Music From The Heart

Gerald Teo, one of the founding members of the acclaimed The Teng Company, talks about his love of music, teaching and paying it forward.

By Alywin Chew      4 May 2018

Renowned cellist Gerald Teo would not be where he is in life today if not for the fact that he decided to, ironically, quit band when he was in Secondary One. “During band practice, a student leader gave me a clarinet and simply told me to blow as hard as I could,” laughs the 36-year-old co-founder of The Teng Company. “I obviously failed to produce a decent sound without any guidance. My lips were even swollen after two hours of trying! That was the first and last time I played a wind instrument. That was also what made me decide to quit.”

This experience, however, led Gerald to join the school’s Chinese orchestra instead. There, he learnt to play the cello, and eventually became so skilled at it that he went on to perform for the People’s Association Youth Chinese Orchestra and the Singapore National Youth Orchestra after completing his secondary school education. Despite his passion for music, Gerald’s early ambitions were the same as those of his generation. Apart from the typical fields such as medicine, law and business, he also considered following in his father’s footsteps and becoming an engineer.

He ended up as a teacher but quit the job after three years to pursue his musical interests. Today, more than 20 years after he first picked up the cello, Gerald is highly accomplished and has performed at high-profile events attended by the Prime Minister and the President.

Teng Debuts

In 2004, Gerald and his friends competed in the Singapore National Chinese Music Competition under the group name The Teng Ensemble. After they took home the first prize, they went on to establish The Teng Company that same year. The musicians have since brought their esoteric brand of music, which harmonises traditional and contemporary elements, and is highly evocative of nature, to cities such as Melbourne, Shanghai, Seoul, Manila, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Though he has left the education system for some years, Gerald’s teaching days are far from over. Apart from performing at numerous events every year, The Teng Company also focuses on musical research and education. It currently conducts pre-school music programmes, grades examinations for Chinese music, and offers scholarships for talented young musicians.

“Grooming the younger generation and inspiring others to appreciate our art form is what I love about being an educator. It is very fulfilling to watch your students performing beautiful music on stage and enjoying it in the process,” says Gerald. The company also published QI — An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra in August 2005. Gerald pointed out that they would soon be publishing an update and extension of this book, which he believes will be a “game changer” in the industry, not just in Singapore but worldwide.

“Singapore is a young nation and we have some ways to go in terms of integrating arts into our lives… We want people to get used to the fact that music and the arts are something they need and are good for them, not just something to seek out in their free time,” says Gerald, referring to the importance of music education in the country. “In terms of research, we are looking to break new ground in music, especially Chinese music. Our research department has innovated on instruments such as the electro-acoustic pipa, the first of its kind in the world. The art form can only evolve if we work at it, or else it may simply stay stuck in time or fade into oblivion.”

The group’s efforts on these fronts mean that Gerald often works 12-hour days that are spent on activities such as performances with The Teng Ensemble, giving masterclasses, coaching school orchestras and recording songs. But despite this hectic schedule, the group has still managed to find space on their plate to do something that is close to Gerald’s heart: giving back to society.

Giving Back

This year, the company founded the Teng Gives Back initiative, which revolves around performing free at care homes, dialysis centres, hospitals and hospices. The initiative was partly inspired by his compassion for the underprivileged. In fact, Gerald has, over the years, been providing subsidised or free coaching for students facing financial difficulties. He pointed out that the company’s Head of Programmes, Nancy Ong, also shares the same passion, having taught music to special needs children for years. “In the course of my work, I meet a lot of less-privileged folks who are struggling to pay for daily necessities, bills or education fees, or people who are experiencing loss or despair. As a non-profit arts company, we’re able to help influence and provide inspiration to their lives by contributing to society,” he said.

“We believe greatly in exchanging experiences, and hope to further foster empathy and a sense of social responsibility within the music community through Teng Gives Back.” The initiative got off to a bitter-sweet but inspiring start. Earlier this year, the company received a call from Assisi Hospice informing them that one of its residents, renowned tabla player MS Maniam, did not have long to live and would like to play music one last time. Upon hearing the news, The Teng Ensemble members, pipa player Dr Samuel Wong and guitarist James Fernando rushed to the hospice to explore how they could collaborate with the man on a piece called Storm War, which was inspired by the Tamil song Munnaeru Vaalibaa. Unfortunately, the veteran musician was in no condition to play an instrument.

Before he passed away peacefully the next day, he was able to enjoy his last “concert” – an intimate recital – and even tapped along to parts of the music.

Looking Ahead

Since running as a full-fledged company and charity (currently an IPC), Teng Company has developed “a clearer vision and understanding” of its purpose, says Gerald. The company is also starting a mentorship programme with its own pool of professional musicians to help amateurs further hone their skills. The mentorship also has a twist: It is coupled with a volunteer programme so that instead of just giving these mentees an opportunity to perform, it is incorporating them into its Teng Gives Back initiative. “We certainly look forward to giving more to others through Teng Gives Back. Nothing can be more fulfilling than seeing lives touched and changed for the better.”

As for Gerald, though he started on his path as a musician by first failing with a wind instrument, he has found his vocation both enriching and rewarding, and is focused on paying things forward. “As a musician, I get to make new friends, and interact with people from different industries and walks of life. I also get to share new ideas, gain new inspiration in the process, share my life stories and experiences with my students, teach the younger generation of musicians, and get to travel during my work. “This job is always very exciting.”