Yvonne Chung is Head of Music at Detecke Sabah Institute of Arts [SIA]. Young, hardworking, and dedicated, she has always had a propensity to teach and lead others.
In Form 3, Yvonne was already leading the choir of St Mary’s school in Kuching, a choir made up mostly of seniors older than herself.
“We actually won State level, represented our state and went over to Penang for the finals. Eventually we only got consolation, but still I think it was a huge achievement for me because I was just a junior, teaching the senior students’ choir as well.”
Today, the situation hasn’t changed much; Yvonne isn’t that much older than her students!
“When I look back, it’s actually very similar. Because during that time I was teaching people who were more senior than I am, and now the students I am teaching are almost the same age.”
Maybe that gives Yvonne better insight into her charges: “You have to realise that you can’t just push them all the way. We were teenagers, we were rebellious also, sometimes you just need to talk to them like your friends.”
Yvonne’s mother did not have the chance to learn music, and she is the kind of parent who wants to give her children opportunities she did not have. The result was three daughters who got the chance to study piano.
“I saw my older sisters practising piano, and during that time I didn’t love it yet, but I sort of liked it. You know, kids are like: If my sisters are doing that, I want to do it too! So when I was seven I actually told my mum I want to go for classical piano lessons as well.”
A few negative experiences with early music teachers means Yvonne’s has firm opinions about what she believes makes a good teacher today.
“Teachers are very important. When I started my piano class, it started okay, but my teacher was boring. She didn’t take me through preparatory, introduction courses and things like that, she just dumped me a Grade I book right away, and I wasted two years just to sit for my Grade I piano exam. She was strict, giving instruction without any inspiration, and she basically killed my interest.
“But I knew my mum wanted me to continue with piano lessons, and in Primary school, I was also quite deep into music clubs. I had friends doing piano classes. I thought, if I stop now it will be a pity. My friends will keep on getting their piano grades while I don’t continue on.”
In secondary school, Yvonne switched piano teachers. It was a shock!
“I started my first lesson with my new teacher. She said, ‘Okay, show me what you’ve got!’ At that time I was doing Grade V and I was really proud and wanted to show her what I can do! I picked my most difficult piece, and I played the first bar, when she suddenly stopped me. I thought, ‘Huh? What did I play wrong?’
“My teacher said, ‘What’s wrong with your posture? What’s wrong with your fingers?’
“I didn’t understand her. She said, ‘Your fingers are not curved, your sitting posture is not right.’
“I turned to her and said, ‘Is there any sitting posture? I don’t know anything about it.’
“So she started me from the beginning, and I had to struggle to learn to curve my fingers, which was really difficult.”
Today, as Head of Music, Yvonne feels strongly about correct teaching.
“We don’t want to take on a teacher who says they play one instrument, and knows a bit about this or that other instrument, because they taught themselves. We want teachers who really specialise in their instruments and really know how to teach correctly. Because I myself have been taught bad techniques for both piano and cello, and it’s a very difficult process to undo.”
There are several paths to reach the point of taking a music degree.
“Form 4, Form 5 I took PENDIDIKAN MUZIK [Music Studies] as a subject in secondary school. Many people do not know that this subject exists for SPM, although it’s not offered to all schools in Malaysia, only selected schools. During my time, I was the second batch to sit for it.
“To be honest, it was kind of tough. Not the theory side, but the essay side was tough. Because they say SPM questions you can predict and prepare for, but if you’re only the second batch taking the exam, how are you going to predict that?
“Basically we learnt everything about music: Western music, Malaysian music, all those Malaysian traditional music, we have to really study and learn by heart. We studied about RTM, how that developed, P. Ramlee, Malaysian artists like KRU, Siti Nurhaliza. It’s a huge topic and the essay part was tough, but I got an ‘A’ for that.
After that I wanted to either take up Music or Astronomy. But for Astronomy you needed to have good Physics, and my Physics was not good, so I thought I might as well forget about it!
International Music House [IMH] was the most prominent music school in Kuching, and at that time, Universiti Malaysia Sabah [UMS] was offering a franchise programme with them. I was not interested to go over to Peninsular, and since IMH had a programme which would link straight to UMS, I took it then came to KK and continued my studies at UMS for three years.”
Taking a Music degree at UMS was a learning experience for Yvonne in more ways than one. She admits that she has changed her mindset in some important ways, particularly relating to music students who are late starters.
“When I came to UMS, I believed university was a place that not everyone can go into. I had got through my diploma, given up my time and studied so hard to make sure I get good results so that I can get a place in UMS. But it turns out that people from matrics or Form 6 who don’t have any music background can take Music, as long as they know how to sing. Also, teachers who need a degree are allowed to take Music. I felt it was quite unfair for me, after working so hard, to suddenly be studying with some people who not have much exposure to music theory. But eventually I accepted it and took it positively that it was for my benefit that I had to struggle hard, to know that kind of discipline.”
But then we talked about people we know, and listed SIA Head of Academic Jessel Yansalang, and RTM Kombo Leader Moses de Silva, as UMS Music graduates who did not know how to read music when they entered UMS, and yet they became highly accomplished performing musicians and teachers in their own right.
“Yes,” agreed Yvonne. “There is this friend of ours who played in the KK Jazz Festival with us, Aldrich Tan. He didn’t start his violin when he was a young child, he took it quite late. He has only studied violin for four or five years and he is in MIA [Malaysian Institute of Art] pursuing his diploma there. So I believe no matter how late you start, there is always a chance.
“A lot of my students have very little knowledge of music when they start, but most of them graduate to become very good musicians in the end. So it really has changed my view.”
After graduation, the [then] Head of Music Jessel Yansalang asked Yvonne to join the staff as many of his colleagues were attending KPLI [Kursus Perguruan Lepasan Ijazah] or teacher training. Yvonne began as a part-time lecturer in January 2007.
“After a year, I eventually become a full-time lecturer, Jessel was still Head of Music. One-and-a-half years later he was promoted to Head of Academic, so I took over as Head of Music. Jessel and I work very well together. We really put our hearts into upgrading the syllabus, trying to bring out the best in everything we know.”
“As a teacher, what makes me happiest is, of course, the student’s achievement. When they come back with an achievement – ‘Battle of the Bands’ or whatever competition, or if they excel at their studies – that’s always my happiest moment.”
However, Yvonne has learnt not to always pressure her students to work the way she works herself. “There was one point where I talked to Jessel. I said, ‘I feel very disappointed, because I care too much about my students. I want so much for them.’ Jessel said, ‘This kind of thing, you just have to relax. You cannot put too much of yourself inside, because it will be very hard for yourself. No matter how much you care for your students, if your students don’t work for it, they’re not going to go anywhere.’ So eventually I had to take his advice.
“The most we teach you is 30 pct. The other 70 pct is how you work it, how you study, how you practise it. I believe so,” she said.
“Of course I’m looking at the parents’ financial side as well – studying Music at SIA is expensive: the books, the instruments, the fees, your parents have to put money on these things.
“We have quite a number of students who we have to stop from entering class, because they have no money to pay fees, so we can’t allow them to enter class. That’s such a pity! On the other hand, there are also a bunch of students where their fees are all clear, all they have to do is come for class, but they never even show up for class.
“Parents know how hard it is to earn money. My advice is, ‘Do you really want to study music? Once you are in music all you really have to do is practise. Practise, practise, practise! Regardless of what subject you are taking up, whatever instruments you are choosing.”
“Once you decide to take Music, don’t stop half-way. There are always people who start to take Music, and half-way they can’t cope and think, ‘Oh this is not for me’. But if you have the passion, no matter how hard it is, just strive for it. Like people always say, ‘If you start something, make sure you end it.'”