Ho Wen Yang

An interview with pianist Ho Wen Yang.

5_3_3_wenyang.JPGSingaporean pianist Ho Wen Yang, who accompanied the Genée competition in Singapore (2009) and London (2010), was awarded a place on one of the only courses in dance accompaniment in the world, the M.Mus (Pianist for Dance) run by Scottish Ballet in association with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Wen Yang was a graduate in Computer Science before turning to dance accompaniment. Jonathan Still met him in London just before he started the course to find out more.

You’re on your way from Singapore to Glasgow to start on the M.Mus (Pianist for Dance) programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. How did that come about?
Firstly, besides my general interest in playing for dance, I felt I needed to know about all the different aspects of dance accompaniment that there are. Where I come from in Singapore, most of the aspects are concentrated on playing for classes in the studio, and I’m interested in learning more about playing for rehearsals, being a repetiteur and all the other different things you don’t get in a vocational school. Also to see how dance accompaniment is taught, because, to me, that’s always a mystery. I think that up til now, most of us dance accompanists have figured out how to do the job through trial and error, so it will be great to have a guide, both for myself, but also to see what the guide is, how effective it is, and how it can be implemented or improved.

And how do you feel about the next year in Glasgow? Are you excited?
Of course, I’m very excited, particularly about the music side, the piano training I’ll get, as it will be my first official training in music! At last I’ll get know how to play a piano properly, hopefully! It’s also exciting to be working with other mentors and see what advice they can give us, see them at work, and about working with Scottish Ballet, to have a view of what it’s in a big company. I’m excited about seeing rehearsals because I’ve never done it before and I’d really like to see the collaboration between conductor, pianist and artistic director and the dancers themselves.

When you say you’ve had ‘no musical training’ before, I think you’re being slightly modest, aren’t you, because you’ve played brilliantly for two Genée International Ballet Competitions, Singapore and London, and worked with me at RAD headquarters for several weeks a couple of years ago – you must have trained somewhere!
Oh yes, I mean I had ‘enrichment classes’, that is piano classes for about six years when I was very young, and then I gave it up. That was the foundation of my piano playing, so I could play the piano even though not very well. I only started to get back to it a lot later, probably when I was about 16. I think a lot of the training was more or less on the job when I stumbled into dance accompaniment for RAD classes as a part-time job. Some of my fellow dance accompanists who were more senior than me would come up behind me and slap my shoulders and say ‘Relax your shoulders!’, you know, ‘Stop using your forearm!’, and I think that was the main part of my training.

So it was on the job training?
Wen Yang: Yes, literally! They helped me a lot to be conscious of what I was doing, and a lot of it was about watching how others play, watching videos on Youtube. So that was my informal training, I suppose.

And I know that in Singapore you play a lot for contemporary dance as well. So what is it about ballet in particular, what’s made you so interested learning to play for ballet specifically?
I think I find playing for ballet interesting and challenging because it’s like a complex puzzle. In ballet there are certain boundaries and it’s a challenge to work within those, to see which of them can be tested or be inverted. You get tension and release in movement and music and it’s a question of appreciating how those can be seen in both ballet vocabulary and the contemporary vocabulary. I find working in ballet interesting because it’s so ‘ancient’ and so fixed that it’s challenging in a sense of how to break the barriers, how to make it fresh and new, how to make it relevant to now.

And you’re not just going to Glasgow, are you? You’ve signed up for a course in Dalcroze Rhythmics, is that right?
Yes. To me, the main challenge of dance accompaniment is that I feel that it plays a very important role in training the dancer in terms of technique as well as other aspects such as musicality, expressiveness and artistry. One of the challenging things I found from my job is to train musicality – and what is musicality? And in my research I learned about the Dalcroze method that has been taught in some of the ballet schools like Central School of Ballet and the Royal Ballet School, to cultivate musicality in dancers, but also in musicians, so I thought it would be a great course to find out more about that. Eventually I’m interested to see if it can be incorporated into a ballet class in itself. What are the exact elements of Dalcroze methods that contribute to this training of musicality. Is it transferable into a ballet class? Because since Dalcroze is a certain progression of movement with music, and since ballet is movement, can you translate it from a Dalcroze class into ballet training? That’s my main interest.

And last but not least, how do you feel about the weather in Glasgow, coming from a nice hot country like Singapore?
It’s very cold. It’s 8 degrees Celsius for autumn. I’m dreading winter, but I think I’ll get by. Hopefully I’ll get some snow again – the first time I saw snow was in London two years at the Genée International Ballet Competition. This will be the second time I’ll see it, that’ll be interesting!

Update, March 2014: Wen Yang graduated successfully from the course, and is now back in Singapore as principal pianist at the School of the ArtsMoving Notes is Wen Yang’s website about music for dance.