(May 3, 2022) Growing up in Singapore, Alvin Seville Arumugam had to find a way to make it into the world of western classical music. Coming from a financially weak background, this Indian Tamilian had a lot to prove. The eminent Indian conductor in Singapore and the rare Indian to be selected for conducting at the Royal School of Music in London, Alvin is busy smashing the glass ceiling. “This speaks volumes about representation. The space is mostly filled with white men. Breaking the glass ceiling is tough. In western classical music, other popular Indian conductors are Zubin Mehta and Alpesh Chauhan. So as an artist, it’s imperative to break through,” Alvin tells Global Indian in an interview.
Passion to career
The Singapore-born and raised Tamilian has his roots in India. His grandfather moved from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna in Sri Lanka, but later shifted to Singapore to escape the civil war. Growing up, Alvin was surrounded by pop music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s during his childhood, courtesy, his mother. But it wasn’t until his teens that he felt a connection with western classical music. “I was 12 when I found that my school band was recruiting, and I decided to give it a try,” reveals Alvin who started as a percussionist, and later excelled in wind and string instruments. While the love for music kept blossoming, Alvin knew that getting a stable job after graduation was his goal. “Coming from a broken family, I never saw my dad, he was estranged. My mom was always working. For Asian parents, doing well academically was everything. For my mom, it was either law or medicine,” adds Alvin who later joined Catholic Junior College where he formed the symphony band. “By then I had already performed with the Singapore Wind Symphony at the Sydney Opera House,” says the conductor who went on to join the Singapore Armed Forces Band as its concertmaster.
Though Alvin had his eyes on a law course at the National University Singapore, the sudden death of his mother kept him anchored to his passion. “Before she died, she let me off the hook and told me to follow my dreams. That’s how I continued playing with the armed forces band. They paid me a salary and also funded my diploma in music,” says Alvin. At just 21, he began conducting and getting offers from many schools. His bands were not only head-turners in the biennial Singapore Youth Festival but also clinched two gold with honours in the Junior College category in 2009.
Making western classical music accessible
In 2016, he shifted gears when he did his master’s from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, NUS in orchestral conducting. “I’m truly indebted to my conductor lesson teachers Darrel Ang and Douglas Boseoek. They played a pivotal role in my journey,” says Alvin who, the same year, formed the Musicians’ Initiative, with like-minded musicians, that plugs the gap in the industry by giving opportunities to professionals and pre-professionals. “With bigger players like Singapore Symphony Orchestra, musicians who are not in the orchestra get to perform only three-four times a year. There is not much exposure. That’s where we come in and provide opportunities and provide mentorship,” adds the music director who reveals that MI has now become a non-profit.
“Classical music is quite traditional and rigid. The youth of today have no idea about it because it’s not readily available and is seen as a high-society concept. But we need to make it accessible to the young,” says Alvin who believes there is a misconception that you need a certain social standing to appreciate it. “Since this form of art is dislodged from the public, through Musicians’ Initiative, we want to bring it out to the public,” adds Alvin who found his initiative ahead of the curve even during the pandemic. When the lockdown paralysed the world of art, they found ways to perform. “Innovation is at the core of Musicians Initiative. We believe in the bold representation of classical music,” adds the conductor who performed at former diplomat Nirupama Rao’s South Asian Symphony Orchestra in 2019. “It’s an experiment to show that 80 people from across South Asia, who don’t know each other, can create something beautiful in the name of peace,” says Alvin who calls Rao his life mentor. “Merely talking to her is an education in itself,” says the conductor who left his life in Singapore to pursue an international career.
Breaking the stereotypes
Currently in London to pursue his second master’s in orchestral conducting at the Royal College of Music, he is one of the two students selected for a two-year course, and one of the the rare Indians in the college’s history. But making a mid-life career change is “risky” especially since Alvin left the comfort of his Singaporean life. “I was doing exceptionally well. But I wanted to explore the music scene internationally, and I knew if I didn’t do it now, I’d become a bitter musician who would always be thinking about what if I had taken that chance. Growth is paramount in any art,” says Alvin who calls the expenses of studying classical music one of the biggest challenges. “Coming from a middle-class Tamilian family in Singapore, it’s not easy to pay for such expenses,” he adds.
His biggest advice is to “release self-doubt – it’s your biggest enemy. Instead, take a leap of faith,” adding “there will be highs and lows. Keep ploughing through. Don’t ever look behind.” The conductor loves cycling and hiking as nature “heals” him. In 2019, he visited India for the first time and completely “loved the chaos.” Set to return this July for another concert with the South Asian Symphony Orchestra in Chennai, he will enthrall all, for sure. “It’s this passion and love for music that keeps me going,” concludes the conductor.
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