Gazing at a beautiful sparkling sea view, with morning coffee, I had the honour of interviewing Andrew about his experience and advice of studying at the Sibelius Academy.
In a short summary, the top nuggets of wisdom that I gathered from Andrew are ~
- It is ok to take extra time to graduate.
- Foster connections with fellow students during your study time and keep in touch with them after your graduate.
- Apply and sell yourself boldly and bravely.
- Pursue artistic excellence.
- Keep a record of the projects and collaborations you do as a student.
- Do all of the performances that come your way to pick up momentum.
- It is common to feel like you don’t have a future after graduating.
- Have an interest in things around you, this takes you very far in your vision and finding ways for your creativity to go forward.
- There is great value in having a clear focus and two-year plans, five-year plans and ten-year plans.
- Don’t be afraid of rejection. Keep asking and being rejected until it feels normal.
- Learning Finnish is worth it.
- Keep track of your art-related purchases so you can deduct them from tax later.
Can you begin by introducing yourself and your study journey?
My name is Andrew Ng and I’m from Malaysia. My parents got me into violin when I was 3 years old, and my brother as well. I picked up many instruments, but when I was 10 I decided to focus on the violin and to really try to make it as a musician. Initially, I came to Uniarts on exchange in 2016. I ended up liking it so much that, once I finished my Bachelor of Violin Performance studies in Singapore, I applied here. I successfully got in and, you know, after five years of intense study, I finally graduated with a master’s. I know it’s a bit long for some people, but that’s how my journey went. I’m a music major, so the everyday activities in the university revolved around studying music, performing music and getting to know different sorts of possibilities for a young professional.
What made you choose Finland?
Well, it was a choice between Switzerland and Finland. I did some research on the teachers and I found out in Switzerland the teacher was quite busy with concert engagements around the world. Finland is nice because the teachers are almost always there and they pretty much review every step of the way, really guiding you and making you learn about things.
I’ve written an essay on Finland when I was about 15 or 16 as part of my Global Perspectives course in high school. I did some research about the education system and based on the PISA metrics, Finland was consistently on the top. That made me very interested.
What are you doing now in your fruitful career?
I recently won a couple of auditions. I was in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra before this, but that didn’t work out, unfortunately, and now I just got the position as the first violin principal in Lahti Symphony Orchestra. Besides that, I also have a couple of projects with my musical groups. There’s going to be a tour to France soon with my quartet. Also if we get into an upcoming competition in Norway we will tour there. It is pretty exciting.
And it’s thanks to the education and the Academy that I got to meet friends and had the support to do things like that.
What things were really beneficial or supportive for your journey?
The way in which the university facilitates connections between students has been really astounding. Other universities do not organize as many meetups, events and possibilities to connect. I think Uniarts does a really good job at this. There’s always something after concerts where you can connect. The sense of community fostered by Sibelius Academy and the rest of Uniarts in general, helps in making Finland feel more like home. If you’re a willing participant in the community, then it feels very inclusive.
Once you’ve graduated, how have you gone about finding connections and jobs?
There are advertisements, word of mouth and websites. But I think the Academy in itself is a great pipeline for finding connections that persist even after graduation. Some of my schoolmates have gone on to conduct big orchestras and become quite well-known around the world. Even though I’ve now graduated, I still find myself occasionally in contact with some friends. Once you’ve graduated, you keep in touch and you never know what sort of opportunities might come your way if you have the connections. You might find yourself being asked because someone spoke highly of you somewhere.
How does one go about building themselves up as an artist?
You have to sell yourself; this is how the art scene in Finland works. Usually, you submit grants to cultural foundations. Yeah, the point of this that I was trying to make is that it’s very open-ended, really, that you have a lot of possibilities after graduation. But you do have to build yourself up as an artist. I think that’s quite important to get these grants and to be able to work with other musicians. You have the funding at least for artists to be able to feel secure and make a living. Chasing artistic excellence in itself is a good way.
You have to maintain a presence on social media, have the ability to learn how to write grants and just apply. Don’t be afraid to write emails and ask. This is a very necessary skill set in our everyday life.
Do you have any tips for writing grants and emails?
Have done something when you are still a student. Keep a record of what you’ve done. All projects and collaborations. So you have a portfolio where you can show everyone what you’ve done and how your artistic focus is relevant to the grant you’re applying for.
Being a musician, does it ever get boring?
Not yet for me. There are still so many challenges and so many new things. I do hear stories of people getting burned out about five or six years in. I do believe that you should always seek out what feels fresh and exciting and challenging for you. If it does become a bit stale, then perhaps it’s time to look for another challenge.
While you were studying have you ever done any side jobs?
My teacher was really kind and really great in the sense that she pushed a lot for me to play with other orchestras and groups. I had invitations from friends to do crazy projects. Once I had a jazz fusion group and we recorded a bunch of pieces under some grants. It didn’t really work out, but I learned a lot from that experience. There have been invitations for the most random events ever. You have to start somewhere, whether it be trips to elderly care hospices or children’s hospitals.
Slowly but surely, you start building up this momentum. As you go through life, you pick up this rolling snowball of performance opportunities.
Have you ever had any kind of blur or boundary between hobbies and work?
I have to say, music is an obsession for me. It’s the one thing that has been a constant almost all my life. So it just feels very natural that I would continue down this path. It’s interesting because I don’t listen to classical music, which is my main subject in my free time. But I do spend a lot of time exploring other types of music, which in turn sort of helps drive this creativity forward. Because there’s just so much out there and so much to learn and so much to discover. And so many aspects of other subjects, shall we say, art and architecture and texts and poetry, they all sort of fuel music in some ways.
Like cinema, for example, the art of storytelling, and it’s pushed along by the soundtrack that’s usually in the background. There have been some really interesting soundtracks out there. Recently, I was listening to the soundtrack by this movie called The Social Network. I think it details how Facebook came to be. And you can hear that the soundtrack really reflects the data-driven models of Facebook. It’s constantly restless. It has this constant energy that’s just bubbling underneath. I find that very interesting, and it sort of helps me make some parts of classical music for me more relatable. For example, the Joker soundtrack, written by an Icelandic composer, is just genius and fascinating. Recently I’ve been listening to a bit of K-pop, a bit of folk music, rock music. It’s been pretty awesome. Things that are just around you.
I remember this advice given by my conductor and youth orchestra. He told me to immerse myself in as much as possible while you’re still studying because you won’t have that much opportunity when you’re working. If you just have an interest in things around you, that takes you very far in your vision and finding ways for your creativity to go forward.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while studying and once graduated and working?
Well, of course, it’s the shortage of money constantly. That’s the number one struggle. And of course, you don’t feel like you have a future after graduating. This is very common, I think, across all students, that you really don’t know what you will do after. The important part is to somehow realize that even in the worst-case scenario, even if you’re shivering on the park bench or something, you know what you’re doing is worth it. Even in the worst case, you can resort to washing dishes or doing some sort of menial labour just to see your dream true. I do think that if you already have a clear idea of what you want to do, it helps to just focus on that and fixate on that. I see the value in making two-year plans, five-year plans, and ten-year plans. Ask yourself, “where do I see myself, and how do I make steps to make that happen?” The skill of being able to plan ahead is the difference between making it happen and not.
How have you gone with the financial struggles part? How much of your income has come from grants compared to paid gigs or other sources?
I’m lucky enough to have my parents’ support, but I know this is not possible for everyone. In Finland, there’s Kela, which is very helpful for a lot of students. Of course, you try to make gigs. As an artist, I think you should not undervalue your work, really. Too often, it’s possible to accept gigs that are paid way too little or just not paid at all. You do your fair share of unpaid work, but it’s up to you to judge whether that’s worth it. I made the mistake at the beginning of saying yes too much and getting really too overworked, and those weren’t even gigs that paid well. Instead, you should think of it as, okay, I’m going to talk to these people and make connections for their future. You do get jobs that are paid, and it always helps to ask around.
The school has resources, your professor has resources, your friends have resources. They might be just looking for the person to do whichever job. It’s just very interesting how if you never ask, you’ll never know. Even the people closest to you could have things going on that you could be part of, and they don’t even think of asking you until you ask them. Please do open your mouth and ask and ask. Don’t be afraid of rejection, because failure is the mother of success.
How have you gotten over the feelings of rejection?
I think you have to get used to doing it. That’s the only way, to go out and get rejected every single day. It drives you on, I think. If you’re too afraid of it, then you won’t try anything. The key is to just do it until it feels normal. You only need one yes in your life, usually. That’s your big break.
What skills do you want to learn now or in the future?
I’m still working on the social media front and the grant application skills. Oh gosh, negotiation. That’s the thing I wanted to focus on, I suppose. The idea that you can structure your ask in a way that doesn’t make the other party feel bad about saying yes or no. The idea that you can negotiate your salary. Those are quite important skills for entering the workforce.
Have you been using Finnish or English?
Mostly English. The level of English is really high here. However, for working life, I’m trying to gravitate towards Finnish, because it would be easier to talk to my colleagues in their language.
I feel like they open up more if it’s in Finnish, and you get a lot more out of the country if you learn the language. You just become aware of a lot of opportunities, which are written in Finnish, and the websites are written in Finnish. If you don’t get to know people speaking Finnish, then it’s harder for them to tell you about these opportunities.
Can you imagine yourself writing grants in Finnish?
Someday. My friend does that. He did an intense Finnish course in Turku. So he’s writing grants in Finnish. It’s amazing what he’s doing. My Finnish-speaking friends make fun of him a bit for using too flowery language, but I am still really impressed. Because when I read it, it makes sense to me as a foreign speaker, and it’s written in a very nice manner. Super inspiring.
I don’t know if it helps for the grants that it’s written in well-worded language, but it’s something different at least that helps differentiate you from everyone else.
Have you ever worked internationally?
Yeah, recently I just came back from Sweden. I was gigging with the University of Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. My quartet has projects in Romania and Aldova, since our violist is from there. We go and coach the youth orchestra and make concerts with them and try to bring the appreciation of classical music to them. We get to learn folk music from their part of the country and their musical traditions, which is very fascinating.
How did you learn about taxes? Or have there been any other parts of your career, like insurance or stuff like this, that’s been difficult?
Tax deductions are a big part. I guess many people don’t know this, but you can get tax deductions for work-related purchases. If you need flower pots for your artistic projects, you can take this off your taxes. Keep the receipts.
Life of an art student
In this blog, Uniarts Helsinki students share their experiences as art students from different academies and perspectives, in their own words. If you want to learn even more regarding studying and student life in Uniarts and Helsinki, you can ask directly from our student ambassadors.