Friday, May 26, 2017

Should SOTA churn out graduates for the arts?

Recently, a news article in Strait Times sparked debate when it was revealed that more than 80% of School of the Arts (SOTA)'s 2015 graduating cohort ended up pursuing non-arts degrees. This has triggered some people to complain that these brats are squandering taxpayers' money by going to SOTA when they have no intent of an arts career, or that SOTA is therefore a flop.

When I was in secondary school, I dreamed about playing in an orchestra. I played the piano and I was quite good at it too, so I thought it would be the coolest thing ever, to become a musician. One day, the Singapore Youth Orchestra (SYO) paid a visit to my school and after giving what I thought was a totally awesome performance, they mentioned that they would be holding auditions for members. I don't remember how I found out about the audition date, I must have scoured the newspapers daily for the notice, but I did manage to find out and went for it. It was quite out of character for me, really. I was so shy and retiring back then, it must have been a stomach-churning experience.

I went for the audition, played a few pieces on the piano and sat for some sight-reading and aural tests. The auditioner, a bubbly lady, told me very kindly that she thought I was an accomplished pianist but since I was already 16, there would not be enough time to train me in a new instrument for the SYO.

On my way out, I met another young hopeful in the waiting room, gripping her violin case. She was with her mother and they were both visibly kancheong about the audition. The girl asked me what happened in the room and when I told her I was auditioned by Vivien Goh (she had introduced herself), both mother and daughter gasped "Vivien Goh!" in hushed tones. That's when I had an inkling that Vivien Goh must be somebody of repute in that circle. I had no clue myself, an outsider in this mysterious world of musicians and orchestras. 

Anyway, after finding out that just knowing how to play the piano was not going to get me into any orchestras, I decided to try and pick up a new instrument at JC. I joined the chamber ensemble CCA which opened up a violin class for beginners. There were only five of us, if I recall, and we paid a small fee for a violin teacher to teach us the fundamentals every week. We could only afford cheap $100 violins which made the most horrendous squawks. If you entered the music room when we were having our lessons, you would hear these blood-curdling screeches fit for any horror movie scene.

I think I lasted for about a year. Even when I had improved and the sounds from my instrument bore the semblance of a tune, I came to the realisation that a violinist I would never be. I could never tune my instrument properly and holding it under my chin for a long period gave me a stiff neck. The violin always felt like a foreign object to me, and I was never as excited to learn a new piece on it, the way I was with the piano.

If not a string instrument, then what? Later on, a friend gave me a few lessons on the clarinet. This wasn't for me either. I figured that as a musician, you probably should be able to play for more than half an hour without feeling like you're going to pass out from the lack of oxygen. So that ruled out all wind instruments.

Why am I relating this long, grandmother story? My point is that as kids, many of us have dreams of pursuing a certain career, but being kids, we have very little idea what it takes or whether we're even suited for it. It is also not surprising that many kids' dreams are in the arts and sports, partly because in kids' minds, these areas appear more "fun" and tend to be more visible. For instance, if they enjoy playing soccer, they might think that being a professional soccer player is the best job in world. Or they might look at Taylor Swift and think, "I want to be a singer!" Whereas no young kid will dream of becoming an IT analyst or logistics manager because they won't even know such jobs exist, let alone know what these people do.

It took me most of my youth to figure out that not only did I not have the aptitude to be a musician, that career (which demands exacting standards and passion in a very specialised area) would have made me utterly miserable. Note that I was already into my teenage years when I was harbouring those dreams. Yet, we expect 12-year-olds to have decided on their careers when they enter SOTA?

The point is that for most kids who enter SOTA, they have an interest in the arts, that's for sure. But at 12, it is really premature to say that they will pursue a career in the arts. The value of SOTA is not in grooming careers, otherwise we fall back on the age-old fallacy that education should be purely vocation-driven. Certainly not at the secondary school level. The value of SOTA is providing a place that is conducive to grooming ability and nurturing interest in the arts. In fact, sometimes in the course of studying something, you discover what you DON'T want to do.

One student was quoted as saying "SOTA gave me a safe space to experiment", and that, I feel, is more valuable than people understand. It's a delicate balancing act when it comes to the arts because for some art forms which have a short shelf life, you definitely do need to cultivate talent early. Think ballerinas who traditionally retire at around 40. However, the discovery of passion can take time so we need to groom talent without forcing it into a mould.

Side track: The only people I have an issue with are the parents who encourage their kids to enter SOTA simply to bypass the dreaded PSLE and have a through train education to IB. They know full well there is little chance their kids will pursue the arts, yet will put their kids through special DSA coaching classes in theatre, singing, dancing, music, etc. I know this practice is prevalent in certain schools, especially  a particular girls' school in the east. I'm quite certain if you do a check on which primary schools SOTA kids come from, a few schools will be over-represented. In these cases, the parents are doing their kids more harm than good and it's baffling that they're too myopic to see that.

Back to the criticism that SOTA has failed in its purpose or that these kids are brats. My question is: why then don't we go after people who go to law school and don't become lawyers? Or go to medical school and eventually change their minds mid-career? Many, many students sign up for law and medicine not because they have the elusive "passion" but simply out of prestige and the illusion that you can do anything with these degrees. After getting their degrees, they promptly pursue careers in other areas (law more than medicine, partly because of the long bond attached to medicine). Why don't we take them to task for wasting taxpayers' money? By the way, these are undergraduate degrees, so the students are much older than the ones in SOTA when they made their choice. Shouldn't they know better?

My suspicion in this: the arts is traditionally perceived as the poorer cousin in our society. Whether in school or in careers, it's always considered the second (or last) choice. Because of this, there is a prevalent mentality that the arts is undeserving of help and therefore arts folks should be eternally grateful for any form of support. In fact, it's a given that people should suffer for their art, so to have the chance to attend a fancy school like SOTA and not do arts after? What ungrateful brats!

I wouldn't be surprised if the people who expect a direct return on the support they perceive to have provided ("taxpayer dollars!") are the ones most unsupportive of the local arts scene. I bet they are unable to tell you when they last went to a local concert, play or read a book by a local author. These are also the people like to pigeon-hole others - you belong to the arts! You sports! You stay in those lanes. As if individuals are digitally programmed to have only singular interests and pathways in life.

Of course I hope that the SOTA graduates who decide not to pursue arts-related degrees are doing so for genuine reasons and not because they think they won't earn enough moolah as an artist. That would just be tragic and contrary to the spirit of the arts.  Anyway, what the ST article says is that SOTA graduates go on to pursue non-arts degrees (how many arts degrees are there anyway, especially locally?), not that they won't still end up being involved in the arts later on. The optimistic part of me keeps hoping. Look at me - I ditched my dreams of becoming a musician but I embraced another - to be an author. (I also worked at the SSO, not as a musician but in marketing, which was fulfilling in a different way).

People who love the arts usually find their way back to it somehow. And if SOTA's purpose is to nurture more people who can create and appreciate all forms of art, then regardless of whether the graduates pursue the arts as a career, the role of SOTA remains an important one.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Mothers' Day feature and special offer for new Secrets of Singapore book

Happy Mothers' Day to all readers who are mums! Whether your kids are little ones or not-so-little-ones, being a mum is a privilege — to be able to raise and nurture another human being.

The Straits Times arts beat had a feature last Tuesday on "Mothers pass their artistic passions on to their children", and Lesley-Anne and I were interviewed as one of the mother-child pairs. Click on the link above to read the article (we're the third story).

Photo: SPH
My favourite quote in the article is Lesley-Anne's description of how we envisioned Gadget Girl in our Danger Dan series:
"I was always annoyed at kids' books with stereotypical girl characters who were ditzy or boy-crazy or always shopping and painting their nails," says Tan. "I couldn't identify with them at all."
Which brings me to a Danger Dan update. Those of you whose kids follow the Danger Dan and Gadget Girl series may have been wondering why we've been so quiet ever since the release of The Gruesome Garden last October. The reason is this we've been working hard on this book: Secrets of Singapore: National Museum.

This book is very close to my heart and is possibly one of my favourites. Like the original Secrets of Singapore, this book similarly tells the story of the history of Singapore, but this time, the narrative is woven around the artefacts at the National Museum. We wrote it with the view that kids would take the book with them on their visit to the museum and use it as a guide to reference the artefacts. The artefacts described in the book are numbered and you can find the gallery where each is located in a list at the back of the book.

As with the original Secrets of Singapore, we use very simple language and we try to explain everything, even the word "artefact":

The point is to make the museum (and history) easily understandable and even interesting, by breaking down the facts and artefacts into digestible, bite-sized chunks. Then we throw in loads of humour and Danger Dan-style puns. The National Museum was very helpful in providing info, especially where we thought we would need to bring in trivia that appealed to kids. Such as this one on the very first NS uniform.

Of course, Elvin Ching's fantastic illustrations also helped bring the artefacts to life. We ♥ his drawings. Here's an early review of the book:
"What a wonderful book to teach children (and adults) about the history of Singapore!  Danger Dan and Gadget Girl deliver so much information in a fun, humorous and interesting way with lively images and information about many of the artefacts in the National Museum. Parents, teachers and students will all want to have their own copy because it brings so much life into the fascinating history of Singapore. A visit to Singapore, and the National Museum, would be incomplete without this book!" - Sarah Mounsey, teacher librarian, Dulwich College, and children's book author
I hope you're as excited as I am about this book! It will be available in bookstores by end May/early June, but you can be one of the first to get your hands on it with this special pre-order offer of $14 by Closetful of Books. (There's free delivery with a minimum order of $25, so get another for a friend!) Order now and you will receive an autographed copy of the book by 29 May 2017.

Do support our efforts to keep writing for kids - appreciate this lots!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Pain, my foot

Ever since Andre started playing badminton in school at p2, he's complained of pain in his heels. His coach said the muscles and tendons in his feet were probably very tight and set him some stretching exercises.

Then as he grew older, he would often complain of pain in his soles after running, walking or standing, even for a short period of time. When he went on his secondary school badminton camp night walk (which was around 20km), he would start limping after 2km or so, even while wearing two pairs of socks. We thought he might have flat feet but his feet looked normal to our laymen eyes, so we dismissed it and told him to keep stretching.

Before he started poly, we finally decided to send him to a podiatrist to check out his feet. We took the polyclinic route and received a referral to Geylang Polyclinic which has a podiatrist clinic. Well, there's a reason we parents are not doctors because the podiatrist took one look at Andre's feet and declared that he was "extremely flat-footed".

Flat feet (or fallen arches) is a condition where the feet don't have a natural arch. Because of this, pain is often experienced with prolonged standing, walking or running. In fact, high impact sports like badminton, with constant jumping. can trigger severe pain.

I'll tell you what else it triggers - it triggers severe feelings of guilt in parents. Because we have dismissed the problem and let him do sports in pain all these years. 😱😱

Of course, I glibly told him, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" And "better late than never!" (When in doubt, spout idioms.)

The podiatrist recommended a few ways to remedy the problem. One of them was stretches but the most impactful method was making special insoles to correct the fallen arches. According to him,  some flat-footers can get away with buying off-the-shelf shoes with arch support, but Andre's condition was pretty severe and would function best with insoles customised specially for his feet.

Geylang Polyclinic takes the dimension for the insoles on the spot, using special equipment that scans the feet.

The scans are then sent to Australia where the insoles are custom-made. They're not cheap - $260 per pair. Ouch! However, I later found out that this price is much lower than what you'd have to pay at private specialist clinics. Anyway, the insoles can last three years even with daily wear, and can be removed to fit other pairs of shoes, so I guess you get your money's worth.

Funny aside: The morning of the appointment before we left home, Andre asked me if he needed to "dress up". Of course I said no. Why would one need to dress up to go to the podiatrist? It was only when we were sitting in the waiting room that I noticed his t-shirt had two big holes at the shoulder. Alamak!

On the plus side, as someone told me, maybe the podiatrist took pity on him and gave him a discount on the insoles.

Andre has been wearing shoes with his new insoles for the past few months and they work like magic. He no longer experiences pain when standing for prolonged periods, which was a life-saver when he was working as a waiter. I guess you could say the insoles got him back on his feet...literally.

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