Dr. Samuel Wong of The TENG Company on the power of music

Creative director and co-founder of The TENG Company, Dr. Samuel Wong, talks about programmes and collaborations that better our society through music

From paintings to music, art has been a medium of storytelling and expression, speaking volumes where words falter and transcending the barriers of culture and time. Whether through the striking imagery of a canvas, the evocative lyrics of a song, or the mesmerising choreography of a dance, art has the power to provoke thought, evoke emotion, and inspire change. It is within this dynamic realm of creativity that we find ourselves drawn to the innovative works of individuals like Dr. Samuel Wong, creative director and co-founder of The TENG Company–a not-for-profit Singaporean arts organisation that reimagines the possibilities of local Chinese music.

“The organisation comprises a collective of music educators, scholars and award-winning instrumentalists. TENG’s work draws its influence from the East and the West; and the traditional and the contemporary. 鼟 (pronounced ‘tēng’) – one of the most complex characters in the Chinese language – is an ancient Chinese representation for the sound of a drum. It is a symbol of TENG’s aspiration to bring cultures together and empower future generations of musicians and audiences in and beyond Singapore,” highlights the organisation’s press statement.

Founded in 2004, the company has committed itself towards Music for Good–empowering future generations of musicians, relieving stresses, and uplifting underserved communities–all through the conduit of music and its reimagination. For instance, TENG partnered with SMRT to launch chimes that serve as aural cues for the visually-impaired commuters. Singaporeans have also noted its prowess to impart positivity.

Dr Samuel Wong, co-founder and creative director, The TENG Company. Photo by The TENG Company

Apart from his leadership role at The Teng Company, Wong is also an accomplished author, with publications that include Impressions of a Pipa Player, QI: An Instrumental Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, and co-authoring The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra. These works serve as reference texts for music examinations in Singapore​​. In addition to these creative endeavours, Wong is an educator and holds positions as adjunct faculty at the University at Buffalo-Singapore Institute of Management and Lasalle College of the Arts, where he has been influencing the next generation of musicians and scholars for over 14 years​​.

Wong’s multifaceted career, supported by a PhD in ethnomusicology, reflects a blend of artistry, education, and social entrepreneurship, positioning him as a pivotal figure in Singapore’s cultural and musical landscape.

What inspired the creation of The Teng Company?

Executive director Yang Jiwei and I discovered our love for Chinese orchestral music through fusion music, such as playing Christian hymns with Chinese instruments, when we were in Anglo-Chinese School (ACS). This revelation of the instruments’ versatility inspired us to pursue the art form further, leading to individual training and participation in groups like the Singapore Youth Orchestra.

The foundation of TENG in 2004 came from our desire to challenge the limits of the National Chinese Music Competition as past champions. Teaming up with skilled soloists, we aimed to redefine Chinese music by blending Eastern and Western elements. Our ambition was for Chinese instruments to gain global recognition, similar to how the piano transcends musical genres, symbolising our vision of crossing cultural barriers.

Can you share a moment or project that deeply resonated with your vision for using music as a force for good?

A highlight is the ongoing TENG Gives Back initiative, which has been supporting vulnerable communities for six years through partnerships with hospices, nursing homes, and treatment centres. This program embodies our “Music for Good” philosophy by using music to comfort and uplift those in need. To mark our 20th anniversary, we plan to host 50 performances in hospices and hospitals, and collaborate with the National University of Singapore on a research project to assess the benefits of live music for the sick and elderly.

What challenges do you face in making traditional music relevant and appealing to modern audiences?

Challenges exist in overcoming biases against Chinese instrumental music, as it is often seen as too traditional. We hope to make traditional music more accessible and engaging through covers and variations of popular tracks and movies. This strategy aims to renew interest and perspective in traditional music among the younger generation.

Our creative approach led to the acclaimed cover Evolution of Disney Princesses, which received international recognition and over 1 million views worldwide. Following this success, we explored themes from Pixar, BTS, Studio Ghibli, and tracks from Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings.

How does the TENG Company leverage partnerships to amplify its social impact?

We seek out like-minded partners and organisations whom we could leverage for their reach and insights, to amplify our social impact. For instance, we worked with Mapletree to provide the Mapletree-TENG Academy Scholarship to nurture a generation of Chinese musicians in Singapore. It has been really meaningful to be able to grow and see the tradition of Chinese music live on through these young talents.

This year, we will be awarding four new scholars and thus extending mentorship to up to six new scholars in 2024. Together with our 26 scholars to date, I’m excited to see how these budding musicians will unleash their talent.

How do such programs contribute to the broader ecosystem of Chinese orchestral music?

The scholarship is offered to young talents aged 21 and below who demonstrate a passion for Chinese music through a holistic music programme. During the programme, our scholars go through rigorous training with professional instructors from TENG. They are also given opportunities to hone their skills through our community outreach programmes where they perform at homes, dialysis centres, hospitals and hospices, as part of TENG Gives Back.

The tuition fee that encompasses instrumental lessons, grading examinations and course materials is fully covered for the two-year duration. We hope that through nurturing this generation of young musicians, they can go on to give back to our local community.

TENG Gives Back and Music for Mindfulness are significant initiatives that highlight your commitment to community service. How do you design these programs to meet the needs of diverse groups?

We always consider how to best use music to leave a lasting impact. We also draw from the circumstances within our local community to guide our initiatives.

During the pandemic, we saw rising levels of anxiety and youth mental health concerns around the world and wanted to do our part to help. This led us to think about creating music for wellness, to reduce anxiety levels, which gave rise to this album. With Music for Mindfulness, we incorporated a scientific auditory illusion, Binaural Beats, into Chinese instrumental music with a dynamic progression from theta to delta waves, which are associated with deep sleep, reduced anxiety and relaxation.

This created a contemporary, easy listening experience that alleviates stress. The album has since been distributed to numerous beneficiaries and organisations, allowing TENG to bring comfort and encourage mental wellness through our music.

We also worked with the Singapore Institute of Technology’s Health and Social Sciences department to run a study on our Music for Mindfulness tracks, with results showing that TENG’s music relieved stress and anxiety. Our results have since been published in the international journal Psychology of Music.

Tell us more about TENG Gives Back.

TENG Gives Back began in 2018 as an effort to forward the goodwill of our supporters. It has now become our longest-running outreach programme, where we hold musical performances for the vulnerable. Since 2018, we have reached thousands of patients, caregivers and staff from nursing homes, hospices and treatment centres with our music and set lists that have been formulated in consultation with music therapists. We are currently working with the Centre for Music and Health at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS to research how live music affects dialysis patients versus pre-recorded music through TENG Gives Back.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in running a not-for-profit arts organisation?

It is important that our programmes and operations run both as a company and ensemble, and grow year on year. One way we do so to ensure smooth operations of The TENG Company is by holding frequent fundraising concerts.

What new projects or areas of social impact does TENG hope to explore?

We are currently working on creating new music and animating a series of children’s books about natural disasters called COPE. The COPE book series is part of the UNICEF Learning Passport and we hope to educate children about what to do in the event of a disaster through the use of earworms!

We are also working on an extension of our Music for Mindfulness Series called Music for Comfort, where we will be researching the effects of monaural beats on grief.

Please share your future aspirations as an artist and educator.

Dr Samuel Wong, co-founder and creative director, The TENG Company. Photo by The TENG Company

I want to grow a newer generation of musicians, composers and artists. Just as many people believed in me and gave me a chance to succeed when I was younger, I too will pay this trust forward. TENG would also be looking to grow internationally and perform more frequently overseas as well.

What advice would you give to young musicians and entrepreneurs who want to use their talents for social good?

When embarking on a new endeavour, I follow a three-step philosophy centred around form, meaning, and self. The initial step, form, emphasises mastering the craft and technique, ensuring a solid foundation is established. The next phase, meaning, involves exploring how others have imbued their work with significance using their skills. The final stage, self, encourages fearless experimentation to create work that is both unique and identifiable. This approach allows for growth, understanding, and the ability to innovate with confidence.

The TENG Company