Music to his ears

SELF-TAUGHT SUPERSTAR: Ron, who is 80 percent deaf, performs on the piano regularly at Changi Village. He said: “If I see myself normally, other people will see me normally as well.” (Photo courtesy of Ron Tan)

He is a budding entrepreneur and a passionate advocate that anyone can do anything. NIKI ISKANDAR meets a student who overcame his disabilities to play the piano.

In Singapore, it is common to hear of parents spending thousands of dollars to get their children to play the piano. So it is quite amazing to meet a student who not only learnt how to play on his own, but is also 80 percent deaf.

But being a special needs student has never stopped Ron Tan Zi Kai, 21, a second year student from the School of Sports, Health and Leisure (SHL) from pursuing his passion.

His remarkable story only started when he was 17 and started watching YouTube videos, like most young teens. “I was quite inspired by this one guy, his name is Jon Schmidt who is not disabled or anything. But the way he plays the piano is pretty interesting,” said Ron.

Schmidt is a well-known American YouTube artist and his group is called the The Piano Guys. “Their playing style is really amazing and I was impressed with how they put their emotions and passion into what they are doing,” he said.

Before RP, he was from Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), where he started playing the piano seriously. He joined a piano club in NYP and the passion blossomed further.

“When I first joined, I did not even have a piano at home for the first few months and my only opportunity was to play at the club, so that’s what I did,’’ said Ron.

When he finally got a piano, he would still find the opportunity to test out pianos at music shops at Bugis Junction after school because he passed by it every day. “I realize different pianos produce different sounds and it makes me want to find out more about that,” he said.

In his free time, he would go to pubs with a piano player so that he could watch them. “I was very interested in the instrument and how it could produce such a beautiful sound.”
But his talent and determination has paid off. Ron, with his fellow classmate Danial Bin Hamdan, was recently featured in a video by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) under the Young Social Entrepreneurship (YSE) programme for their proposed social enterprise called Inclusive Arts Movement (I.AM).

I.AM is a talent management outfit for special needs performers. The idea for I.AM was first conceived at the IMPACT! competition on social businesses which the Centre for Enterprise and Communications (CEC) organised at the end of 2012.

The team won the first prize in this competition. They then submitted a business plan for which they were shortlisted for mentorship and won a study trip to Thailand.

“Danial and I participated in the IMPACT! competition and we won it. From there we came to know about the SIF and decided to come up with a plan,’’ said Ron. The boys learnt how other social enterprises came about and polished their own ideas.

Ron added that the competition gave them many opportunities to attend workshops both in Singapore and Thailand. This helped them understand how social enterprise works internationally and the various definitions of non-profit organisations in different countries.
He plays regularly at the Changi Village hotel and is keen on continuing his love for music and business.

Ron’s mentor Mr Lyon Lai, Academic Staff  from SHL has many wonderful things to say about Ron.

Mr Lai says that Ron manages to juggle school work and his business ideas and he also works to support himself. “Ron’s  experiences and struggles in life is really an example for others to follow. He never sees something as impossible.”

Ron’s company’s mission is to help those with disabilities. When asked whether people treat him differently due to his disability, he shook his head and said: “If I see myself normally, other people will see me normally as well.”