Dr Azariah Tan is a well-known pianist and pedagogue in Singapore with a hearing disability. As an educator, he conducts lecture-recitals at local and international conferences as a guest artist. Dr Tan has also taught on the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp piano faculty in Muskegon, Michigan and holds master classes at various music institutions. He has also served as an adjudicator for competitions such as the Hong Kong Asia Piano Open Competition and students preparing for the O level Music Examinations. He has also worked along with Randall Faber as a Faber Method Piano Clinician.
Dr Azariah Tan was born in Singapore, the only child of a former sound engineer and a university lecturer. His parents suspected he had a hearing disability at the early age of 2.
“My mother said I would respond to words like Batman but not to my name Aza,” he said. “She thought it was selective hearing but it turned out I could hear certain frequencies better. The word Batman has a higher frequency; Aza, a lower one.”
The repetition of similar episodes confirmed their suspicions. When she put on an audiotape in the car one day and asked Dr Tan what story he was listening to, he did not answer. “She turned up the volume, and I still couldn’t hear. So she pulled over to the side, and turned on the volume full blast. I still couldn’t tell her,” said Dr Tan.
When he was four years old, a trip to a specialist revealed that he had bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which resulted from damage to the tiny hair cells in his inner ear. Their doctor advised his parents to attend a summer programme at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. This non-profit organization provided services for families with children diagnosed with hearing impairment.
His parents did not just develop methods to help their son’s listening, language and speech abilities, but they also picked up strategies to better deal with teachers and help him communicate with his peers.
His father, Leslie Tan, said: “Having a disability set him back because a lot of matters had to be handled by his parents. We were almost like his advocates.”
For instance, his kindergarten teachers were informed that he needed to sit in the front row to see their faces and read their lips to understand what they were saying. “But often we found him with his back turned towards the teacher, enjoying everybody else’s expressions. When they laughed, he laughed. He didn’t understand what was going on in class. He went through a lot of his younger years like that,” he said.
When he was five, Dr Tan was enrolled in a Yamaha keyboard class as an extracurricular activity. After observing him enjoying playing the instrument, his parents decided to start private lessons.
“My mum would sit in on the lessons so that she knew what I worked on and what I needed to follow up on,” he said, adding that his music teachers assured his mother his hearing impairment wouldn’t be an impediment. He had perfect pitch coupled with the rare ability to identify and play musical notes without using any reference pitch as a guide.
When he was 13, his parents decided to homeschool him. They thought that the mainstream education system was not ideal, given his passion for music and his hearing disability.
Dr Tan was then enrolled in a long-distance learning programme at Calvert Education located in the US. He aced the course with six straight A’s. His parents did their best to support him, and his father even quit his job to help him with his studies.
“It had a big impact on my music development,” said Dr Tan. “It was life-changing. I read books on music theory, harmony and history and was fascinated by how music works. I realized it was a language which had its special grammar and vocabulary. It helped me progress faster,” continued Dr Tan.
At fifteen, he won second place in the IX International Piano Competition at Nis, Serbia. After that, his parents sat down with him and asked him if he wanted to pursue a career in music, and his answer was an enthusiastic yes. His parents decided to support him the best that they could.
His mother wrote to every music teacher in the country and asked them if it was wise to take this ahead given her son’s hearing disability. Their replies differed; some told her it would be a difficult journey, but they would make it through, while others said it was a worthless cause. One even suggested not to make life more difficult for her son.
However, Professor Thomas Hecht, the Head of Piano Studies at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, asked to see the boy and interview him. His father recalled: “He told us that while my son’s hearing was still there (we should) give him the best because he had the talent and the auditory memory. There was no turning back.”
Dr Tan soon received a full scholarship from the National Arts Council and got into Yong Siew Toh before he even sat for his O levels in 2008. In Yong Siew Toh, he made the Dean’s List, bagged a Student Achievement Award and graduated with first-class honours.
He then went on to the University of Michigan to complete two Master’s degrees in Piano Performance and Chamber Music. Dr Tan proceeded to earn a doctorate of Musical Arts in Piano Performance from the Racham Graduate School.
After completing his doctorate and enduring all odds, Dr Tan devoted himself to academia and teaching private students. He says that teaching is delightful for him. Aside from that, Dr Tan also performs regularly in recitals and hosts Master Classes around the globe, inspiring people with his music. He has also recorded a CD – Azariah Tan Plays Chopin: A State Of Wonder – which was sold at a charity gala organized by The Ad Planet Group to celebrate 50 years of bilateral and business relations between Singapore and Japan. The track has left people mesmerized across the globe, appreciating Dr Tan’s raw talent.
Although Dr Tan tries to be nonchalant about his hearing loss – which deteriorates at a rate of 5 per cent every year – it does infuriate the musician.“Knowing that the music I hear is only a fraction of what it really sounds like, not being able to hear all the subtleties that are happening, is frustrating.”
Despite his circumstances, Dr Tan has bagged several international awards and has also played at countless outreach programmes, and charity shows to raise funds and support the differently-abled community.
In conclusion, Dr Tan, who has fought all his battles, boldly says, “Don’t be too concerned with what-ifs. It might come or it may not come, but I do what I can now, so that when it comes… I’ll be okay.”