Robert Cheng-hai Tan

1936 - 2014

Robert Tan, pianist, singer, and choir director, taught for 36 years in three different Seventh-day Adventist academies in California.  Following retirement in 2004 he continued to be active in music activities and studio teaching.

Robert was born and raised in Singapore, one of seven children of Chin-Khin and Lena Sim Tan.  His mother was very artistic and talented and by nature a sensitive person. All of the children enjoyed music, and both Robert and an older sister would pursue careers in music. Robert also had a gift for design and making clothes. He designed wedding dresses for friends and made some of his own clothes while attending Union College.

He attended and graduated from high school at the Southeast Asia College (Malaysian Seminary) in 1953 and then completed coursework and testing through the Royal School of Music in London, England, earning a teaching diploma in performing arts and piano in 1958. He came to the U.S. in 1959 and enrolled at La Sierra College, now University, as a music major. At the end of a year there, he left, hoping to go Eastman School of Music but because of financial circumstances ended up at Union:

My brother, Donald, was at Union and I decided to work with him as a colporteur in the summer after my first year at La Sierra.  Although my goal was to make enough money to go to Eastman, the reality was we made a lot of sales but could not collect the money. So we returned to Union without any money and since our folks were poor and could not help, we had to have some financial support.  La Sierra contacted me and offered me a one-year tuition scholarship if I would return. Union responded by offering a full-ride tuition scholarship for the rest of my degree. It was not a hard decision. 

He completed a B.A. in music with piano as his performance area in 1963, studying with Eleanor Attarian and Robert Murray at the college and with Beth Miller in the community.

During his time at UC, he won the grand prize in the annual amateur hour in 1960 and 1962 and was guest artist in the 1961 program, featured for his artistry on the piano.  He wrote the words and composed the music for the college hymn, “Hail to Union College,” was senior class president, and was one of eleven students at UC to be listed in Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges in 1963.

He started his career teaching music at Fortuna Junior Academy in northern California for four years and then in1967 went to Pleasant Hill Junior Academy for eight years before taking two years off and then returning for four more years. During this time he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1973, did some graduate work, and studied with prominent piano teachers in the area. Beginning in 1981, he became the choir director and piano and voice teacher at Lodi Academy, where he taught for 22 years before retiring in 2004.

He toured widely with his choir, the Lodian Singers, performing in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Singapore in 1985 and two years later in Europe, where they gave programs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. His last tour was taken in Greece. Several of his students have received full-ride scholarships for music study and been given lead roles in school productions. One became a musician on Broadway.      

During his years as a teacher in northern California, he played frequently as a concert pianist who performed the classic repertoire but was also known for his improvised hymn medleys and arrangements, his playing of  Abide with Me being a favorite. After a few voice lessons, he progressed by teaching himself.

In his retirement, Tan taught private lessons in voice and piano and continued to direct the Lodi Childrens Chorus and Youth Chorale, activities he had started in 1983. He also served as minister of music at the Zion Reformed Church in Lodi.

He enjoyed a reputation as a self-effacing, patient teacher who was able to instill confidence in his students and give them the skills they needed while at the same time giving them an enjoyable experience.  In 2002 he was awarded the Mayors Community Service Award, and in 2009 he was inducted into the Lodi Community Hall of Fame.

In spite of a degree of color blindness, through the years he pursued an interest in art, working in both acrylic and in sketching.  He also had an interest in gardening, particularly in the cultivation of flowers, for which he received an award from the local garden club for garden of the season.  

Robert died in his sleep on December 16, 2014, after conducating a concert  the previous evening. He was 78.


Sources: Interview, March 2013; The Messenger (Southeast Asia), September 1959, 6; Central Union Reaper, 20 December 1960, 4; 23 October 1962, 2;Everett Dick, Union, College of the Golden Chords, 1967, 204,398, 405, 438; CORDmagazine, winter 2013, 28; Pacific Union Recorder, 25 March 1974, 5; Pam Bauserman, News Sentinel staff Writer, 7 September 2009; Lauren Nelson, Lodi Living Editor, “Local students perform ‘Lodi’s Young Stars of Broadway,’” 27 and 28 January 2012.