Despite having a list of accomplishments as long as your arm, oboist and conductor Howard Ng can tell a good yarn, and be self-deprecating in the nicest way.
“At school, I took up the one oboe we had at the Tshung Tsin concert band. I didn’t get much instruction how to play this instrument properly, and when I wanted to go further, I was rejected by all but one of the universities I auditioned for. UCSI in KL accepted me because, they said, my English was reasonable, which showed I had to be halfway competent. And they had no oboe in their orchestra!”
Just so you know, to date, Howard has played in fourteen countries on three continents. These included work with ensembles such as the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (where he has also appeared as soloist and chamber musician), the Asian Youth Orchestra (2010 and 2012), and many other notable ensembles in the region.
“I worked very hard at UCSI. After one year, because I was a little bit ambitious I suppose, and I wanted to prove that I can do this thing. I re-auditioned at the National University of Singapore (NUS).”
This time, Howard was accepted, and after four years he achieved a bachelor of music in oboe performance (honours) from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore.
From 2011-2013 Howard was principal oboist of the Malaysian National Symphony Orchestra. After that he freelanced for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He described what being a working, classical oboist is like.
“In the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, the salaries are very high. Auditions are international and people will buy a plane ticket just to audition for a job. If they don’t get it, they just go back. Because everyone wants work! I auditioned last year just for the heck of it. Around 10 people auditioned, of maybe five nationalities. An English lady got the job that time round.”
Howard was quite sangfroid when talking about the high standards of musicianship in the MPO.
“There are four full-time oboists at the Malaysian Philharmonic, and they are all foreigners. I have been through that audition process many times, we can hear everyone playing, so it’s not difficult to know who plays better than who. None of us Malaysian oboe players play as well as the ones overseas, and it is fair that [at this time] the full time positions are held by foreigners.”
Howard’s got another side to him; actually, several sides. He’s entrepreneurial, and he’s an organised person. In many ways, he uses these pragmatic qualities to bring more music and art into his own life, and to promote music and art for other people.
Art by Mira Hector.
There are displays of art on the walls of his cafe, The B Side, which is in Lido Plaza, Penampang (Near to Shell Station, off Jalan Penampang).
The B Side is a light, airy (and air-conditioned) coffee house, modern but with a touch of the familiar. It has local art decorating its tall, white-washed brick walls.
“We do what we can to support local artists. We give them RM500 each time they set up an exhibit here, for petty expenses. They might use the money to frame a painting; if it’s a new work they might use the money to buy paint or paper. They understand it’s just for expenses. We don’t commission, because it’s too expensive. We carry their business cards by the cash desk, and we encourage people to take them.
The B Side has been open for one and a half years. We used to exhibit monthly, but this year we decided to carry a work for two months. This gives returning customers a chance to become familiar with a work, and I think the artists really appreciate it.”
The B Side is part of Howard’s contribution to the family business, which is property development. He acknowledges how difficult it is to make a living from playing the oboe.
“Yes, you get a tour to Ireland, you play an international concert, which is fantastic. But then the promoters say: We fly you to Ireland, we sort out your accommodation, therefore we don’t pay you a fee. Of course, you say Okay! Because you get to play at the Royal Academy in Dublin, and you put that on your cv. You get to walk around Dublin and taste real Guinness. But all this doesn’t sustain your life for 365 days of the year. I guess I had to learn that the hard way.”
Most of Howard’s musical work is outside KK. He will be in KL in March, and Thailand after that. Although he is not making a living from playing classical oboe, he wants to play at every opportunity.
“The jobs I get are very serious, because they know I am serious about playing. I plan ahead. With classical music, you need to know in advance what is expected of you. For example, to play a 15 minute, unaccompanied oboe solo piece, which is very scary, I am spending at least an hour a day, every day, working to get it right by April.”
Howard is a faculty member of the Silpakorn Summer Music School in Thailand.
“Thailand has treated me very well. I think they like me because I’m organised. Not a lot of musicians are organised. They think, because they play well, that’s all they need to do, turn up and do that. So I try and do a little extra.
I teach at a summer course at Silpakorn University. They get support from the Siam Commercial Bank, and they go to Pattaya, to a beautiful resort, and teach orchestral music. Students audition and join a workshop with a famous conductor, where they do nothing but orchestral music from morning till night. Then they perform two concerts, one in Pattaya and one in Bangkok to the general public.
It has been very successful. I brought Malaysian students for the first time, there were 2 oboe students, viola and violinists. Plus I was paid properly! Not just an air ticket and a hotel.”
Howard is discovering his strengths. He is the creator of the Malaysian ABRSM Wind Music Prize, a competition and platform for Malaysian wind players, now running in its 3rd edition.
In the field of chamber music, he leads Ensemble Virama, a new chamber music initiative, and is developing himself as a conductor, with two engagements in 2015, working with the KLPAC Symphonic Band and the High Winds Ensemble.
On a lighter note, he was emcee for a KK event last year.
“At this event, a local quartet played classical music for the first half of their set. They played what they do well, and the audience was enthralled. In the second half, they played pop songs, thinking that a general audience would want to hear pop. After the initial recognition of a few songs, the audience tuned out, because the quartet could not do pop songs as well as pop musicians! It’s hard to do pop songs well! It’s hard to do any genre of music well.
As emcee, I sensed that change in the audience. It helped me see that you mustn’t assume to know what your audience wants.
As a musician, you should do what you know best, and do it to the best of your ability. If you do that, your audience will hear and appreciate it.