Siow Lee-Chin has performed in leading concert halls across the world with acclaimed orchestras and maestros. Beyond the technicalities of being a musician, Lee-Chin believes that the reason behind her success is a holistic combination of the heart, mind, and fingers.
A violin professor at the College of Charleston for the past 20 years, Lee-Chin is currently visiting home in Singapore. She will be one of the judges for the Singapore Raffles International Music Festival in August 2021.
We talk to Lee-Chin about her journey in classical music, including the numerous adversities she faced along the way, and how her pedagogical approach was inspired by her late father’s teachings.
8 June 2021 / By SGN
Singaporean violinist Siow Lee-Chin is no stranger to classical music. She has performed in the presence of celebrities and dignitaries from Elton John to the President of Singapore throughout her unorthodox career, and in 2015, performed to a live audience of 40,000 at the Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) Opening Ceremony in Singapore.
Performing for Lee-Chin is more than just a technical feat. “It is about deep connections and is as much about giving as it is about receiving,” she says, recounting a moment in her career when she was just a student in New York. The then teenager was performing at an old folks’ home and played Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs).
“A European lady came up to me after the performance and told me how she had been deeply moved as the piece reminded her of her hometown in Eastern Europe. That was a lovely gift she gave me: her appreciation of the music and how it touched her,” Lee-Chin gushes. She admits that as a student, she underestimated the power of music but as she matured, she began to understand how healing music can be.
She also realised that music connects to some of our deepest memories. She learned this when she visited her late father during his final moments. When he was not able to recognise her at all, she instinctively picked up her violin and played for him one of his favourite pieces, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. On hearing that, he recognised her, and tears started rolling down his eyes. “Music and its ability to move us, is one of the last things to fade,” Lee-Chin says.
Being Grounded in Strong Teachings
Lee-Chin’s late father, Siow Hee Shun, a well-known and accomplished violin teacher in his time, was her first teacher. He introduced the violin to her when she was only three months old. However, she only began lessons at the age of seven, and soon fell in love with the instrument. By the age of 8, she won her first violin competition.
At 15, Lee-Chin was the first Singaporean to win a full scholarship to the world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In her second year at Curtis, she performed in the renowned Carnegie Hall and worked under legendary conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Riccardo Muti. She also studied at Oberlin Conservatory and subsequently taught there as visiting professor.
To Lee-Chin, her father would always be the unsung hero behind her violin career. He instilled the importance of 饮水思源 (yǐn shuǐ sī yuán) – a Chinese idiomatic expression that translates to ‘when you drink water, think of its source’ –a call to gratitude. Having been under the tutelage of some of the world’s most influential pedagogues, Lee-Chin strives to pay it forward by nurturing and mentoring the next generation of violinists.
“So, whether you are from a village in a remote part of the world, or an affluent urban environment, remember where you came from. We may be global citizens, but the original source is important as much as celebrating achievements and successes along the way,” Lee-Chin recounts.
Imparting the 5Cs in Music to the Next Generation
Lee-Chin’s pedagogical approach draws inspiration from a common phrase used in Singapore. “Singaporeans used to chase after the 5Cs – Condominiums, Cars, Country Clubs, Cash, and Credit Cards. When mentoring and teaching my students, I encourage them to pursue 5Cs of a very different nature,” Lee-Chin says.
In her teachings, the 5Cs represent Connection, Curiosity, Culture, Consciousness, and Conscientiousness.
Connection refers to the ability to connect with the audience, to other people, to their innermost emotional landscape. It is of paramount importance to a musician. But connection requires empathy, compassion, and ultimately vulnerability.
Curiosity. A student of music needs to be curious about all aspects of the craft, from the composer’s history, context of the music, the materiality of the instruments, to the workings of social media and the politics of music promotion. It means to always keep an open mind and be adaptable. To be a successful musician is to be a complete and life-long learner.
Culture refers to contextual background of the composer, the performer and the audience and how that impacts the way the music is performed and appreciated. It also refers to the cultural elements of the place you work in, the people you work with, and the causes you work for.
Consciousness means to be self-aware, to gain insight into one’s practice, to be conscious of the reasons for one’s journey, and the purpose of one’s craft.
Lastly, Conscientiousness means turning up, practicing your scales. Every day. “My father used to say: ‘Don’t worry about the harvest. Focus on the sowing. The rest will just happen.’
She cites the transition to delivering lessons online via Zoom during the pandemic as an example of applying the 5Cs in her practice. It requires open-mindedness to new ways of doing things, to be conscious of different needs of a diverse audience in an ever-changing world. It takes hard work to develop the different skillsets to connect successfully across a digital platform. Using Zoom and other recording devices, lessons could be conducted with students from all over the world. “There are many creative ways to deliver online lessons – they can be recorded easily so it is possible to highlight what you want the students to focus on,” she explains.
“However, in the 21st century, musicians also need to be mindful of being a good global citizen and how they can contribute to this ever-changing world, especially post-pandemic.”
From Clementi to Carnegie
Lee-Chin hopes to share elements of her 2015 autobiography, From Clementi to Carnegie, which contains valuable insights into her musical journey, teaching philosophy and experiences. “I wrote this book for the young people; I hope to inspire them,” she says.
A fighter in times of adversity, she survived thyroid cancer in 2011 and a car accident that injured her violin-holding (left) arm in 2012, while also coping with the death of two loved ones – her patron Lady Yuen-Peng McNeice and father in the same year. Lee-Chin underwent emergency surgery and had two titanium rods screwed into her arms to secure her broken hand, and endured months of physical therapy, struggling with simple tasks like typing and showering.
It was her resilience and strong love for music which helped her recover as she picked up the violin again and rebuilt her playing from scratch. Lee-Chin challenged herself that she would be able to play at the level she did pre-accident, and she rose to the occasion a year later to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, regarded as one of the most technically demanding violin pieces, as a soloist with a U.S. Orchestra.
“I learnt that from my accident, trials and tribulations and personal tragedies, that when you hang on to a dream, anything is possible if you work smart and hard, and the corner will turn around.”
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Siow Lee-Chin’s Gold Medal victory at the 1994 Henryk Szeryng International Violin Competition launched her career as one of Singapore’s first soloists on the classical stage, wowing audiences in more than 20 countries across five continents from Carnegie Hall to Osaka Symphony Hall. Her performances been viewed by millions on China Central TV, America’s CBS, National Public Radio, and Singapore’s MediaCorp.
Lee-Chin traces her musical lineage all the way back to the legends of Eugène Ysaÿe (the King of the Violin), Henri Vieuxtemps and Henryk Wieniawkski through their disciples and her teachers at Curtis, Oberlin and Mannes: Aaron Rosand, Jascha Brodsky, Felix Galimir, Almita and Roland Vamos.
Today, she continues their pedagogical tradition in her work with young people all over the world from Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, Chicago Institute of Music, to the Singapore National Youth Orchestra and as violin professor at College of Charleston. Many of the students she nurtured have gained admission to prestigious schools including Julliard School of Music, New England Conservatory, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Colburn School, University of Southern California, Mannes College, and University of Michigan.
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