Do more to help young talents, urges arts veteran

Do more to help young talents, urges arts veteran
Madam Fang Yuan, founder and principal of the School of Young Talents at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Even as renewed debate swirls over whether too much resources have been devoted to the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) in schools, a veteran artist and educator has called for more to be done to help young people gifted in the arts.

Madam Fang Yuan, 67, founder and principal of the School of Young Talents (SYT) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), hopes the Government can better support arts programmes.

"The Government supports the diploma programmes at Nafa with subsidies for every student, but not at SYT," she told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

While there is the School of the Arts here, which takes in students aged 13 to 18, there is hardly any government programme for younger children talented in the arts.

This is in contrast to the GEP, which aims to stretch academically gifted children in primary and secondary school. Debate about its relevance resurfaced in recent weeks, after The Straits Times ran a feature on its 30th anniversary.

Madam Fang, who will speak about how to nurture young arts talents at a free talk by the Singapore-China Friendship Association at Chui Huay Lim Club on Dec 20, would love such attention.

"Most parents still want their children to excel in their academic studies first, so we see students, including some very talented ones, dropping out when the PSLE is near," she said, referring to the Primary School Leaving Examination.

Madam Fang, who moved to Singapore from Shanghai in the early 1980s when her violinist husband joined the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, is a world-class accordionist and accomplished pianist. Last month, she was also a winner at the Ballare International Championship, a ballroom dancing competition.

In the 1980s, she was a Channel 8 variety show host. Then in 1991, she started a programme for children gifted in piano playing at Nafa, and has since made a name for herself in gifted music education here.

"I was asked to teach the piano for diploma-level students at Nafa in 1991, but suggested that the school start a gifted piano programme for children instead, because I believed that pianists must be trained at an early age and there were no such courses here then," she recalled.

She took up piano lessons when she was six years old at the preparatory or young talent school affiliated to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and later mastered the accordion during China's Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.

At Nafa, she devised her own rigorous training programmes.

"We look for the two As - aptitude and ability - in a potential student, and we do the rest with our training," she said.

In 1999, she set up the SYT, which has become the largest weekend arts school here, with 4,700 students. Besides piano classes, SYT offers those aged four to 18 a host of lessons in Western and Chinese instruments like the violin, cello, erhu and pipa. It also has visual arts, dance and drama departments.

"When I started the gifted piano programme, we had only about 20 students. Now, there are nearly 350 in our music department alone, with about 120 of them learning the piano," said Madam Fang, who is now a Singaporean.

In 2010, she received the inaugural Outstanding New Immigrant Award from the Hua Yuan Association, a Chinese immigrant group, for her efforts in grooming young Singapore arts talents.

Indeed, her students have been winning awards, at both national and international music contests.

A total of 262 students are award winners, and this year, all of her piano, violin and cello prodigies who sat the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music practical examinations scored distinctions.

Many of her students have been accepted into top schools in Europe and the United States, including the Royal College of Music, and the Menuhin and Purcell schools in England.

Madam Fang, who is now divorced and does not have children, calls Nafa her home and SYT her baby.

She said: "I am proud that at least 40 of my students have chosen to pursue further studies in the arts so far, and a few of them have returned and are helping me as teachers in SYT."

This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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