Singapore conductor Jennifer Tham wins Cultural Medallion“According to one news report, they said I screamed for like several minutes,” says conductor Jennifer Tham wryly.

The truth of it: Upon hearing the news of her Cultural Medallion award, Tham says that she “sat in silence after maybe one short scream”.

“I had to teach after that, I had a rehearsal,” she recounts. “I was there in body … But half my mind was still in shock.”

As one of five recipients of this year’s Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s most prestigious arts award, Tham is also the sole female winner this year. It’s not an easy feat either, especially as a conductor, a field that is still dominated by men.

“It is tough, not just in Asia, for female conductors,” admits Tham. “They really need to own the stage, much more than male conductors. I enjoy it when I don’t have to play by other people’s rules. Or perceptions. When I don’t feed into them. I just do what I need to do.”

When we interviewed her in her living room, we found the cheery 50-year-old conductor to be both candid and down-to-earth.

Seated comfortably next to us on her sofa, Tham shared with us her love of music, her “one thousand children” – from the school choirs that she conducts – and her hopes for the Singapore choral scene; this conductor is an unexpectedly avid gamer too.

What sparked your passion for music?
“Music found me. I’ve always liked to sing, from a very young age. [But] singing alone doesn’t interest me. Singing with other people, [of] always making something together.. the idea of a social interaction. I wasn’t interested in my own voice, in that sense but only how it worked with other people.”

What qualities do you need to become a good conductor?

“You can’t really study conducting. You have to learn conducting by doing. You can read all the best books in the world. [But] like sportsmanship, you can’t be a good tennis player by reading about it. You have to do it.

Good conducting mostly comes from practice, experience and exposure. And figuring out how you want to do things, in a way that feels natural for you. Of course there has to be a certain amount of ego to be a navigator. Every conductor chooses for themselves what a conductor is, and what it is about conducting that appeals to them. For me, it’s always about the music.”

Singapore conductor Jennifer Tham wins Cultural MedallionWhat are some of the challenges you’ve faced, as a female conductor?
“It has gotten better with age. Respect comes with age, whether you’re a male or female conductor … But [conducting] is seen as male territory, still. There are a few things; it’s the ensemble’s perception, the public perception and also self-perception.

I don’t think that you have to behave like a man to be respected. I’ve also seen some female conductors go to that extreme. We should celebrate the difference, that we are not men … Be the best that we can be … You need to find the approach that feels right to you, and then just stand your ground. As long as you assume full responsibility for your choices.”

What are your greatest personal achievements?
“There are so many, that’s why I’m still here. I’ve been singing with choirs for so long … I’ve been with SYC [Singapore Youth Choir] Ensemble Singers for more than half my life. I joined [SYC] as a singer, 31 years ago. If I weren’t happy doing this, I would not be doing this already.

Of course there are some low points. But I think, there have been so many more high points, and you can always feel that we move forward with every performance, every rehearsal. There’s always something positive, and hopeful, and inspiring about people coming together voluntarily … To do something that is so much bigger than themselves.”

What are your personal goals ahead?
“Retirement? Everyone hopes at some point to retire (she laughs). But I have personal hopes … for the local choral scene. It can be very divided and fragmented because we’re very competition-driven. It is my personal hope that the conductors and choirs, at least of Singapore, can work together. Because we are stronger when we work together, when we are united.”

What’s your favourite performance venue?
“A recital studio in Esplanade. A small space, where we can get into people’s faces. (She laughs) When we sing, it is a lot more immediate and direct … We are the instrument, it’s very human, this form of musical expression. Which means that we are unavoidable, we can bring this music into direct contact with whoever who hears it.

There’s a theatre term for it, and that’s ‘breaking the fourth wall’ … What we want to do, is to not let the audience sit back and ‘relax’ during one of our concerts. Because that means the music has not engaged them in any form, that we’re not being the best possible conduits for music, then what we’re doing doesn’t connect to them in anyway.

It doesn’t have to be warm and moving connection … What [music] needs to do, is to be a connection, and then we let people judge for themselves, why they feel a certain way when we sing a certain thing, they also learn something about themselves and their own responses to sounds.

Who are your favourite composers? Which are the songs that you love performing?
“There’s too much music that I want to do, and I want to do some more than once and there’s just too little time. Not enough concerts in a year, not enough years … I’m kind of greedy in that sense, I don’t have [any] favourites.”

In your opinion, how would you make classical music more relevant to the public?
“[This is] why school CCAs are so important. Even if [the students] don’t ever sing in a choir again, after they leave school, the education that goes on, when they’re in a performing arts CCA … These are your future concert-goers.

Whoever who stands in front of a performing arts group in school needs to be mindful that they are ensuring the future of the arts in Singapore, either by creating a future for practitioners, or by creating an audience for the future … So I’m mindful when I stand in front of a school choir. That I have quite a big responsibility.

Singapore conductor Jennifer Tham wins Cultural Medallion

Do you listen to popular, contemporary music? Do you have any favourite singers?
“In terms of this, I would listen to whoever is current, whom my younger choirs are listening to. I want to hear what they hear. To see what appeals to them, in the sense of what they respond to. I used to like people like Annie Lennox, Bjork, the slightly weird, offbeat ones … Queen, I really like Queen. I [like] the ones with something to say, [those] who try to provoke a response … The idea that they’re trying to make you think about what they’re doing, that is attractive to me.”

Which are the most challenging languages to sing in?
“The most challenging languages to sing in, are the ones that we think we know. Like English … Like Mandarin … The ones we speak.

Speaking and singing is the coordination of hundreds of muscles, just to get the right sounds out. Our muscles have already been conditioned to say the words a certain way … Then when you see it in a song, the muscles just want to go back to how they have been saying it.

Whereas if [the song is] in a foreign language, it’s a totally new sound to you. The muscles don’t know how to do that yet, and you can teach that in a rehearsal.”

If you were not a conductor, what would you like to do instead?
“That moment has gone, where I can think of having done anything else. (She laughs) A permanent student? I think everybody dreams of being a permanent student. Well we are students of life anyway …

I’m probably best in social settings. Not necessarily [as a leader] but at least helping to organise things … I’m too old now but yeah, I would loved to be a dancer … Would I have been a dancer? yes, but not solo, it has to be a group thing … I definitely could do group dance.

What are your other interests, outside of music?
“Probably eating and computer games … The role-playing games are like my ‘off’ button. Because my mind is always [thinking about] rehearsal post-mortems, performance post-mortems … Or planning, all the strategic things.

I have tried reading books but when I pick up a book I must finish it. So it doesn’t help me sleep. Or I’ll start thinking about the things in the book. It’s very hard to read myself to sleep.

Normally when i’m doing something repetitive [in a game] … You sort of meditate and then you fall asleep and die in the middle of a battle. But that’s okay because you can always replay it. My brother and I, we would always fight for the console when we got back from school. I’ve always liked to play these games. It’s comforting lah, it’s my ‘off’ switch.

I really like the Dragon Quest series because they have really funny lines and very stupid names for their monsters. They have some humour … It’s witty, there’s a lot of puns.”

At the Cultural Medallion Speaker Series on October 28 and November 2, meet Jennifer Tham and the four other Cultural Medallion recipients for 2012: artist-critic Ho Ho Ying; artist and educator Milenko Prvacki; writer Jamaludeen Mohamed Sali and theatre practitioner Thirunalan Sasitharan.

The tea-time panel discussions will be held at the National Library. To attend the discussions, register here; admission is free.