Nabillah Jalal - 'The world is powered through small acts of compassion'
Could you please tell us a little about what you do and why you do it?
I recently graduated from the Royal College of Music in London where I majored in Piano Performance, and am now teaching piano. I also work as a vocal and Angklung instructor in primary and secondary schools in Singapore. I do some community work weekly as well to get an understanding of the people around me and their concerns. I believe that the world is powered through small acts of compassion. Compassion can be seen in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft and almost invisible acts like listening to someone else’s concerns.
For you, what is the role artists can and should play in society?
Art reflects who we are - and that includes our flaws and strengths. Art betters society. An artist creates something for their audience, translating feelings into ideas to which their audience can relate. Compensation for an artist cannot be quantified materially - the fulfilment an artist gets comes from how much people were moved and touched.
How useful do you think the idea of 'classical music' is for you in your work?
Firstly, Classical Music is not an idea. It is cultural heritage and it is up to us and the future generation to not let it fade into oblivion. We have to create new meaning out of it and make it relatable. I hope to use Classical Music as a means for me to tackle social issues. Secondly, I teach Classical Piano so I guess it’s pretty important in my line of work...
After graduating with honours from the RCM in London, your first professional engagement was as a musical director of the Singapore-led dance and physical theatre performance piece, Bhumi. Could you tell us a little more about this project?
Bhumi is a Singaporean-British collaboration: a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and multi-national piece involving a team of dancers, theatre crew and music makers. At first, we wanted to explore the idea of ‘Malay’ identity in the piece, specifically Singaporean Malay identity. In the end, we included that in the piece but also allowed it to evolve into a much richer performance that involved our non-Malay Singaporean friends as well. It became a story about everyone’s journey - the idea of finding one’s place in the world while also negotiating your identity.
What are some of the main differences between working as a professional musician in London and in Singapore?
There are not that many venues in Singapore that have suitable acoustics for a piano recital. It was much easier to get a recital slot in churches or cathedrals in the UK, but in Singapore, we do not have a culture of holding concerts in churches. Additionally, I wear the hijab and I’m not sure how people would react to me performing in a church in Singapore. It’s a lot easier in the UK in that sense. At times, I also feel that Classical Music in Singapore is a competition or used as a way to assess how learned a person is.
What's your favourite piece to perform and why?
I'm a huge huge fan of music from the Romantic era, in particular, Chopin’s music. The rich harmonic shadings, intense poetic expression and attention to the sensual qualities of music is absolutely beautiful. The Nocturne in B Flat Minor Op. 9 No. 1 has a haunting opening and speaks volumes.
Another piece that I really like to perform is an arrangement of Janam Janam from the Bollywood blockbuster, Dilwale. My best friend, Algirdas, is a composer, and he doesn’t really fancy pop and film music so it came as a surprise when he agreed to do this arrangement for me as my Christmas present two years back! I was going through a rough time then and he was doing all that he could to make me feel better. This arrangement is a reminder that I was able to overcome the emotional turmoil and that my best friend will always be there to support me.
Could you share with us some of your plans for the future?
Together with two friends, we will be launching our arts tasters programme at the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home in Singapore in March 2017. It’s a 20-week programme and will be divided into 4 sections - 5 lessons for general music/classical music, 5 lessons on fine arts, 5 lessons for Malay Music, and the last 5 sessions for intensive rehearsals in preparation for a performance that the participants will be putting on. We believe that traditional and classical music and art forms have a positive and lasting influence on the communication skills, self-esteem, development and interests of disadvantaged children and teenagers. Art develops self-expression and esteem in people and we believe that disadvantaged children and teenagers in Singapore are unfairly excluded from music and art. This exclusion is systemic because they are excluded from the ‘traditional’ schooling system, and thus, many of the benefits of art. This is why we are pioneering a program, targeted specifically at disadvantaged teenagers, that educates them on basic art forms. ArtSee X Muhammadiyah is our prototype and we hope to introduce this program to more welfare homes around Singapore. I hope to have my own NGO some day! Apart from that, I hope to encourage more people to volunteer their time and help others in their own capacity. What everyone does makes a difference, and they have to decide what kind of difference they want to make. Lastly, I want more people to listen to classical music and realise that there’s nothing ‘elitist’ about it. Music is music.
In the world of 'non-classical' music, what song would you like most to cover?
I don’t shun away from "non-classical’ music and do covers of pop music (K Pop, Indo Pop and Bollywood OST) on my Instagram actually! These days, I’m into grime music but I’m not sure that I can realise that kind of music on the piano!
Born and raised in Singapore, pianist Nabillah Jalal graduated in 2016 with Honours from the Royal College of Music in London, studying under Prof. Nigel Clayton. Her first post-graduation position was as music director for the Singapore-led dance and physical theatre performance piece Bhumi, which debuted at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Nabillah made her debut concerto performance with The Young Musicians’ Foundation (Singapore) at Raffles Junior College in 2014. She is a frequent guest soloist for events hosted by the High Commission of The Republic of Singapore (UK), and has performed across several venues in Europe including Muz 13 in Szezecin, Poland and St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. In London, she has performed in St. Mary Abbot’s Church and the Parry Rooms at the RCM.
The first Malay Singaporean to be studying at the Royal College of Music, Nabillah received the prestigious Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award (Distinction) in 2011 and is a recipient of the Live It Up bursary, with her education supported by Trailblazer Foundation Ltd and help from the Bukit Timah Community Centre.
Nabillah has a keen interest in contemporary music particularly as it relates to her culture and identity as a Malay Singaporean. In 2012, she premiered Singaporean composer Albert Tay’s Variations on a Theme of Di Tanjung Katong as well as RCM composer Toby Nelms’ Recruit Green. In June 2016, she premiered Syafiqah ‘Adha’s Fantasia of Home as part of her graduation recital; the work was dedicated to Nabillah in conjunction with SG50, a nationwide commemoration of Singapore’s fiftieth year of independence.
When not performing, Nabillah is a keen educator and teaches piano to students in London and Singapore. A key part of her motivation is in spreading appreciation and involvement with the arts, both as a teacher and in charity and social work with lower-income and underrepresented communities. She has worked with EVOKX, a Singaporean community choir that seeks to engage youths in local communities and social work through choral singing.
Nabillah loves watching Korean dramas, cooking, and hosting dinner parties for her family and friends. She also plays and sings pop music on her Youtube channel and Instagram.
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