Shun Ng: Learning Differently, Creating Brilliantly
By Joey Phoenix
The ample crowd of pre-teens leaped to their feet, screaming their applause as 24 year old rising legend Shun Ng played the enervating final notes of his arrangement of Michael Jackson’s iconic Billie Jean. Shun had spent the last hour performing some of his original songs and stylized covers while also talking to the kids about his unique and challenging journey as a musician.
Shun Ng’s performance on March 24, 2016 at Collins Middle School, arranged by Creative Salem, Cinema Salem, and the Salem Education Foundation, was attended by students, teachers, and faculty from all over Salem. More than 300 people packed into the auditorium to listen to Shun’s story, and of course, to hear him play his guitar.
“Are all of you guys musicians, by show of hands?” He began, and nearly every person in the room lifted their arms enthusiastically. “Wow, so, everybody!” He exclaimed, amazed. He seemed to relax subtly as he recognized that the room was full of a younger kindred spirits.
Shun Ng is a talented Boston based guitarist who has garnered international acclaim for his unusual technique and electric style. He is a three-time Boston Music Award nominee and 2015 winner of “International Artist of the Year.” He has also been listed by the Improper Bostonian as “Top Ten Local Acts that Rock.” Yet, despite his many accomplishments and undeniable skill, Shun’s path to success has never been a simple one.
One of the most significant challenges of his young life was the struggle with the learning difference Dyslexia, which prevented him from not only being able to properly read and write for most of his academic years, but also kept him from having a shot at taking a traditional life path. Fortunately through his gift for music, he was able to take an alternative route.
Shun Ng was born in Chicago, but moved with his family to Singapore before his fifth birthday. He remembers hating the idea, tethered to the grandeur of the U.S. by an early and deep love of hamburgers. “A few nights before we were supposed to leave, my family got together for dinner at a Chinese restaurant” he recalls. “I was quiet the whole night, but there came a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood up on the table and screamed ‘I hate Chinese Food!’ My mom was so embarrassed.
“I loved America, it was all I knew.”
Struggling to assimilate into Singaporean culture and before music made an entrance into his life, Shun constantly looked for ways to use his creativity as a means of expression. “I always knew I was creative” he explains. “I was always making things, molding clay, or carving soap. Because I struggled so much with reading, I felt the need to express myself in other ways that weren’t the written word. I had this deep desire to communicate, to find a way to show myself that I wasn’t completely useless, that I could do something well if I put my heart to it.”
It was almost ten years after the big move that the something Shun had been searching for finally came along. One day while at gymnastics practice, an activity that he was also markedly gifted at (so much so that he was a member of the pre-national team which trained six to eight hours per day), one of his teammates brought in a guitar and taught him to play a few chords.
“The guitar came to me at such an important time,” Shun explained. “During your mid-teens, all you want to do is rebel and be disruptive when you feel hurt. Music gave me the chance to react differently, it allowed me to disappear. When I felt no one understood what I was going through, I would go home and play my guitar. It made everything ok. Unlike school, where I couldn’t seem to do anything right, guitar was so different – like my own little world of magic where there weren’t any rules and no one was telling me how to do it.
“Music saved my life by allowing me to be more myself, by giving me the chance to express the creativity that was always in me.”
Within months, Shun had quit gymnastics and had set up music as the focus of his life. He remembers spending countless hours listening to the music of Miles Davis, James Brown, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, and countless others trying to figure out how it all worked. “I was obsessed with trying to learn things organically. With my dyslexia I couldn’t read music, so instead I would simply listen to the music and figure out from scratch what they were trying to do. It was all so interesting to me.”
Frustrated with traditional schooling and determined to have a career dedicated to music, Shun left standard high school at 16 and applied to the Music and Technology Program at Singapore Polytechnic. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the academic record sufficient to get into the program, nor was there a place for him at the school as all 42 positions were already filled. Yet, he persisted and knew that if they would only let him audition then he would have a shot.
He was right.
The school let him audition and were so impressed with his performance that, as a result, they opened up a 43rd place for him. Unfortunately, music school still had many of the trappings that traditional school had held, and his learning difference made that experience just as difficult for him.
“Two years later I received an associate’s degree from that University,” he tells the students at Collins Middle School, “but I had the lowest GPA in the school’s history.”
At the end of his time at Singapore Polytechnic, Shun turned 18 and was conscripted into mandatory service in the Singapore Armed Forces where he would spend the next 2 years. Although this was an exceedingly trying time for the young musician, he was able to find time to practice his craft and hone his skills despite the challenging setting.
“As a musician and a pacifist, as well as a free-thinker, this was an extremely difficult period of time for me.” he recollects. “I was very grateful to have been involved in the [SAF’s] music and drama company, where I arranged for different groups of musicians as well as string ensembles. It’s the best thing I could’ve done in the army, but it was still the army.”
One of the many things about this experience that Shun struggled with was the rigid hierarchy of the system, and learning to adjust once his terms of service were over. “In the [Singaporean] army you don’t have freedom of speech. You listen to orders and follow orders and never get the opportunity to ask why” he recalled. “As a musician, this is the opposite of what you need to do, and it’s taken me a while to rebuild my confidence. Being unsure of yourself doesn’t make you a good artist.”
Because he had been born in the United States before moving to Singapore, Shun grew up with dual citizenship. However, unlike the U.S. where keeping both citizenships is allowed, once you turn 21 in Singapore, you have to choose. For Shun, the choice had been made years ago. It was a choice to leave family and friends and the comforts of home to pursue a career in music in the United States. Although the support of his family and authority figures in his life was never forthcoming.
“I had professors tell me ‘you’re the worst student you’ll never make it, don’t waste your time,’” he recounted to the students of Collins Middle School. “And I would say, ‘No but I’m a dreamer, I’m going to go to America to perform and I’m going to do well!’
“I spent most of my life feeling like I have something to prove,” he continued. “People were always telling me that you can’t do this, it’s impossible, you’re Chinese, don’t go to America, go to China, you’re not Jackie Chan.” he laughed.
Despite all of his naysayers and critics, Shun chose his American citizenship, happily leaving the SAF two months early, and traveling to America with a scholarship to Berklee School of Music in hand.
Unfortunately, the difficulties that had plagued him academically since childhood followed him to school in Boston as well, and he only stayed on for two semesters. However, by this point he had begun to garner the recognition of names like Quincy Jones, Brian May, and most importantly, Boston Manager Ralph Jaccodine.
Shun Ng signed with Ralph Jaccodine Management in 2012, and has spent the last few years playing shows in the Boston area. Through Jaccodine Management, Shun has shared stages with greats like Livingston Taylor, and most recently Magic Dick, the legendary harmonica player for the J. Geils Band.
Like most great artists, Shun’s unique challenges and experiences have shaped who he is as a person and a musician, and given him a particular appreciation for the art he practices. “Like art is mixing frequencies of colors, music is mixing frequencies of sound and air particles – to me it’s like painting on a canvas of silence. It’s like magic.”
Creativity doesn’t follow any particular route, and it manifests itself differently in every individual. Where one person will express themselves through the written word, others will do so through dance, some through painting and 2D renderings, and still others through music.
“The most important thing is that whatever that something is for you,” he points out, “you have to go for it, be obsessive about it, and love it more than you love yourself. If I hadn’t loved music more than I loved myself, I never would’ve left my friends and family in Singapore to come to a place completely unfamiliar to me. I would’ve chosen family and safety.
“It’s also important to recognize that although nothing is truly original,” he continues, “you yourself are truly original. Our own perspective on something is what makes us unique, and it’s this realization that has helped me the most in my music.
“You need to find that thing you love more than anything else and stick to it, and let yourself be yourself.”
Shun Ng and Magic Dick are performing TONIGHT, Thursday March 31, 2016 at CinemaSalem at 8:30. Get Tickets Here.