Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Joseph Peters

Pioneer music director and ethnomusicologist.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

We’ve got to believe in ourselves. Everything we do, we have to create. We have created our independence and we’ve created the ability for an individual to get educated. But now we, the individuals, have to create to define ourselves. We can’t say that the culture of another country can define our culture.

Joseph Peters is a Singapore music pioneer. An ethnomusicologist and music director, he introduced the military band to Singapore schools in the ’60s. He established an extra-curricular music programme in the National University of Singapore (NUS) in the ’70s and ’80s with the formation and development of various music groups such as the NUS Symphonic Band, NUS Stage Band, NUS Electronic Music Lab and the NUS Rondalla, Singapore’s first rondalla (tremolo music ensemble). Peters is also Singapore’s liaison for the UNESCO’s International Council for Traditional Music.

Born in Singapore in 1947, Joseph Peters’ musical journey started with violin lessons in primary 2. His talent for musical innovation showed itself early on when the 12-year-old St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) student, together with his friends, transformed the school bugle and fife band into a marching band, the SJI Military Band.

Seeing the marching band perform, then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew decided to establish similar bands in schools across Singapore and sent administrators to consult a 16-year-old Peters for his advice. Peters led the SJI Military Band as its drum major in the first National Day parade in 1966, and was acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee as the only drum major out of 32 bands to throw his mace at the grandstand during the march-past. Peters also established the SJI Choir and SJI Orchestra while he was a student, and served as the president of the SJI Music Society.

Going on to the University of Singapore in 1968, Peters was requested by the Vice Chancellor Toh Chin Chye to assist respected Singapore musician Gerry Soliano in establishing and training the University of Singapore Military Band, which was the first tertiary band in Singapore. Without a formal band training system, he initiated a buddy system to ensure knowledge was passed from student to student. Peters served as band major of the University of Singapore Military Band under band director Soliano, and as the president of the Singapore University Music Society.

Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Social Science degree in 1971, he was invited by Vice Chancellor Toh to join the faculty as an administrator in the newly formed Music Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and to develop the extracurricular music and dance programme. Seizing the chance to turn his passion into a professional career, Peters accepted the offer for what would become a lifelong involvement with the university.

The Music Department closed after five years due to a number of factors, including a lack of students and Peters devoted his energy to developing and leading the extracurricular music and dance programme. In the next two decades, he established and served as musical director of the NUS Symphonic Band, NUS Stage Band and the NUS Electronic Music Lab. Ever the innovator, Peters established the Electronic Music Lab to offer students opportunities to explore and use new electronic music technology to create and perform original electronic music works.

But it was his introduction of the rondalla, a tremolo music ensemble, in Singapore with the establishment of the NUS Rondalla that made Singapore music history. He had become acquainted with the rondalla while pursuing postgraduate studies in music at the University of Philippines from 1978 to 1981. There, he joined the University of Philippines Rondalla, playing the 14-string banduria and performing at festive and social occasions. When he returned to Singapore with a Masters in Music, he set up a rondalla at the university.

With Peters at the helm, the NUS Rondalla became an ensemble of skilled musicians with a wide repertoire of folk songs and classical pieces arranged and composed by themselves, using a mix of Filipino and Spanish plucked string and tremolo instruments such as the banduria, octavina and mandola. Nurtured under his heuristic group pedagogy in which the students themselves were heavily involved in teaching, training, conducting and composing, the NUS Rondalla continues to thrive today.

After retiring from the extracurricular music and dance programme in 1993, Peters—who had by now also attained a Ph.D from the University of Western Australia—started working in media development. He served in the AV-IT sector of NUS until his retirement as Associate Director (Multimedia) in 2009. Outside of work, Peters remained a dedicated musician and composer, playing the mandolin for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the trombone and other brass instruments in school bands, and the banduria, sitar and keyboards, among other instruments. He also found the time to play in a jazz-influenced Indian instrumental band with guitarist Alex Abisheganaden.

Throughout his career, Peters has also been involved in many ASEAN projects and served many international organisations. He is the Singapore representative and liaison officer for the UNESCO International Council for Traditional Music, a committee member of the Repertoire International for Music Literature, and the Asian coordinator for Latitude South 35, Argentina. In Singapore, he is an advisor to the National Arts Council, Singapore Indian Orchestra and the MusicSG project of the National Library Board, Singapore.

Currently, Peters is employed as a Specialist Professor at the Graduate School of the College of Music at Mahasarakham University located in the Mekong Basin. He continues to lead the NUS Rondalla as music director and resident conductor. He is also developing new instrument prototypes for the establishment of a tremolo orchestra incorporating facets of Chinese, Indian and Malay musical cultures.


9 Aug 1947

Born in Singapore.


Began violin lessons with Leonardo Reyes at Far Eastern Music School, and then with Alfonso Anthony, leader of the National Theatre Orchestra.

1961 to 1967

Attended St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), Singapore.
Converted, together with schoolmates Vincent Undasan and Peter Low, the school’s bugle and fife band into the SJI Military Band, the first marching military band in Singapore.
Established the SJI Choir and the SJI Orchestra.

1965 to 1967

President, SJI Music Society.

1966 to 1967

Drum major, SJI Military Band.


Received Certificate of Merit, St. Joseph’s Institution.

1968 to 1971

Attended University of Singapore. Graduated with Bachelor of Social Science.
Band major, University of Singapore Military Band.
President, University of Singapore Music Society.


Assisted Gerry Soliano in establishing the University of Singapore Military Band, the first tertiary band in Singapore.

1971 to 1993

Administrator, University of Singapore (later National University of Singapore).

1972 to 2013

Member, Arts Advisory Panel, National Arts Council (and its preceding agencies).

1975 to 1982

Music director, YMCA Sceneshifters.


Music director and conductor, musical Fiddler on the Roof, YMCA Sceneshifters, Victoria Theatre, Singapore.


Music director and conductor, musical The Fantasticks, University of Singapore Society.
Music director and conductor, musical West Side Story, Eusoff College, University of Singapore.
Music director and conductor, musical Flower Drum Song, YMCA Sceneshifters.

1978 to 1981

Attended University of Philippines. Graduated with Masters in Music.
Studied Ethnomusicology under Emeritus Professor Jose Maceda.
Studied the Music of the Philippines under Emeritus Professor Ramon P. Santos.
Studied Music Education under Professor (Sr.) Mary Placid.
Studied and played the banduria in the University of Philippines Rondalla under Professor Rudolfo De Leon.
Assistant conductor and double bass player, Metro Manila Symphony Orchestra, Philippines.
Trumpet player, University of Philippines Jazz Lab Band.
Sitar player, Folk Trio, Bodega Club (owned by Freddie Aguilar, Philippines’ legendary composer-singer), Metro Manila, Philippines.


Composer and conductor, Jade Cloud Overture, performed on television programme Concert in the Park, Philippines. This was his first symphonic composition.


Music director and conductor, musical Jesus Christ Superstar, YMCA Sceneshifters, Victoria Theatre, Singapore.

1981 to 1987

Music Director, NUS Stage Band.

1981 to 1993

Founder and music director, NUS Electronic Music Lab.

1981 to present

Founder, music director and resident conductor, NUS Rondolla.


Founder, Folk Jazz Ensemble.


Music director, musical Samseng and the Chettiar’s Daughter, Singapore Arts Festival.

1985 to 1993

Music director, NUS Symphonic Band.


Composer, computer music work Merlion Odyssey, for the opening of the 1988 Singapore Arts Festival. Performed by the NUS Electronic Music Lab.


Head of Delegation, ASEAN Youth Music Workshop, Philippines.


Composer, dual musical-system work (Indian raga-tala and Western music) Desh for Sitar Tabla and Western String Orchestra. Performed by the New Music Forum, Singapore. Chairman, 6th ASEAN Working Group on Visual and Performing Arts. Transcribed 45 of Zubir Said’s songs and wrote commentary for published book Zubir Said – His Songs.


Head of Delegation, ASEAN Youth Music Workshop, Thailand.


Head of Delegation and Convener, Asian Composers Forum on Traditional Music.
Head of Delegation, ASEAN Youth Symphonic Band Workshop.

1993 to 2008

Lecturer in Asian Music, Southeast Asia Programme, National University of Singapore.
Lecturer in The Processes of Asian Musics, Diploma in Music and Audio Techonology, Singapore Polytechnic.

1993 to 2009

Served in the AV-IT sector of NUS, retired in 2009 as Associate Director (Multimedia).

1994 to 1999

Attended University of Western Australia. Graduated with Ph.D in Music where he developed a Macro Measure for music education - to test music curricula against societies they serve.


Head of Delegation, Asian Composers Workshop.


Chief Editor, Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics.

2000 to 2008

Lecturer in music elective (Music East and West), Singapore Management University

2009 to present

Chief consultant, Sonic Asia Music Technologies.

2009 to 2011

Co-chairman, inaugural ASEAN-Korea Traditional Music Orchestra.


Contributing writer and editor, Being Bandsmen. Written by Colin Lai.


Specialist Professor, Graduate School, College of Music, Mahasarakham University, Isan, Thailand. Teaching “Innovation and Technology in Music”.
Member, Advisory Committee, MusicSG, National Library Board, Singapore.
Advisor, Singapore Indian Orchestra.
Member, International Rondalla Congress, Philippines.
Member, Forum of Music Research Centres, Philippines.
Asian coordinator, Latitude South 35, Argentina.
Liaison Officer, International Council for Traditional Music, UNESCO.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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