Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Tay Teow Kiat

Pioneer of Chinese orchestral music in Singapore.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : >15mins

If someone says you are good and gives you 100 marks for your work, just accept 40 marks. That’s enough.

Tay Teow Kiat is a pioneer of Chinese orchestral music and often referred to as the founding father of the Singapore Chinese orchestral scene. Largely self-taught at the beginning of his career, Tay was instrumental in the rise of the genre in the Chinese music world. He founded Singapore’s first established Chinese orchestra at the former Radio Television Singapore, which was later known as the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Chinese Orchestra, and then moved to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to become the City Chinese Orchestra. Since then, Tay has taken his various Chinese orchestral groups to acclaimed performances overseas, and also been invited to lead different orchestras in China and Taiwan. In 1993, Tay received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

Born in Singapore in 1947, Tay Teow Kiat had his first encounter with music when he had to take leave from his studies for half a year when he was 13. Recuperating at home, he learnt how to play the mandolin from his elder brother. Gaining interest in music, Tay learnt to play the dizi with his schoolmates when he returned to school.

In 1960, he started attending Chung Cheng High School. There, he decided to try out for the school’s Chinese orchestra with his schoolmates. Choosing to audition for the plucked instruments section because of his experience playing the mandolin, Tay was soon recruited into the orchestra. This began Tay’s lifelong association and passion for Chinese classical music and instruments.

Showing a natural affinity for the orchestra’s different instruments, Tay started first as a qinqin (a two-stringed Chinese lute) musician, progressing onto a variety of other instruments. Eventually, he was tasked to play the sanxian (a three-stringed Chinese lute), an instrument that no one else in the orchestra played, meaning that he had to research the instrument and teach himself. Studying the sanxian deepened Tay’s love for Chinese music, and the time and effort spent in mastering the instrument paid off when he was asked to give a solo recital in school when he was in secondary four. Tay would go on to study the instrument under Southern folk music artist Yang Hao Ran, a reputed sanxian and pipa musician.

After graduating from Chung Cheng High School, Tay attended the Teachers’ Training College and attained his diploma in teaching. At the same time, he was a sought after music teacher who would go on to teach at many schools and organisations. In these early days of teaching music, Chinese orchestral scores were hard to come by so Tay memorised entire pieces and arrangements that were played on Rediffusion radio station, transcribing them himself for his lessons. After graduating from the Teachers’ Training College, Tay went on to teach at Siglap Secondary School and then at Dunman High School in 1980, where he would raise the profile of the school’s Chinese orchestra as its music director and conductor.

That same year in 1980, Tay also began studying under Professor Li Yi of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, who would have a great influence on Tay’s musical development. Initially learning sanxian from Li, Tay was advised to leave the sanxian behind and concentrate fully on conducting. Having made the switch, Li guided Tay throughout the ’80s, enriching his knowledge of Chinese music and instruments, and also enabling him to get in touch with and learn from other established Chinese musicians.

This focus paid off in May 1992 when Tay led the Dunman High Chinese Orchestra on a tour of China, performing in Beijing and Shanghai. This was to be one of the highlights of Tay’s time with the orchestra as they impressed the Chinese audiences greatly with the quality of their playing, leaving a lasting impact on Chinese music and education.

He brought his expertise to Radio Television Singapore in 1974 and founded their Chinese orchestra. The orchestra would become the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Chinese Orchestra and then eventually become the City Chinese Orchestra, a musical organisation in its own right. Throughout this evolution, Tay remained the orchestra’s music director and conductor, leading the orchestra on many well-received performance tours of China.

Tay’s reputation as a conductor grew steadily over the years, and he came to be regarded as the leading figure in Chinese orchestral music in Singapore. In 1985, he was invited to be a visiting conductor of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, making him the first Singaporean to conduct a professional Chinese orchestra in Shanghai. In 1998, he became the first chairman of the Singapore Chinese Music Association.

Always searching to expand his musical knowledge and horizons and better his conducting technique, Tay studied conducting with Professor Cao Peng of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1999. He also enrolled himself at the Beijing Normal University, China in 2005, graduating with a Ph.D. in Chinese music conducting.

Over the years, Tay would receive much recognition for his work in Chinese orchestral music. He received the Pingat Berkebolehan (Efficiency Medal) in 1989 and the Long Service Medal in 1997. In 1993, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music in Singapore.

Tay currently continues to pursue orchestra conducting. He is currently chairman of the Singapore Chinese Music Association, and music director of the City Chinese Orchestra and Ding Yi Music Company.


27 Nov 1947

Born in Singapore.

1954 to 1957

Attended Ai Tong Primary School.

1958 to 1960

Attended Maha Bodhi Primary School.

1961 to 1967

Attended Chung Cheng High School.

1968 to 1970

Attended Teachers’ Training College.

1971 to 1979

Teacher, Siglap Secondary School.

1974 to present

Music director and conductor, City Chinese Orchestra (formerly known as Radio Television Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra).

1980 to present

Chinese language teacher, Dunman High School.
Music director and resident conductor, Dunman High School Chinese Orchestra.


Studied conducting and music theory under the esteemed musician and educator Professor Li Yi of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.


Visiting conductor, Shanghai Chinese Orchestra.


Received Pingat Berkebolehan (Efficiency Medal). Member, Artistic Committee, International Competition on Chinese Musical Instruments, Beijing, China.


Received Commendation Plaque, Extra Curricular Activities Centre.


Awarded the Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.


Received Long Service Medal, National Day Awards.

1998 to present

Chairman, Singapore Chinese Music Association.


Studied conducting under the tutelage of Professor Cao Peng, Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

2000 to 2009

Music director, East Zone Schools Chinese Orchestra Development Centre.

2005 to 2007

Attended Beijing Normal University, China. Graduated with Ph.D in Chinese music conducting.


Music director, Ding Yi Music Company.


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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