By Jane Ng
DESPITE the steady increase in enrolment, students of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' (Nafa) School of Young Talents are not taking up careers in the arts.
According to the founding principal, Madam Fang Yuan, parental concerns and issues like national service stop talented children from pursuing their studies.
Beginning with just 1,000 students in 1999, the school now has 3,700 students from five to 18 years of age, specialising in dance, drama, visual arts and music.
The school, which was created to train gifted children, now has more than 10 students studying in renowned international music schools, including the Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain and the Manhattan School of Music in the United States.
Madam Fang, however, told The Straits Times that it has been an 'uphill task' trying to get talented children to pursue music as a profession.
There are students who, at the age of 14 or 15, have been offered places at prestigious music universities overseas, but their parents insist that they complete their O levels before they accept these slots.
'I was dumbfounded. What do you need an O-level certificate for when the child is about to enter a university for a music degree?' Madam Fang asked. 'I can't help but wish the system was more flexible.'
'Countries like Israel and Switzerland also have a small population, but they have produced exceptional talent,' she added.
But Madam Fang said unearthing and nurturing talent in the fiercely academic environment of Singapore have been 'very challenging'.
'There is no way to fight the amount of school work and co-curricular activities (CCA), especially when they reach secondary school,' she said.
'They have no time to practise, and with not enough repertoire, they need a miracle to make a mark internationally.'
In 2003, Madam Fang managed to persuade the Education Ministry to award CCA points for lessons students attended at Nafa.
She also decided to cancel classes in May and November, when school exams are being held.
For students who have no time to practise, Madam Fang adjusts the cost of their lessons so that they pay for just a 15-minute lesson, instead of 'wasting one hour's worth of lessons when they are not prepared'.
While she has a team of 12 piano teachers, Madam Fang makes it a point to personally coach each student before the exams.
Monthly performances and recordings of their playing are also aimed at honing their craft.
The efforts have paid off, with Nafa students sweeping virtually all the prizes in the under-14 category in the National Music Competition; 'the older ones have either given up or gone overseas', said Madam Fang.
Despite the setbacks, she said the School of Young Talents still aims to give students the 'best professional training possible until they are ready to go overseas'.
'We have made a mark in many top music schools by sending our students there,' she said. 'Even if we did not churn out music professionals, we have given them training that will make them useful in society.
'They can take hardship and know how to handle success, failure and challenges.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 10 Dec, 2008.