “My mum told me to think carefully about going to NUS as it‘s not the normal, safe route. But I think there’s risk even when crossing the road. I don’t want to regret not trying.”

THE music conservatory at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has taken in a bumper crop of young musicians this year, under flexible admissions criteria that allow the school to accept talented students without relevant academic qualifications.

Among this year’s intake, which started classes on Monday, are NUS’ youngest-ever Singaporean student, 14-year-old piano prodigy Abigail Sin.

Abigail is one of three local teenagers accepted into the Bachelor of Music degree programme, none of whom have any O or A levels. Four overseas students from China and Taiwan will also be taking the course.

This is only the second year that the conservatory has accepted students younger than the usual age of admission, 19 for girls and 21 for boys.

Last year, 15-year-old violinist Loh Jun Hong was admitted based on his outstanding musical achievements – which include being offered a place at the renowned Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain — even though he did not meet NUS‘ academic criteria of an A-level certificate or its equivalent.

A spokesman for the conservatory said the students were accepted mainly because they gave highly impressive performances in their auditions.

She added that while the main criteria is musical talent, other aspects like school results, co-curricular activities and recommendations were also considered to ensure the child is ready for varsity life.

In the four years, they will take subjects such as music history, conducting and music technology and non-musical courses like Singapore Studies.

Conservatory director Gene Aitken said they are following the practice of some of the world’s top music schools by allowing very talented students to commence their studies earlier.

The nature of musical talent is such that early recognition and support for outstanding musicians can make a significant difference to their future prospects,” he said.

Abigail said it was not an easy decision to leave Methodist Girls‘ School, Where she had topped the Secondary 1 cohort in the final exams last year. The year before, she was also the top PSLE student in Methodist Girls School (primary).

“I think I could have continued what I was doing — juggle piano and studies — an do quite well. It was stressful but I could manage,” she said.

The other two local students admitted to the programme are pianist Clarence Lee and violinist Alan Choo. Both are 16, but will have to disrupt their studies and enlist for National Service when they reach 18.

Clarence said the best thing about being accepted into the school is the extra time he gets to practise. “I used to be able to practise only in the evening after school. Now l can practise the whole day and do what I enjoy.”

The other Singaporean, 16-year-old violinist Alan Choo, declined to be interviewed.

To ease the transition from secondary school, the students each have a student buddy and a mentor. Still, Clarence, a former Canberra Secondary student, said there is some pressure to perform well.

I know I have to work harder than others because I’m not as experienced,” he said. “And if I don’t make it in NUS, I will just be a PSLE student because I have no O levels to fall back on.