CLASSICAL music permeating her home, trips to recitals and her father’s pure determination became the notes that would eventually form the life score of classical pianist Ng Mei Fong.
Ng’s dad, a car mechanic, was the classical music enthusiast in the family. He would play his chosen music at their home in Klang every day and would also take Ng to every concert in town. Furthermore, he wanted only the best music teachers for his daughter.
“I remembered how my grandmother would accompany me as we travelled every weekend by bus to Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya for my lessons. And back then, there was no highway,” recalled Ng, 34, adding that her parents also loved to sing.
Ng started formal lessons at the age of six, and has since worked her way up to earn a Masters in Music in Piano Performance from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Somehow, she has always loved the thrill of performing.
After she completed her diploma, she played for an RTM programme and also for the KL Chinwoo Chinese choir. At the same time, she was teaching in five music schools to save enough money to further her studies.
Eventually, Ng received an award for a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance at the State University of New York, Buffalo and subsequently, a full scholarship and assistantship at the University of Illinois for her masters.
“I love music. I wanted to learn and improve myself, although I knew I was not the best student. Before I went to the States, I didn’t even think I was talented.
“But I had an aim and worked hard for it, and I guess my achievement was getting into the top 10 schools in the US with help from my professors and teachers, who believed in me and gave me the courage.”
She added that she studied under professor Ian Hobson at the University of Illinois.
For six of the eight years she spent in the US, Ng also taught at the University of Illinois, the Byerly Music School, Illinois and the Buffalo Music Centre in New York.
Upon her return in the mid-90s, she was attached with Sedaya College, Universiti Malaya (UM), Institute Teknologi Mara and Akademi Seni Kebangsaan.
“That was when I realised that many students did not know what music was all about; and they were musically not mature enough,” she said.
She also felt that the sense of performing arts and a classical music environment were greatly lacking.
“So, I thought why not start them from young,” said Ng, who still lectures at UM.
That was what inspired her to set up The Music Professionals Academy of Performing Arts in Subang Jaya three years ago.
She started off with a capital RM140,000, and her first student was Nathalie Ker, who came in when she was five and with her “legs barely reaching the floor from the stool”.
Nathalie is now 12 and completed her Grade 8 about a year ago, having skipped two grades. Her younger brother Nicholas, 10, is in Grade 7.
From the initial group of 10 students, Ng now has 60 students, the youngest being five, and 10 assistant teachers at the academy.
Fees at the academy range from RM75 (beginner level) to RM400 (3rd level Diploma) per student. She also has about 20 students at a branch outlet at Bandar Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur.
Classes involve more than just the usual one-to-one sessions.
“Many Asian students cannot express themselves well due to our culture and upbringing,” observed Ng.
“In fact, I’ve realised that kids these days have to be taught to feel more than before because children now are more indoor bound and less sensitive to the environment, and therefore less sensitive to themselves,” she added.
To counter that, Ng holds group classes where a student would play in front of other students, who would then comment on the performance. Her classes also incorporate lively physical activities to reduce the children’s inhibition.
Ng also takes her students to classical concerts to further expose them to the performing scene. She also organises piano parties and annual concerts for them.
“I hold these (events) to excite them. All my kids are geniuses; I just have to give them more confidence and encouragement. I also teach them stage presentation skills to conquer their fears.
“If a kid can go up on stage alone, play a piece, even a simple one, bow and go off, that’s an achievement in itself. All my students get to play on stage; no one is not good enough,” she stressed.
“More importantly, I want them to play from their heart; to send their music to the audience and to understand the joy of performing,” she enthused.
Ng practises a different method of teaching in her class. Called the Hungarian method, it uses a lot of hand and body movements to bring out the “colour” of music.
“The method originates from Liszt the pianist and uses the whole body to play. For example, we use the power of gravity to drop the hand and bring out forte (loud),” she said, crediting her teacher in Malaysia, Rickie Oui, as the person who influenced her on the Hungarian method.
Contrary to what many parents would think, Ng is not a supporter of examinations.
“I believe that you can learn more about music through piano parties and annual concerts than sitting for an exam. Students should have a passion for music and not stop playing after getting their Grade 8,” she stressed.
Having gone through “traditional” piano lessons which were exam-oriented herself, Ng discovered the other side to piano playing when she was in US. The system there was more focused on performances and recitals, and she decided to bring the culture back to Malaysia.
The mentality there was also that it was a student’s initiative to want to learn and to put in the effort.
“It was difficult at first to implement this culture back here because parents thought that a teacher was supposed to be serious and firm. But my kids are quite relaxed with me and I’m more like a friend to them,” she said.
“However, if students do not work hard, I let them understand that it will show when they perform at the annual concerts. This way, they will realise it themselves and want to play better,” she said.
Ng said that her biggest challenge was to let her students learn in a no-pressure environment.
“It’s easier to scold them when I teach but that’s not what I believe; it has to come from within,” she said.
“I focus on how many mistakes they improve on rather than counting how many mistakes they make. But they have to work hard too,” she reiterated.
Ng added that she makes sure every student gets to hear her play before they leave her class, and also encourages them to bring music pieces that they want her to play.
“It can be anything from Disney music to pop or jazz,” said Ng.
Besides teaching, Ng also performs, often in a duet with Yong Joh Lin, another UM lecturer.
For a mother of two, performing, running the academy and lecturing at UM can be quite demanding but Ng balances it quite well. She has a 3½-year-old girl and a 1½ year-old boy.
“If we use our time carefully, nothing is impossible,” said the determined Ng, who is also a certified Musikgarten teacher. Musikgarten® classes help develop a child’s inborn talent for making music and are tailored for younger children, starting from newborns.
For the rest of her time, Ng constantly strives to better her skills and to keep abreast with the latest developments.
“The music field is always growing, so I keep learning and improving. It’s important to let students know this too. And when you give your secret of teaching to students, you learn from them as well,” said Ng.
And the learning process is something that Ng does not seem to tire of.