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‘I taught Sting to read music’: Pamela Tan Nicholson

Mayo Martin

Singapore concert pianist Pamela Tan Nicholson. Photo: Pamela Tan Nicholson.

Singapore concert pianist Pamela Tan Nicholson. Photo: Pamela Tan Nicholson.

Mayo Martin

mayo [at]

SINGAPORE — Singaporean concert pianist Pamela Tan Nicholson is full of surprises. Not only did she bring up a prodigious daughter who became that certain pop violinist named Vanessa Mae, she has also deigned to rap in front of millions on Chinese television, and has even taught pop rock legend Sting how to read musical notes.

And at her comeback concert on Thursday night, Nicholson treated the audience to yet another surprise of the heartwarming variety. All proceeds for the Singapore leg of the Toyota Classics Asia Tour, where she performs with partner and violinist Vasko Vassilev, were already set to be donated to The Singapore Association for the Deaf. But the 56-year-old musician-composer took it one step further — she brought on ExtraOrdinary Horizons, a Singapore band comprising deaf performers, to play two songs she had written especially for the occasion.

Prior to the guest appearance, the group had been secretly rehearsing the pieces for months. Videos would be sent to the London-based Nicholson, who also had Skype sessions to get to know the performers. “It was quite exciting,” said Nicholson of the process. “We had to teach them through learning vibration and through partial visual observation.”

And it’s not the first time she’s done these sorts of pleasant surprises. A decade ago, during a tour to South Africa, she also rewrote a section of her show to include a music group of youths from the impoverished township of Soweto. “Making music isn’t just for people who are professionally inclined. It’s universal—even if you can’t hear or see or are just unlucky to have grown up in a ghetto where you don’t have private music lessons.”


And her willingness to open up the world of music to other people — not to mention her penchant for taking musical leaps of faith as when she came up with the whole “acoustic-techno fusion” sound her daughter came to be eventually known for — was all uniquely Singapore, she said.

She’s been based in London since the early `80s and her last performance here was way back in 1992, but Nicholson said she manages to drop by for a day or two every year or so to catch up on her “Three Fs” when in Singapore: Friends, family and food.

Reminiscing about her artistic roots, the self-professed “rebel” student pointed out how she was lucky to be able to express herself in school. “All throughout my school days, I was always allowed to express myself. My teachers used to allow me to write my own plays—my classmates were my first guinea pigs before I had a daughter named Vanessa Mae,” she good-naturedly quipped.

The multicultural environment also allowed her to develop an open attitude towards fusing things, which has been evident in her music. “That was the other fortunate thing about growing up in Singapore. I learned classical music, yes, but the rest of my family only listened to Teochew opera or Chinese pop music,” said Nicholson, who shared how she was exposed to and was taught traditional Malay and Indian music and dance. “I was brought up learning classical Indian dance or the Malay ronggeng.”

But the one thing she is most proud of in terms of her music has been the fact that she learned all her chops here. “As a pianist, I never bothered to have conservatory training. And no one can probably imagine that my entire music education was in Singapore, but that’s something I’m really proud of.”


Those solid foundations proved to be beneficial to a career that has seen her performing at various concert halls and venues around the world, working on movies such as Mulan and big events like the Beijing Olympics (in fact, for the latter, a series of performances, which included that aforementioned rapping segment).

She’s also worked and shared the stage with some of the best pop music artists, such as the late Michael Jackson. They were both special guests in a couple of shows in Seoul and Munich and she recalled how hardworking the pop star was. “Not only did he rehearse his own act but also his dancers to absolute perfection. And more than that, he was in charge of his own sound and lighting setup,” she said.

She also described Sting as a “very good friend”. At one point, Nicholson had decided to take a little break from music. Sting encouraged her to continue on but at a leisurely pace, even offering the use of his studio at his house. The friendship worked both ways: She helped the rockstar read music. “I knew that he always loved classical music. He made his debut on the classical double bass (instrument) accompanying me in a piano concerto.”

And then, of course, there’s her daughter, Vanessa Mae.

Nicholson had managed Mae until she was 21 and the ups and downs of their relationship has occasionally played out in public, as recently as the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the violinist represented Thailand as a skier (her estranged Thai father had worked at Raffles Hotel where he had met Nicholson).

“There’s no smoke without fire in so far as there is truth that our paths do not overlap much (nowadays). Obviously, through family, we know what the other’s doing,” shared Nicholson, whose view of their professional split as a way for Mae to “find her own way”.

“She’s definitely not a copy of me and in that sense, I’m very proud of her. We’re both very happy in our own ways,” she said.

Will we be able to see a mother-daughter reunion concert anytime soon? “She has always been quite a private person. For the moment, I think she still feels I’ve a very strong personality. But probably, if she feels we can work together musically…” she trailed off.

Then again, you never know. Like we said, Pamela Tan Nicholson is full of surprises.

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