Amateurs who play from the heart

Amateurs who play from the heart
Mr Tay Teow Kiat

Every single one of the 150 members of the City Chinese Orchestra - from the youngest musicians to veteran music director and Cultural Medallion recipient Tay Teow Kiat - is an unpaid volunteer.

They hold day jobs as bankers, lawyers and doctors, but outside of the corporate world, they are bonded by their love of Chinese music.

Yet the orchestra has come a long way from its humble beginnings as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Chinese Orchestra in 1974. Today, the group has a repertoire of over 1,000 compositions and has toured extensively in China and Taiwan.

It will be celebrating its 40th birthday with a performance at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sunday.

Talking to Dr Tay in his office at Dunman High School, where he is resident conductor, one can sense that the orchestra is almost like his baby. Many of the members are his former students from the Chinese orchestra at Dunman High School, who are now working professionals.

Dr Tay says of the group: "What does City have that no one else has? They are passionate and have a hunger for music. Sometimes, career musicians who have signed contracts can become jaded and numb.

"The orchestra may not be perfect - sometimes, when they play, you might hear a 'pop' when they make a mistake - but they have a lot of heart."

Expect to hear that passion at the concert, Footprints. For that evening, Tay has selected "some of the highlights from the past, pieces which evoke nostalgia", from Mongolian folk tunes to theme songs of popular television series.

They will be playing Fading Affection, the theme song of the 2006 Chinese drama, Courtyard Of Family Qiao, as well as the Mongolian vocal piece, Meeting At The Yurt.

Several of the pieces will also feature the orchestra's principal musicians, such as suona (Chinese oboe) concerto Happiness and huqin (stringed instrument) duet concerto Everlasting Regret.

However, as the orchestra is composed largely of non-career musicians, who can practise only on weekends, Tay notes that his selected repertoire is "not too difficult to play, but still sounds nice".

One of the musicians who is performing in the concert is dizi (bamboo flute) player, music teacher Tay Soon Dee, 61, who has been with the orchestra for 31 years. He says what he enjoys most about being part of the orchestra is losing himself in the music.

"I can get very engrossed, especially when playing with such a good orchestra. I'm not just playing the music, I'm enjoying it as well."

He is looking forward to playing Fisherman's Song Of The East China Sea. "It was a very popular tune in the 1960s and hasn't changed since the first time it was played. I have fond memories of it."

For erhu (string instrument) player Wang Gui Ying, 46, a music teacher and school orchestra conductor, the concert is also a chance to catch up with old friends and some of her former students.

"Time has passed so fast and I've already been playing for 21 years," she says. "I've seen a lot of musicians leave to study and come back, and now they're working as teachers, doctors and in banks. All of them have grown up in the orchestra and seeing them back here is very emotional for me."

Echoing Dr Tay's sentiments, she adds: "All of us here are volunteers, and we've given our time to take part. Our music will be from the heart and if you listen, you will be able to hear the difference. The passion is what makes us different from a professional orchestra."

Book it


Where: Esplanade Concert Hall

When: Sunday, 5pm

Admission: $18 and $24 (concession) or $28 and $32 (standard) from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

This article was first published on August 14, 2014.
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