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Make your own kind of music

Reflections from Singapore’s self-taught electronic music creatives


Published: 26 Oct 2022

Time taken : >15mins

Almira is a Baybeats Budding Writer who was mentored by Eddino Abdul Hadi, music correspondent for The Straits Times and Daniel Peters, a freelance journalist and contributor at NME Asia and radio DJ at Mediacorp’s Indiego.

You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music 
Even if nobody else sings along...

– ‘Mama’ Cass Elliot

When I was nine, I stuck my tongue out at my piano teacher after she slammed the door behind me, as punishment for not having practised. My musical personality was nothing like that of my elder sister, who thrived in our structured Euro-classical piano lessons. Soon after my ‘tongue-out-of-cheek’ episode, I quit piano classes. That was when the musical joy began. Freed from the rigidity of performing the music of ‘dead white men’, I found my teenage self drawn to the piano as I made up my own music on the go and played my favourite tunes by ear. Liberated from the kind of lessons that were not serving me, my creative soul was finally able to flourish.

Teenagers who don’t care about music are rare, so why do so few students want to enrol in school music programmes? Becoming a performer of composed music is only one way to be a musician, and it’s not the one that aligns with the tastes, identities and aspirations of most kids.

– Kuhn and Hein, 2021

If music is known to be one of humanity’s greatest forms of self-expression, why do music lessons so often stunt creative growth? Why do so many of Singapore’s young music creatives choose not to pursue music in formal education settings? And how necessary is it to pay to study music (in a world abundant with free online resources) if all you desire is to make your own kind of music? I sat down with four Singaporean creatives, who are all self-taught in the wide, weird and wonderful world of electronic music, and who each shared similar experiences of how formal music education was often dissonant with their wild passion for music.

Musician and Producer Ratmir Johnson (Amir Bin Mohamed Noor)

The dissonance of music lessons

"Since I was already making music as a child, my mum tried to get me to go for a few piano lessons to learn it properly. So they got me a keyboard and told me to practise. But it didn’t really do much for me because I didn’t like practising. So I ended up using the keyboard as a synthesiser, using the different sounds, recording it to my interface and making songs with it", shares musician and producer Ratmir Johnson (Amir  Bin Mohamed Noor, 24), who just released his debut EP titled ‘.’  in 2021.

Amir, who spoke openly about his unsuccessful electronic music audition for the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST), reflected on how a music degree could be beneficial to those who prefer structured learning, but concluded that “there isn’t much support in terms of being educated on the type of electronic music that I produce. Most of the time, music schools take a more traditional route of being technically skilled and classically trained”. Being a ‘DIY’ musician, he adds, requires a very different skill set from playing more traditional instruments.

Electronic musician and house music producer Foxela (Nigel Quah, 20), recounts a similar childhood story of quitting piano lessons and finding inspiration in electronic music label Monstercat, as recommended by his primary school friend. It’s also now the label that helped release his latest single, Fallen.

This discovery of electronic music began his rabbit hole descent into more self-directed music making, from initial searches of ‘music making games’ on Y8.com, to eventually stealing his sister’s Macbook to experiment with Garageband. Less than ten years later, and without any formal music education at the time, Nigel became the youngest Singaporean artist to reach a million streams on Spotify.

While Nigel is the only one in the group to have pursued and completed his studies in music (Diploma in Music and Audio Technology at Singapore Polytechnic), he is candid in his views on how having a formal music education “is not necessarily a rite of passage to be a musician”. 

“This is a little controversial but I’m not sure if it [my music diploma] really helped me, to be honest. Because I feel like I was going to make music anyway, with or without school, and I’ve never really been the kind of person to benefit from lessons, because when someone talks too much, I kind of zone out”. 

Like Amir and Nigel, 22-year old electronic music producer Suherman (‘Herman’) bin Suherwan (Viticz), also felt called to create as a child. “In primary four or five, I discovered all sorts of electronic music, so I looked up how to make it. That’s when I started getting on my dad’s computer and installed my first demo version of FL Studio,” shares Herman, who released his debut album, Guidance, earlier this year.

Yet, despite having developed a passion for music creation at such a young age, Herman did not feel like school music classes were spaces for him. “My secondary school did have a choir, band and orchestra, and I popped in a few times, but my style of music was not really their style. Maybe there are others who want to try music school, but they could have this impression that it’s not going to be something for them,” he adds.

With a few more years of experience under his belt, 31-year old music creative Christopher (‘Chris’) Gerard Grosse, also known as Fauxe, founded School of Altruism (SoA), a community space for learning creative music production. Described as “an alternative approach to teaching rooted in an exchange of ideas through mentorship and collaborative learning”, Chris views SoA as a response to what he has seen fail in his own formal music education experiences. These failures of music schools were what spurred his decision to leave halfway through his music programme at LASALLE to pave his own way in music in pursuit of “a new kind of 21st century music education”.

“For me, what’s very important is that music is something that you were either forced into or you fell heavily in love with,” he shares. “The way I run my courses at SoA, it’s about creativity and making your own music first.”

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Digital communities for self-taught musicians

So if traditional models of music education did not quite work for self-taught creatives like Amir, Nigel, Herman and Chris, what worked? For starters, while all four identified as being self-taught, it was clear that they did not learn alone, isolated from the world. Rather, being self-taught in music meant that their music teachers took the alternative forms of YouTube, Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), and their peers within their own musical communities.

All four cited YouTube as their biggest music teacher, simply because as Chris explains, “YouTube has everything—as silly as that feels”. Both Amir and Nigel credited music YouTuber Andrew Huang specifically as a significant teacher in their lives, because he made music fun and was able to summarise “everything on music theory that formal music education would take a month to teach you, all condensed into a 30 minute video”, Nigel explains.

Similarly, it was due to a YouTube discovery of the late American jazz pianist and educator Barry Doyle Harris that inspired Chris to commit to learning the piano for two years during the pandemic.

Describing Harris as his “mentor and whole music education experience”, what struck a chord in Chris was his philosophical approach to music, which resonated with Chris' own belief that music should be a “wholesome and holistic” extension of life, and not just an activity to keep children occupied. For the four creatives, YouTube did not just offer free resources, but was a portal to a personalised musical corner of the internet where they could explore their truest selves.

While Chris cites an individual mentor as instrumental to his music education, the others acknowledged how learning from their peers helped develop their craft. Herman speaks of finding online electronic music communities in the online virtual world platform, VRchat, as well as in a music producers Facebook group started by Singaporean DJ and producer, Myrne, where strangers come together to share music tips and resources. “When I collaborate with friends and they send me stems, I get a peek into their thought process,” adds Nigel.

Learning through play

The term ‘self-taught’ is perhaps also a misnomer. From their sharings, there was less direct ‘teaching’ and a lot more hands-on exploration, play and “discovering through trial and error”, as Herman puts it. Amir sums this up by explaining how “the experimentation process is the learning”.

Nigel seconds this, sharing how “honestly it was just listening to a lot of music and messing around in my DAW, figuring out what others did and developing my musicality through a lot of experimentation. That’s why it took me so long to develop my skills. Going at your own pace is an advantage of being self-taught. Being self-taught helps you explore not just the music but yourself as a person”.

Taking a longer time to figure things out was identified by Nigel and Amir as a challenge to being self-taught because sometimes “the lack in technical ability hinders the speed of workflow and limits the creation”, but the four also saw their slowed down musical learning as beneficial to finding their own voice.

There is no ought-to-know-how, there is only the uncovering of ourselves when we sit at the polishing stone.

– W.A.Matthieu

An openness to exploring happy musical accidents and a willingness to play by ear was also seen as a strength to being self-taught. All four shared the importance of failure, and some commented on their experiences working with more formally trained musicians, who they noted generally tended to be more risk-averse.

“I worked with a friend who has a Grade Eight in piano and a music diploma, but being taught music kind of put him in a box, saying things like, ‘you can’t do this, this note doesn’t go here, this rhythm doesn’t make sense’. What I feel he lacks is the ‘feeling it out’, which I feel a lot of people who put themselves in a rule book do,” shares Amir.

Amir goes on to share how this rigidity in thinking can also present itself in self-directed learners such as himself. “Being self-taught, the word ‘taught’ is still there, so you can kind of learn a little too much that you end up putting yourself in these rules that you created for yourself. That’s tricky because after a while, the learning can get stale”, he shares, as he explains how picking up the guitar was a strategy that freed his mind from his self-imposed musical limitations.

Going forward

While finding fulfilment in being self-taught, some also wished for more opportunities for workshops by underground creatives, as well as structured music programmes offering electronic music and digital audio production.

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More classes are not enough though, according to Chris, as the conversation so far has failed to talk about money.

“One of the biggest things I want to find is more patrons of the arts, not just for classical music, or music that our landscape has placed as ‘higher up’, but patrons of the arts for different levels. That would mean we wouldn’t have to talk about how some can only do it because they can afford it”, notes Chris.

Speaking to the four self-taught creatives, one observation was abundantly clear: all four shared an insatiable hunger to create.  It was their personal love for their craft that spurred them on to create—and often in spite of their brushes with formal music education. Chris sums up the conversation best, ending with the reminder that music is an outlet for the creative soul.

“Music can be a spiritual practice. Every religion has a prayer, and there’s so many forms of wellness activities, so always remember that practising music is for yourself. At some point the music may have been forced, but when you remove the forcefulness and just explore the calmness, practising is sometimes the only time you have for yourself. If music is calming, you’ll never hate practising”, shares Chris, as he closes our conversation, and prepares for (of all instruments) a piano performance at an electronic music festival at the very arts school that he had left years ago, only to return reinvented and reignited.

Contributed by:

Almira Farid

Almira Farid is a Baybeats Budding Writer, music educator and multi-instrumentalist with a background in ethnomusicology. Her previous work includes hosting London-based radio programme, Songs from Southeast Asia, and writing for online global music magazine Rhythm Passport. Follow her on instagram at @mirafish96.



1. Electronic Music School: A Creative Approach to Teaching Musical Creativity by Will Kuhn and Ethan Hein (2021) 

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