Trần Mạnh Tuấn: Bridging Cultural & Musical Worlds

Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.  (Confucius)

This is a post about music, a saxophonist par excellence, and one of Vietnam’s finest musicians – a man who has taken full advantage of the opportunity to attend a world-class music college, indulge his passion for jazz and pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician.  

Trần Mạnh Tuấn (left) performing an original composition with a bamboo flute from the Hmong ethnic minority. (Photo by MAA)

Trần Mạnh Tuấn took up the saxophone in 1979 and later became the first Vietnamese student/musician to receive a scholarship from Berklee College of Music in Boston (Class of 1997).   As its website points out, Berklee “was founded on the revolutionary principle that the best way to prepare students for careers in music is through the study and practice of contemporary music…  With more than a dozen performance and nonperformance majors, a diverse and talented student body representing more than 70 countries, and a music industry “who’s who” of alumni, Berklee is the world’s premier learning lab for the music of today—and tomorrow.” 

Originally from Hanoi, Tuấn moved to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in 2002 and opened the Sax N’ Art Jazz Club two years later.  In addition to performing, he is a composer, arranger and producer.  As a BBC article on his website notes, “Jazz is still an acquired taste in Vietnam. But saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan is doing his bit to bring it to the masses.”  He has succeeded wildly in taking a uniquely American art form and fusing it with Vietnamese and ethnic minority music.  Tuấn recently opened for Bob Dylan at his historic April 2011 concert in  HCMC.  

The next time you’re in HCMC, spend an evening at Tuấn’s jazz club; and if “the man” is in the house, you’re in for a real treat.  Watching him perform is a textbook example of what psychologists call flow, “an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist.”  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

You Have to Trust in Something

It was Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, who said in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, “You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”  Similarly, Adam Khoo, Singaporean entrepreneur, best-selling author and leading motivational speaker, had this to say about the “secrets of success” in a January 2011 interview entitled Pursuing Money Alone Isn’t Enough to Make You Rich.

 Q:  You’ve trained over 500,000 people and written 11 books on the secrets of your success. If you had just one sentence, could you summarise the secret of your success?

A:  I would say “it’s all about loving what you do… and doing the very best you can in that field.

I think everyone can be successful, but they have to discover what they are special at, what they love to do and really focus on improving it every single day.

Career Success (=matching abilities and interests to the task) & Vietnam

Vietnam doesn’t have to worry about a shortage of business administration and IT graduates anytime soon.  The overwhelming majority of young Vietnamese enrolled at domestic and foreign universities are studying one of these subjects.  What about the creative and performing arts, the humanities, the social sciences, the natural and physical sciences, and other “less commonly studied subjects” (LCSSs)?  Vietnam needs more people like Trần Mạnh Tuấn who choose the road less traveled by.

4 thoughts on “Trần Mạnh Tuấn: Bridging Cultural & Musical Worlds

  1. Even if I had talent for music, I wouldn’t go for it, since I need to align both my interest, ability and the country’s need.

    It sounds premature, still, I would say Vietnam needs things other than music, now.

  2. Thanks, Giao, for your comment. My point is not that everyone with musical talent should study music. Becoming a professional creative or performing artist is a calculated risk in any country.

    While I love music, including jazz (!), Trần Mạnh Tuấn’s story is more of a metaphor – the transformative power of overseas study, the mixing of cultures and the blending of cultural traditions, the importance of being passionate about what you do, etc.

    Vietnam has myriad needs related to society and culture. It’s clear that there are too many young people studying business – here and overseas – because they (and their parents) think that’s what they need to do to get a good job. (As many Vietnamese studying in the US have discovered, you don’t need to study business to “do business.”) The end result will be a glut of people trained in a few fields and a dearth of those trained in many others. In this case, the “free market” of choice is not serving Vietnam well.

    Another key point is what Steve Jobs, Adam Khoo and many others have observed. Life is short. (If you’d like to know why this is much more than a platitude to me, just ask me). Don’t live someone else’s life and don’t chase after money, unless your goal is to “do well” and then “do good.” Khoo: “It’s all about loving what you do… and doing the very best you can in that field. …I think everyone can be successful, but they have to discover what they are special at, what they love to do and really focus on improving it every single day.” As I mentioned at the AIESEC Developing Leaders Conference this past January in Hanoi, this is an opportunity and a privilege afforded mainly, but not exclusively, to people who have access to postsecondary education and training. Mr. Tuấn is a perfect example of this.


  3. I have no doubt about Trần Mạnh Tuấn’s talent, and I indeed tend to admire people to have the talent that I don’t.

    Discovering what we’re good at is, like you said, a privilege for those who have access to post-secondary education. It can at times turn into selfishness. I always had problems with studying Xuân Quỳnh’s poems when I was in high school. She was a great poet – but what did she write? About romantic love. Why not about the war? Was she blind to her own country’s situation?

    So to repeat my original point: If I was very special at something and my country didn’t need it, I wouldn’t spend time developing such an interest. We must see how we should and can fit into the wider picture of the place to which we belong.

    • It can turn into selfishness if your sole goal in life is personal benefit and profit. What’s wrong with love poems? It’s what many people live for, one of the things that makes life worth living, one of the three “grand essentials of happiness”: “Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” (A. Chalmers)

      Should every poet of Xuan Quynh’s generation have written exclusively about war? Don’t people love during wartime? Didn’t people suffer the loss of loved ones – husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends – during the war? On a lighter note, your statement reminds me of a line from an old 1960s song: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

      I can’t imagine something that you might be special at that your country and the world do not need. (It may take awhile to find the right fit between what you studied and a job. You may not get rich in many of these careers but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.) One related issue related to countries at Vietnam’s stage of development is that there are people who are trained in an “advanced” (i.e., wealthy) country in an infrastructure that is not yet available in Vietnam. This is a matter of acquiring knowledge, experience and skills that can be adapted and used right now and in the short-term future.

      In an informal (i.e., unscientific) Internet-based survey I’m currently conducting about the post-graduation plans of Vietnamese who either currently studying in the US or are planning to do so, I’ve discovered that, aside from the standard fare (i.e., economics, finance, business, computer science, engineering), there are a lot of other fields of study listed. I find this very encouraging. Here they are in A-Z order. Where you see two, it may be a reference to a double major or major/minor combination:

      Chemistry and Dance
      Economics, Film Studies
      Economics, Musicology, Cultural Anthropology
      Educational Administration
      Finance and Fine Arts
      Gender Studies
      International Relations
      Mathematics (not so unusual)
      Musicology, Cultural Anthropology
      Psychology, Theater
      Public Relations
      Political Science, Economics

      One of the things I often see when talking with young people preparing to study in the US and other countries is a “disconnect” between what they want to study, what their strengths are, what they enjoy and what their parents want them to study. I remember one young man who wanted to study philosophy in the US and his parents supported him (!). If he mixes and matches that major with another one and does well, he will have many options available to him, above and beyond pursuing graduate study and teaching in that or a related field. It’s clear that there’s a real need in Vietnam and many other countries is for quality career orientation and counseling.


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