“Classical Music is beautiful and capable of communicating complex stories and emotions in many ways. It is not a distraction from the gifts to humanity that God has bestowed upon us but a reminder of it” -Nabillah Jalal
1. How did your family shape your musical journey?
I started learning the piano when I was 4 years old. My parents, especially my mother, was the one who encouraged me to learn the piano. Perhaps it was her way of relieving her childhood dreams through my experiences.
My family instilled that discipline in me to practice every day. By the time I was 8, practicing became habitual.
2. You picked up a profession as a classical pianist that is scarce in the Malay community. What do you think of that and how has it shape your identity as a Muslim and as a musician?
I understand and recognize that I come from a place of privilege to be able to receive piano lessons, possess my very own grand piano and attend a music conservatoire overseas. In primary and secondary school, I was the outlier for being one of the very few who play the piano. I was never able to fit in until I went to music college.
In college, I assisted in a programme called The Brent Enrichment Project. This project aims to inspire and engage young people from underrepresented groups in the borough. Through this programme, I was reminded of how privileged I am to be a person of colour, a hijab-wearing female pursuing her passion in Western Classical Music and piano performance. That cemented my belief that this Rizq has been given to me by God and he is entrusting and bestowing me to share my Rizq with others in the best way possible.
*Rizq is a concept in Islam which bears the meaning of sustenance.
Consequently, I delved into programs that involve persons of colour and youths. During summer break, I will visit the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, a boys’ home in Singapore, and give basic theory and piano lessons. It was very fulfilling to be able to share and provide the boys an opportunity to learn something that is beyond their means at that point of time in their lives.
Culture and Music – A Gift to Humanity
“Classical music is beautiful and capable of communicating complex stories and emotions” — Nabillah Jalal
3. You were the first Malay Singaporean to attend the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. What were some of the challenges you faced in your pursuit of becoming a professional pianist? How big of a part does your Malay Singaporean identity play in your music career and vice versa?
I never went to piano academies or camps when growing up. My music and piano education was limited to weekly lessons and MEP at school. It was until college when I realized how competitive it could be. In hopes of catching up to the same playing field, I started practicing 10-12 hours a day on my grand piano until one day, I could not rotate my wrist anymore. For more than three months, I had to halt my practice and go for therapy. This painful experience made me realize that instead of competing with others, I should be competing with myself. I should strive to be the best that I can be and become a productive member of society.
In terms of identity, there are days when I ask myself if I’m Singaporean-Malay or Malay-Singaporean. Not much was known about Malays in general in the UK, and I felt the urge to introduce and explore my culture. This led me to collaborations with local composers like Syafiqah ‘Adha and Albert Tay. My final year thesis was also on Malay Film Music.
4. You have collaborated with numerous Singaporean musicians and artists; you are also an active advocate for youth, cultural and community programs in Singapore. What are some of the potential growth you see in the SG music community?
There is a great number of music and arts programs these days, a far cry from what it was before. It is up to the community to experiment with new things now! Art does not need to be complicated and Art is everywhere.
5. Senior minister Sim Ann has been a big supporter of your endeavours. How has the Singapore government support your efforts in giving back to the Muslim community?
I was a recipient of the Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award. I also received funding from the Bukit Timah Community Center as well as the Trailblazer Organization for my studies at the RCM.
Upon returning to Singapore, I launched two rounds of ArtSee, a program where we introduce Western Classical Music, Malay Traditional music and Fine Arts to underprivileged youths. This project was supported by Mendaki Community Leaders Forum. The funding and performance opportunities signal that the government is aware of covering different segments of the society and providing equal opportunities to pursue one’s passion.
Currently, I sit on the steering committee of the Community Leaders Forum, where we give out seed funding to budding social enterprises. I am also on the committee of the Anugerah Belia Cemerlang (Excellent Youth Award). In addition, I contribute to the National Youth Council.
6. You’re a role model for aspiring young musicians, the Malay community, and women alike. What values do you hope to instil in your students/ the younger generations?
What we have is a product of hard work, effort, sacrifices, luck, magic, and blessings from our family, friends and the community. Therefore, we should give and share what we can to ensure the continuity of this ecosystem. More importantly, leave no room for regrets.
7. Muslim culture and classical music are distinctively unique in its own way. Merging both is challenging and exciting. What is your take on this?
Much of the Muslim culture is based on oral traditions with emphasis on pronunciation, musicality, rhythm, and melody in Quranic recitation. It is the beauty of God expressed and appreciated through the ears.
I see classical music in the same way. It is beautiful and capable of communicating complex stories and emotions. It is not a distraction from the gifts to humanity that God has bestowed upon us but a reminder of it.
This common philosophical connection between the two is where I ground my work in. The differences in style, techniques, and approaches across cultures are present due to differences in religious beliefs and context, but these are simply rich inspiration to be drawn on as a music maker!
Pianist and Steinway Educational Partner, Founder and Head Teacher of NJ Studio
Born and raised in Singapore, pianist Nabillah Jalal graduated in 2016 with Honours from the Royal College of Music in London, studying under Professor Nigel Clayton. The first Malay-Singaporean to study at the Royal College of Music, Nabillah received the prestigious Goh Chok Tong Youth Promise Award (Distinction) in 2011 and is a recipient of the Live It Up Bursary. Her education is also supported by Trailblazer Foundation Ltd and the Bukit Timah Community Centre.
As an active advocate for youth, cultural and community programs, Nabillah frequently guest performs at private events and award showcases. Nabillah continues to produce and perform contemporary music that speaks to her Malay-Singaporean identity. She has done a performance art piece commissioned by the ArtScience Museum and performed original music for Cita Seni, a fashion and performance art showcase presented by the Arts House Singapore.
In 2018, Nabillah launched NJ Studio, a boutique piano school. Every year, NJ Studio aims to sponsor classical music education for selected students under MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme.
Nabillah now sits on the steering committee for CLF Labs, Anugerah Belia Cemerlang, and the People’s Association Youth Movement amongst others.