This is the book that Singaporean Siow Lee Chin wrote in 2015 about her journey from her humble home (a HDB flat in Clementi, a suburban residential town named after the British colonial Governer of the Straits Settlements Sir Cecil Clementi Smith; coincidentally, Clementi is also the name of a composer) to Carnegie Hall in New York.
Like Mrs Carmee Lim (Mentor Principal of MindChamps Holdings, and ex-principal of Raffles Girls’ School), I read the book in one sitting. In the Preface are also accolades from seven other prominent persons :Dr Lee Boon Yang, Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings & Kepple Corporation and former Minister for the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts; Almita Vamos, Professor of Roosevelt University Chicago College of Performing Arts and the Music Institute of Chicago; Gary Graffman, former President of Curtis Institute of Music, concert pianist and teacher of notable pianists including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang; Dr Chang Tou Liang, Classical Music Reviewer of The Straits Times and former member of the Board of Directors of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO); Andrew Lim, Creative & Music Doirector and Producer & Presenter of Symphony 92.4FM; Dr Tan Chin Nam, Chairman of Temasek Management Services; Peter Crookes, Professor of Surgery, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California.
This memoir gives more than reading pleasure; it is inspirational and contains some valuable advice for everyone:
Perfect music is more than just playing notes. While not everybody will become a concert artist, the lessons learnt from cultivating the discipline required to perfect our passion, and having the faith to persevere through setbacks are valuable takeaways that will carry us through life. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, said at the inauguration of the Victoria Concert Hall in 1980: “The best musicians begin training from the age of 3 to 5. It is a long and rigorous road, even for the gifted. Few gifted Singaporeans, with such good minds, ear and touch, will want to chance their career in music. Any person with a mind of committing 120 20-minute pieces to memory, and a deft touch, can easily meet the demands of more traditional professions; they can become surgeons, doctors, lawyers or engineers, professions which provide a rewarding life, without continually disciplined efforts.”
Siow’s first teacher was her father, who taught her that “the loudest and the flashiest piece wasn’t always the best; look for beauty in the mundane”. With a flashy piece, all one may think about is playing the notes; a lyrical piece, however, teaches patience – an essential virtue in life. A CD (Songs My Father Taught Me) that Siow recorded in 2009, is a tribute to her father, and was at the top of the classical charts at HMV store at the time. (And I have an autographed copy!)
Siow was the youngest musician with the SSO when a guest soloist, American violinist Aaron Rosand, asked her to play something for him during a rehearsal. When he heard her warming up with a cadenza instead of some scales, he immediately offered her a place to study at Curtis Institute of Music. (She also auditioned for and was offered a place at the Julliard School in New York around the same time. She chose Curtis.)
From early on, Siow had been taught to hold herself to the highest standards. There are no short cuts; never have been, never will be. From the legendary Romanian maestro Sergei Celibidacha: If you have very little potential, no matter how much you practise, it doesn’t matter. The better you are, the more you need to practise. If you have a lot of talent, all the more you need to practise. Stage performances look effortlesss because you are supposed to have worked out all the knks when you practise. Another teacher, Felix Galimir (who studied with the legendary Carl Flesch whose scale system is still the “Bible” for violinists and whose own scale exercises took two-and-a-half hours from start to finish, expecting his students to practise these every day) told her: By definition you are already a masochist by choosing to be in this profession. Musicians have to keep striving, and there’s no guarantee you will make it. Scales are like mundane exercises at the gym; but if you have the fortitude to work through them without giving up, there is no doubt that you will be able to see and hear the difference with every passing day.
Technique is important the way grammar is important in language. One should master musical technique in order to serve the music, to understand that it is a means to an end, so that a powerful musical statement can be delivered faultlessly, one which would resonate with the audience and move them.
Preparing for a (music) competition is not unlike preparing for the Olympics. What matters is how you pick yourself up again. This is the real challenge for a musician. You’ll never know when success is right around the corneer. Life is full of serendipitous surprises. Students look to a teacher for psychological and emotional support because great music involves the whole being – mind, body and soul. As a musician, one quickly learns how to acquire the mental strength to carry on despite stumbles. (Whether in front of a hall full of people, or when an accident occurs – like Siow’s car accident which left her with two broken bones in her left hand, or when there are health issues – like Siow’s brush with cancer.)
Through her experiences, from the humourous to the harrowing, Siow has learnt that when things fall apart, they will come together again. The journey is far from over, and I hope she will write another memoir in the next decade or so.
At the end of the book, Siow shares that the scale is her metaphor for the basic priciples of life:
C Create your own opportunities. Be proactive.
D Do not worry about the harvest. Keep sowing, and the rest will take care of itself.
E Explore new things. Take on challenges that scare you.
F Follow your inner voice. Don’t follow the herd.
G Go back to your source.
A Always be prepared. You never know when Lady Luck will come knocking.
B Beauty is in the mundane. To perform your best, you first need to nail the basics.