Then vs. Now as an Artist | Student Blog

Thursday, Dec 12, 2019
Cheng Jin Koh
Admissions Blog
Share on:
Cheng Jin performs in an orchestra
Performance with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra in 2014, after winning 1st Prize, Open Yang Qin Category (Age 18)

Often in the earliest stages of one’s artistic venture, the curiosity and thirst for novel explorations are what consume the yearning learner and grow exponentially.

Even when surrounded by the pressure to perform academically in my six years of middle-high school, I remained quite active musically. There was despair mostly over my indisputably horrendous mathematical abilities and never-ending assignments, but the scarcity of time for solitary composing and practising made me treasure these small pockets of opportunities.

Cheng Jin playing an instrument
Performance during the 2012 Singapore National Chinese Music Competition (age 16)

Writing for almost eight years now, since I was 15, taught me how to discern and harness the music vocabulary that I find personally engaging. Steady exposure to music throughout the years granted me the chance to develop preferences and see the beauty in works that seem harder to grasp on first listening. I remained sensitive, not in the sense where I subjected myself excessively to the opinions of others, like I was dangerously prone to in the past, but in my resolve to believe in and defend musical attributes that compelled me to certain works. This resolve came only when I began appreciating the diversity of musical languages. At 17, an age where students could find both the energy and time to expand their growing musical palette and satisfy their bubbling inquisitivity through concert hall visits, a prominent composer like Gustav Mahler remained puzzling to me for a long while with his orchestral and contrapuntal complexities. It was challenging for me to remain focused with the overflowing wealth of material and sometimes slow-moving sections. I would rather be serenaded and release all my pent-up student-life stress and tears through the more approachable and sustained, linear forms of lyricism in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, or the pleasantly rich circle-of-fifths groove in some baroque concerto grosso. etc.

Cheng Jin with a group of friends
After a performance with friends from SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore)

After many years of attentive listening, my ears can now better embrace sonic features that were once baffling to me, and appreciate the level of imagination and craft previously unnoticed by my myopic, narrow-sighted vision. I started becoming drawn to Mahler and composers like him the same way I was attracted to the genuine sincerity in the music of Richard Strauss and composers that I love. Growing as an artist entails not only improving my own skills but also cultivating patience and forming a general empathy for other artists who have come before me and fought their own battles in their field.

Now I have also learned to let go most of the negative emotions that surround the reception of my music by mainly filtering criticisms that are more disparaging than encouraging. I have been told more than once that the “pitches” in my music “make sense” and my vulnerability led me to wallow in great depression, letting their words seep into every new piece of music I write. When opposition and unappreciation are the responses to the sweat I put into my work, the magnitude of the resulting pain can often become uncontrollably great when I do not have enough confidence (though I have love) in my own music to begin with. It is somehow different—when a musician is told their playing is in dire straits, they can always practice and refine themselves through a variety of methods and interpretation. Every hour counts for them. But as a composer, the lack of understanding from the audience and their disapproval, their aversion to qualities I deem most crucial in my music, seemed akin to stripping bare the very essence and spirit of the work. It seemed to denote that there has been a real failure in communication on my part, even though I have been assured that not everyone has the capacity to accept and believe in our own music the way we do. Usually, darker thoughts and personal denials tend to wander more dominantly in my mind than feelings of hope and excitement in accomplishing something new. Fortunately, with the help of my encouraging teachers and friends throughout my undergraduate years, I have found ways to dispel them and regain feelings of validity in my work through my passion and love for creating.

Group photo of Cheng Jin and friends
Me and my senior friends in 2014

I dare not say I have gotten very far as a composer from the day I picked up writing to now, but I find solace in the fact that I have gone through some of the darkest of days to value and discover the goodness of what has been, and what is to come. I am still learning, still giving a chance to music that I find challenging to comprehend, and my wish is that others out there can also give me and my music a chance to be heard and understood in the smallest of ways.

Attend a student performance on campus.