Follow your heart ... and goosebumps
Shun Ng is often called a “virtuoso” for his unique fingerstyle guitar playing.
The 27-year-old has performed his blend of soul, funk and blues with the likes of Quincy Jones, and won numerous accolades for it.
But as a youngster he was considered by many to be far from clever.
“I was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 8,” said Mr Ng, who will take the stage in the Bermuda Festival of Performing Arts tomorrow evening.
His school gave him a bit of extra tutoring and extra time when it came to exams; it was the societal pressure that really bothered him growing up.
“In Singapore in the late 1990s, dyslexia was misunderstood,” said Mr Ng, who was a young child when he moved with his parents from Chicago to the Asian country. “I grew up in a very academically driven society.
“Dyslexia doesn’t mean anything other than that you learn differently. But sometimes it can be seen as ‘Oh, dyslexia. That’s the reason why you’re stupid. Now we have a name for your inadequacy’.
“I don’t think it was intentional, but as a young child I really felt that.”
At 14, his life changed when a friend introduced him to the guitar.
“I had never been around music before. I didn’t grow up in a musical family,” Mr Ng said.
“He taught me my first chord and then I learnt my second. It blew my mind how these two different harmonies sounded so different. I started to realise — this is like a language.”
His parents initially didn’t know what to make of his new-found interest but once they saw how passionate he was, they bought him a guitar.
“I started disappearing into it,” said Mr Ng. “Music for me wasn’t so much a social thing, but more for solitude.”
Because his learning challenges made it difficult for him to understand written music theory, he taught himself to play the guitar by ear.
He kept the instrument near the bed. When his thoughts got too stressful he’d reach for it.
“I discovered that this language made sense to me,” he said. “Before that, there didn’t seem to be much that made sense to me. I don’t know where I’d be today without it.”
He now works in New York City. His performance in Bermuda comes just after a tour of Singapore, Malaysia and China.
Wherever he performs, he reaches out to young people through school visits or music workshops.
Today he plans to visit the Bermuda Centre for Creative Learning where students have learning challenges similar to his own. “I’m excited to meet them and see what I can offer them and also what I can learn from them,” said Mr Ng.
“It’s inspiring and also heart-warming to hear that there are many people with struggles and their journey to overcome them. It’s also a beautiful thing to feel like we can relate and understand each other’s struggle.”
At 22, he was feeling overwhelmed as a student at the Berklee School of Music in Massachusetts.
“I was being told to write my music a certain way because focus groups liked it that way,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was being stubborn for resisting or just sticking to my guns.”
Encouragement came from an unexpected quarter — a music legend.
“In September 2013, I put a video on YouTube called Get On With It,” said Mr Ng. “I couldn’t believe it when I got an e-mail from Quincy Jones saying he liked my stuff.
“I was so honoured and I said I was a huge fan of Michael Jackson and so forth. “He said, ‘Send us more of your stuff’. I sent it and forgot about it. A few days later I got a message saying Quincy spent the night listening to my music and was floored.”
An invitation to Los Angeles followed. While there, the legendary producer passed on advice he will never forget: follow your goosebumps.
“He told me ‘If you don’t get goosebumps from your music, no one else will’.”
His show in Santa Monica the following year, Quincy Jones Presents: Shun Ng, was the result of that meeting. His third album, Follow The Goosebumps, comes out this year.
Despite that success, he still has his challenges.
“I think your challenges never really go away — they just change and evolve,” Mr Ng said. “Now I have to find a way to make my music in this crazy world among so much noise.
“For me, success is being happy and being close to my family. It is about creating beautiful music that can move and touch people. It is about inspiring people who have similar struggles. That to me is success.”
Mr Ng takes the stage at the Earl Cameron Theatre at 7.30pm. For more information: www.bermudafestival.org.
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