14 July 2022

"Music was all around me" - musician spotlight with violinist Ning Kam

By Lark Music

Singaporean soloist and chamber musician Ning Kam is an award-winning violinist who has performed all over the world with conductors and musicians from Yehudi Menuhin to Lorin Maazel to Louis Lortie, Marie Hallynck and many more. From her role as Artistic Director of a conductorless chamber orchestra, to co-founding a bluegrass and jazz trio, to working as Professor of Violin at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Bruxelles, Ning has enjoyed a rich and varied career. Today she is Principal Teacher at the Yehudi Menuhin School, UK, and plays a 1668 Nicolas Amati on loan from the Rin Collection, Singapore. Here, she reminisces about her early learning experiences and how she came by the beautiful instrument she plays on today.

How old were you when you learnt to play your instrument(s)?

I was six years old when I started playing the violin. My father was my first teacher and he made me work hard!

How did you learn to play your instrument(s)?

My father was a violinist, composer and painter and he also had his own music school and children’s orchestra, so music was all around me. He started teaching me the violin seriously at age six because I wanted so much to play like his other students! There was a little boy in particular in his orchestra who often played solos in concerts – he was exactly my age (and size!) and I was terribly envious of him. Dad took notice, and started teaching me. I soon joined the orchestra and yes, played many a solo alongside my little rival!

Is there a story about how you acquired your violin?

I do have a rather amusing story. Some years ago, a mutual friend of my father and a collector in Singapore rang up our home in Canada. Said friend asked what violin I was currently playing on at the time and, in a rather elusive way, said that her “collector” friend wanted to lend me a good instrument to play on. My father, protective of his daughter and with an already naturally suspicious disposition, bristled at the proposition. He probably had images of his daughter being lured to a home in Singapore with promises of a ‘Stradivarius’ and then being kidnapped! So he very firmly said ‘no, not interested’ to our friend.

What we did not know at the time, was that the “collector” was none other than Mr Rin Kei Mei, a prominent businessman in Singapore who, yes, had a beautiful and growing collection of fine instruments that he wanted to loan out to young musicians. He also played the violin himself and loved his collection, and he was immensely generous in his support for violinists – providing instruments to conservatories both in Singapore and China.

“Music needs no translation because it has an immediate effect on your soul”

He was also a man who would not take ‘no’ for an answer (I imagine that his success was due in large part to this trait). So my dear friend was caught between two stubborn senior Chinese men. Thank God, she came back to us again and explained that Mr Rin was no kidnapper and indeed, with a cursory bit of digging, we did indeed realise that he was well known in musical circles in Singapore. So on my next visit to Singapore, I did go to his house and beheld a veritable ‘buffet’ of beautiful Italian violins from which I could choose. My first choice at the time was a gorgeous Gagliano. Then in subsequent years, on many visits to Singapore, I would check in on his collection and exchange my violin for another.

I currently play on a beautiful Nicolas Amati from 1668, still from the Rin Collection. To think back on this first amusing incident where a collector reaches out to a violinist to lend her a violin right out of the blue, I have to shake my head in wonder at the blessing of it all.

If you were to learn another instrument, what would you choose?

If I were to learn another instrument, it would be the clarinet! Just so I can play the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Oh yes!

Has anyone made a noise complaint about your playing?

Yes. Quite a few neighbours have complained in the various apartments and hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. I am very conscious, especially in hotel rooms, of practising at decent hours or asking for unused conference rooms in which to practise. There is nothing worse than getting that angry knock on the door or fist pound on the wall from a neighbour who does not appreciate Bartok Concerto No.2 played full throttle! Although why on earth not…

What do you love about your instrument(s)?

How much time do we have…? I love how physics meets art in such a deeply profound and communicative way on the violin. To have a musical vision in your head so that you can touch your strings in a meaningful way that communicates it on an instrument with absolutely no “modern technology” is nothing short of a miracle. I mean, think about it! It is, in a way, why musicians often say that music transcends language or that music is an international language that can be immediately understood regardless of your background. Music needs no translation because it has an immediate effect on your soul depending on how you play.

Want to find out more about Ning or connect?

Facebook – @Ning Kam
Twiter – @ningkam7
Youtube – @humperdinck1