Iris Koh is an accomplished pianist, music director, choral conductor, vocal coach and composer. She has worked extensively with the local and international schools in Singapore with experiences in choral, classroom, piano and voice methodologies.
She graduated from the Elder Conservatorium (University of Adelaide) with a B.Mus majoring in Musicology while also being a pianist at the Elder Conservatorium Wind Ensemble and did extra studies in Music Composition at Flinders Music. She specialized in Choral Conducting and Aural studies during her postgraduate years at the University of Queensland. There she learnt about the philosophies of Zoltan Kodaly and the revolutionary approach to Music Education through solfege and voice. Since returning to Singapore in 1999, Iris has grown as a musician, educator and entrepreneur.
ChorusArt Pte Ltd is the concert promoter for the Vienna Boys Choir event in Singapore from 2018.
My main impulses are to share a message, tell a story and to allow music to be a vehicle for people to express what they can’t express in words, to allow people to feel, to connect to a universal experience of what makes us human. Even though we are all unique, we go through similar experiences: We feel fear, love, loss, etc. Many people describe music as a language without words. I think that’s true. As a musician, I think we are very lucky as we have this palette of sounds in our hands that help to illustrate what can’t be put in words. We can make something beautiful with sounds. And beauty is such important aspects of life because nature is beautiful, and it enriches our soul when we hear something beauty or experience beauty through music / a piece of art / a dance etc.
While we may not die physically if we don’t have music or art, I believe we die spiritually if we do not have music or art in our lives. There would be a big void of emptiness which I believe is worse than death. So I write to stay alive spiritually.
2. Which instrument(s) do you play?
I play the piano, the electron, sing (voice) and conduct choirs.
My first instrument was the election. My grandmother had a pedal organ in her house and my aunt was the one who played it. Since I lived with my grandmother when I was young, I loved to play on it. When I was around 6 years old, my family brought me to church and there was a election there and I would always stand next to the organist and be drawn to the music. My aunt told my mom to give me music lessons since I have a strong inclination. I remember Mom asking me one day “Would you like to learn the piano or organ?” I said, “I want to learn the same instrument that is in church.” So that’s how I started my formal music lessons and got enrolled in Yamaha Music School.
There are so many. In my younger years (around 12 years old onward), I was a scholarship student with Yamaha Music School, so I got to perform at NUH, Crocodile Farm, the opening of Changi Airport Terminal 2 (dressed in space suits), toured and performed in schools in Singapore, where after the concerts, the students will queue up to ask for my autograph. It was a surreal experience. Then as I grew older, going to study Music in Australian universities gave me very valuable and precious experience. I remember playing the piano at this very big festival in Australia with the combined university choir, toured with the Elder Conservatorium Wind Ensemble as the pianist. Then as I came back to Singapore, I remembered conducting a massive choir of hundreds at the indoor stadium for a Catholic Church event. To date, that’s the largest sized audience that I’ve performed for. Others are: winning the Sound of Music competition after an intense competition, being Artistic Director of the launch of President Challenge 2006 and putting a concert of my original music for the first time in 2013. In all of this, meeting new friends.
Yes. All throughout my music career. I guess it all started when I was the church organist at age 11 and had to play in front of hundreds of people every Sunday. I remembered one day, the regular church organist didn’t turn up and the choir mistress said to me 5 minutes before the mass started “ Iris, you play.” and that was it. I was thrown into the deep end of the water and just had to swim. I think playing the organ in church every Sunday helped to develop me musically in a big way. It wasn’t about me. I had to play so that the whole church could sing and celebrate mass. There was no time to be nervous, doubt or be scarred. The “show” must go on. So yeah, I think that trained me for my public performances outside of church with Yamaha and being a Children’s Choir, I was one of the most advanced musically, so I also got to lead the choir for rehearsals and trained them up for Christmas, Easter, Sundays and the works. It was time and energy well-spent.
6. How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
I just move on. Sometimes it can be awkward, like when there is a technical error (e.g. the MP3 can’t be played, the microphone or keyboard got no sound) which is beyond my control and I get frustrated cos it’s a bit of a helpless situation, but the “show” must go on. I’m much better at handling mistakes I can control than mistakes which are beyond me.
7. Do you get nervous before a performance or a competition?
Yes definitely. I still do. I don’t think no matter how experienced we are, we are not going to feel nervous. We get better at managing it but I think the nerves kind of helped to push us beyond our normal performance and gives the performance that “extra” edge.
Practice, practice, practice and then practice again. Don’t practice the same way / the same old thing. Always improve on your practice. Find an effective way and you will know it when you can master something quicker and easier and the passage you are practicing sounds better. Many people do not know how to practice effectively and then they give up thinking they are not good. Find a good teacher. That’s how the craft’s been passed from generations ago. A good teacher can help you shorten your learning curve and help you save precious time and give you insights only a practitioner can give you. Invest in your education.
9. How often and for how long do you practice? What is your practice routine?
These days, I don’t practice as much as I used to and would love to. I’m kind of “event” triggered. So I go create an event / put myself in an event that will require me to practice and I practice. I’ve recently started a routine which is to write my journal in the mornings as a practice to get my creativity juices flowing and unblocked. And I attend workshops, read books and attend classes by other experts in the field to constantly improve what I do. So I guess that is a different type of “practice”.
10. Do you teach music?
Yes, I do. I teach piano, singing (musical theater) , aural training, music theory and song writing. I was engaged once to teach Music for IB (private tuition), it was pretty hard but I’m happy the boy received a distinction.
11. How do you balance your music with other obligations?
Well, I suppose Music is my life. When I’m doing something with music, I feel balanced.
Today we have an abundance of music made readily available because of the internet. Listeners are spoilt for choice. Unfortunately, copyright laws haven’t moved as fast as music distribution has and many musicians are still not able to make a living with writing music alone.
13. If you didn't become a musician, what would you be doing right now for a living?
I guess right now besides being a musician, I’m already an entrepreneur organizing music concerts and events as well as building ikibook, the ecosystem for creators. I’ve always loved to multi-task and been a Jack of all trades in a way and what really got me into business back in 2004 was the fact that I knew that for my music to go somewhere, for it to make a bigger impact, I must know about business. It’s not something that comes naturally like music to me and it’s something that I needed to learn a lot. I’m still learning and improving.
14. Any last words?
The world is changing very fast. It is not enough to be just good in music. To be a successful musician, it is important to learn how to market and promote yourself, learn about business and technology and keep up with the times. Because anything you are not willing to do, someone else will. So, if you want to excel in this industry the only way is to keep on improving. There is no easy way. And attitude. There are lots of talented people out there. But a talented person with good attitude. That person will get the job. Stay humble, stay hungry and stay relevant.