Primary 5 and 6 pupils, who have learnt to read notes when they were in Primary 1 to 4, are taught to play the guitar during music lessons.
"Music has practically become my life!" says Vincent Tan. The third year Music Performance student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) lives and breathes music every day, from theory classes after breakfast, concerts at noon and post-lunch band rehearsals to late afternoon studio sessions and self-practice in the evening.
Vincent's passion for music is evident, but he is not the only student whose life has been transformed by musical encounters at Fuchun Primary School, where he found his muse in the Brass Band during Primary 5. Home to a thriving culture of rhythm and song, Fuchun Primary School counts among its alumni four other students now at the School Of The Arts (SOTA) and many more who have been enriched by the learning, and love, of music.
The sound of music starts early at Fuchun Primary School, where pupils learn their 'do re mi' and how to read musical notes throughout their primary school years. During their six years of primary school, every child also picks up three musical instruments - the pianica, the recorder and the guitar - and enjoys ample opportunities to hone their craft and show their skills onstage.
The music never stops
Mrs Gan Ping Fong, Coordinator for Performing Arts, explains that since 2004, the school has rolled out a comprehensive music education programme that builds upon a strong tradition in music dating back to the 1990s. The curriculum is based on the British ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) standards and pupils who reveal a musical bent receive additional coaching to prepare them for the ABRSM theory and practical exams. The school subsidises their exam fees and also serves as a venue for the national ABRSM exams.
There is always a bunch of pupils eagerly awaiting their turn to play the piano in the canteen.
Calling music "the lifeblood of the school," Music Coordinator, Mrs Selina Sena, adds that in addition to scheduled weekly music classes, her department holds a weekly Music Outreach Programme (MOP) before school begins to encourage music appreciation. The MOP complements the formal syllabus by exposing pupils to different musical genres, notable musicians and music from various parts of the world. The classes themselves combine theory and practical elements and Mrs Sena stresses a key goal is that the pupils thoroughly enjoy their lessons.
As a result, the music never stops at Fuchun Primary School. A piano in the canteen is always occupied, and Mrs Sena shares that she would hear pupils trying out tunes from their pianica lessons whenever she is nearby.
During recess time, individual classes take turns to grab centrestage with regular Art Jams, while musical interludes offer inspiration and relief at school assemblies and after-exam recitals. Other platforms for budding musicians include performances during annual Speech & Prize Giving Day, National Day and festive occasions, as well as school-organised competitions that spur contestants to further raise their standards.
Everyone can sing and play
Most CCAs are open only to pupils in the upper primary levels, but the school's four performing arts CCAs - Brass Band, String Ensemble, Guitar Ensemble and Choir Club - welcome enthusiasts as young as Primary 1.
Pupils in Primary 1 and 2 learn the rudimentary of music theory, applying them in their pianica lessons during curriculum time.
Take Chua Rui En, who has been playing the violin in the String Ensemble since Primary 1. "Music lessons are fun! I also like performing when the whole group plays together," declares the Primary 4 pupil who took part in the Singapore Youth Festival Central Judging events in 2008 and 2010. A member of the Guitar Ensemble since Primary 3, Foo Sze Earn had her interest piqued by her older sister, a former ensemble member who is now in Secondary 3. "I used to listen to my sister practise," reveals the Primary 6 pupil. "I like the sound of the guitar, so I joined the ensemble."
Preferring fanfares to fiddles, Munirah bte Mohd Dzukifli joined the Brass Band in Primary 2 and has picked up both the trumpet and the trombone. "I like the opportunity to play songs from other countries and making music with my friends," says the Primary 6 pupil. Despite the heavy practice schedule, Munirah strives to attend every rehearsal and acknowledges that the need to set aside time for music and other tasks has helped her become more disciplined.
A shared experience
Regular art jam sessions allow pupils to show off their musical skills as they perform for a live audience.
To sustain the music programme, the school encourages teachers with no formal training in music but who express interest in it to sit for the ABRSM exams as well. To date, about a quarter of the teaching staff have obtained an ABRSM accreditation and Mrs Gan reveals that nearly two-thirds of the music department possess at least a Grade 3 in music theory or practice, with half of the teachers who have sat for the exams scoring distinctions.
"I prepared for my exams by sitting in class and learning together with the pupils," says Mr Joshua Leng. "Being familiar with music theory increases my confidence and I know that what I teach is correct," adds the Chinese Language and Music teacher whose Grade 1 and Grade 3 ABRSM exams (he skipped Grade 2) were fully paid for by the school.
The school encourages teachers without formal music training, such as Mr Joshua Leng, to sit for the ABRSM examinations by helping them prepare for the exams.
Through music, pupils and teachers alike share a learning journey that continues for a lifetime. At NAFA, Vincent expresses his wish to become a full-fledged professional musician and win over other young people "to the beauty of instrumental and classical music."
Meanwhile, guitarist Sze Earn actively goes beyond her CCA set pieces to explore new repertoire and has a habit of studying while listening to good music. "The pieces shut out the other noises so that I can concentrate better," she explains. As for Mr Leng, the experience of going back to class has helped him understand what his own pupils face. "Going through the whole preparatory process has made me more confident in handling pupils with various learning abilities," he says.