by Khoo Hui Ling
I recently wrote a short essay called Three Birthday Wishes which was published in the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book: Narratives, Undiscovered and Underway in celebration of Singapore's bicentennial.
Wishes are not just for birthdays though. Christmas is a season for wishes too, and this festive week, I'd like to share this essay here as a dedication to all my students past or present, whether at NUS or The Music Studios: Merry Christmas and onwards to 2020! Here goes:
Are childhoods then and now very different?
My parents sometimes reminisce about their childhoods. They played simple games like chapteh, hantam bola, goli and five stones with neighbours. Having many siblings meant there was always someone to play with. They recall terrifyingly strict school headmasters. Yes, they had canes!
Childhood had a certain romantic innocence then. That simplicity is a Tasmanian tiger in modern lifestyles: extinct. For many families, both parents work. Many children see much more of the helper at home than they do their parents. They probably have schedules like a fondue fountain, overflowing with sports, arts and academic classes. There is an undeniable complexity in the lives of today’s children.
We cannot change the inevitably morphing face of childhood. But as a music educator who has taught children and teenagers, I question how these changes are impacting them. Are we raising healthy children with beautiful hearts?
In each child’s face lies a pair of twinkling eyes, alive with curiosity. Children are a reminder of the undiscovered, as easily destroyed as it is precious. This year, as we celebrate 54 years of nation building, I would love to make birthday wishes for the children of Singapore too. Just three wishes.
The World is a Big Place
“What do I need to do to get an ‘A’?”
Getting good grades does help open opportunities. It is a justifiable question but one I dread answering.
“Examination topics are listed here. By the way, did you know that Franz Liszt became a priest at the end of his colourfully scandalous life?”
“That’s not tested so I don’t need to know it, right?”
No, you do not need to know this. Furthermore, boys are not about to snag a girlfriend with the opener, “Have you heard that Liszt eloped with the wife of an aristocrat in Switzerland?”
But if you were learning the music of Liszt, surely you would wonder about the inspiration and the life of the man behind the notes? Even if you were not, surely the disrepute behind such a reputable composer would make for an interesting tale? What happened to the curious twinkle within each child?
Instead of reflecting achievement, the ‘A’ grade has become a self-imposed constraint on self-directed learning. After I told students that to get an ‘A’ one has to pry, probe and ponder, the dynamics of classroom discussions changed drastically for the better.
I wish that children never lose this curious spark. It is to humanity what the Allspark is to the Transformers.
Knowledge is not defined by grades. The world is bigger than that. Learn everything there is to know. And if the Transformers series never were in your childhood, you might enjoy it, so give it a try.
You are Unique
A piano teacher spends uninterrupted time alone with each student. Neither a schoolteacher nor a parent, a piano teacher can therefore be more like a mentor.
I think this is how I became a sounding board for many students on their growing up woes. I have observed most of my teenage students contend with self-doubt at some point. It is heartbreaking when one’s doubt deteriorates into low self-esteem, a fear of not being accepted by one’s parents or even depression.
Singaporean students face immense pressure to do well in school. Everybody wants to be the best and it is hard to accept that not everybody will excel in the same way. Some blossom earlier than others. Some do well in many more things than others. This realisation can be unbearably discouraging for students who feel the weight of expectations upon their shoulders.
Ever heard of Two Set Violin? They are a talented music–comedy duo. Though they are not the best violinists around, they make a joke out of this, thus endearing themselves to others. In 2017, they were the first to organise a crowdfunded classical music tour, delighting audiences with their music and humour to sold-out performances in Asia and Europe. They found their calling by turning their weakness into a strength.
Remember that you don’t have to be the best to be unique. In fact, not all strengths can be measured. I wish that you be shown the unconditional love needed to discover your individuality and develop your strengths. Watch some Two Set Violin videos on YouTube if you need a reminder.
Be the Master of Your Life
I have sometimes felt a strong desire to throttle my students. Out of love, of course, but definitely out of exasperation too. The worst that has resulted from my impatience, however, was simply, “My dear, I think you left your voice in the toilet. Shall we look for it together?” This sarcasm was triggered by the following, rather common scenario:
“Do you like this piece of music?”
A glazed look descends. A look that suggests that the dementors in Harry Potter might in fact be real.
“There is no right or wrong answer to this. Speak freely!”
The student looks at the accompanying parent as if seeking permission to answer. If alone, the student looks timidly at me before muttering, “I’m not sure.”
Why is there so much fear of voicing a simple opinion? We adults make so many decisions for children: the classes they attend, their hobbies, their schedules, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, what homework they do first… Th is is born of the very sincere intention of wanting the best for one’s child. But has it backfired with an unforeseen extreme, a crippling of our children’s ability to make decisions for themselves, a loss of individual agency?
My third wish is that you will never lose what makes your voice your own. As we grow up, we must learn to make and take ownership over our decisions.
So there they are, my three birthday wishes for children. These really are wishes for their hearts. The heart of a child is frightfully fragile. As we negotiate the rapidly changing world around us, I hope we continually search within and ask this most fundamental question: How may we nurture beautiful hearts?
Read other essays/purchase The Birthday Book here: https://thebirthdaycollective.com/