Quadriplegic Singer-Songwriter-Composer Finds Alternative Career in Music

9.20.2017
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Written by
Sya Taha
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AbleThrive Original
Written by
Sya Taha

If he had not had his swimming accident in 1983, Gilbert Tan, 56, says he would probably still be “slogging away at an architectural drawing board in an office somewhere in Singapore.”

Trained as a draftsman who designed elevators, glass lifts and escalators, Gilbert was also a guitar teacher and knew how to play about 15 Western and Chinese musical instruments before his accident. “Of course, now I've lost the use of my fingers so I can't play any instruments that needs finger movements,” he said.

quadriplegic Gilbert Tan sings on stage

Describing himself as “a curious fella,” the musically-gifted Gilbert learned to play all these instruments while participating in the Chinese orchestra and the brass band in secondary school. He counts the didgeridoo, handpipe and kazoo among some of his instruments.

“I was supposed to play the baritone but I picked up the euphonium, trumpet, cornet, trombone, bass drum. Whatever I learned from the guitar I transferred to the piano. I learned classical guitar so from there I could do lead and bass guitar, if somebody doesn’t turn up. If the organist doesn't turn up, I'm the organist. If the drummer doesn't turn up, I'm the drummer.”

He says that having an interest in music and being musically inclined helped him carve out an alternative career in mouth painting, singing, songwriting and music production. after his accident. In an article he wrote on his website, Gilbert talks about his perspective change following his injury.

“My personal values have certainly changed. When propped on a wheelchair, points of view and perspective angles are adjusted accordingly.”

Many nights, he found himself lying on the bed, unable to sleep. This often became the starting point for his songs. “I will think of a theme, a topic, sometimes I start with the music, sometimes I start with the words, the beat, there's so many different ways.”

quadriplegic Gilbert Tan sings on stage with musicians

Citing his favourite singer as Adele, Gilbert said of her: “Adele is beautiful. Her songs, her voice, her personality, is great.” In the last two decades, he proceeded to get a qualification in busking, joined the Authors and Composers Society and produced four Christian music albums.

Becoming a music producer was initially nerve-wracking. One of the challenges was putting down the ideas in his head. “Days when I was walking around with guitar in hand where music can immediately be played and heard are now not possible,” he said.

Another challenge was in singing, since he had lost much of his vocal power after his spinal injury.

“With the help of a little training in singing lessons learnt during choir days, I have been able to recover two-thirds of my voice and project it with some force.”

Although he is “semi-retired” these days and not working on any musical projects, Gilbert counts his experience representing Singapore in 2001 as one of his greatest musical accomplishments. At the 6th Asia-Pacific Wataboshi Music festival in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, he was one of 10 finalists from Singapore and competed with 14 other countries.

“I felt very honoured. It is national pride to sing for your country,” he said. Since then, he has produced five more albums in collaboration with the Singapore Wataboshi Movement.

‘Life Life’, the song he wrote for the festival, was about “how fleeting life is.” The lyrics mirror his own life journey, choosing to embark on a less-trodden path as a visual and musical artist, chasing personal fulfilment instead of just financial stability.

For when the journey is done, there's another begun / I’ll go, I’ll go

Watch Gilbert sing ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong here:

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