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What it takes to be a successful violinist in Singapore

World-class violinist Min Lee is grooming the next batch of local violinists, including the prodigious Samuel Tan.

When Lee Huei Min left Singapore at the age of nine to pursue her dream of being a violinist, she thought she would never return. She had been playing the instrument for seven years and had made rapid progress, but only realised the extent of that improvement when she attended a summer music camp in the US and was told by a renowned music professor, Dr Josef Gingold that she was “very, very talented”. And that it was imperative that she leave Singapore to receive further training “or she would become average by 14”. Her mother immediately packed their bags and, before the month was out, Lee had moved to the US.

“Before we left Singapore, a lot of my mother’s friends were asking her if she was sure that she wanted to do this and telling her that a career in music was financially unstable,” Lee reflects. “Things have definitely changed since then. The parents I meet now have open attitudes. They are a lot more supportive of their children and see a career in music as something that’s possible, happy and fulfilling.”

Lee founded Wolfgang Violin Studio Singapore in 2009. It was the culmination of a promise she had made to the late Erick Friedman, an internationally renowned concert violinist and her professor at Yale School of Music, who had asked her to continue the musical legacy and pass on her knowledge to the younger generation.

The school was more spontaneous than planned though. Lee returned to Singapore in 2007 to study at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy because she wanted to take a break from performing and then planned to head back to London after graduation to continue playing the violin on stage. “I thought I would only teach when I was in my mid-40s.”

But life had other plans for her. She met husband Loh Lik Peng, married him in 2010 and decided to stay permanently.

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Now, Lee is passionate about teaching and takes pride in the progress of all her students under her watch. One of them is 15-year-old Samuel Tan Yek Hee, a prodigious violinist who made waves when he received a standing ovation and was awarded the Postacchini Prize at the 2014 Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition in Italy for being the best overall violinist. He was competing against musicians up to the age of 35. He also won first prize in the 8- to 11-year-old category and received a Francesco Piasentini violin, a Walter Barbiero bow and a cash prize. He was only nine then.

“I went away feeling a deep sense of pride, yet humbled to be selected from among so many talented violinists. I am proud to have contributed in my small way to put my country on the map,” shares Tan.

Unlike Lee, however, Tan is staying in Singapore to continue his musical journey. This might have been detrimental for Lee in her growing years but she says that has changed. “In terms of early development, we are a lot stronger now. Asia has changed a lot, too. When I was in the US, I remember that a large majority of the students at The Juilliard School were Koreans. They all then went back to teach. Now, there are many young and wonderful talents from Korea who stay in Korea,” Lee says.

Tan hopes to one day walk the same path Lee trotted. He is considering a career in music but professes that balancing schoolwork with music practice has been very tricky. The nature of the violin is such that it requires hours of dedicated daily sessions to perfect, time that Tan admits has been difficult to find due to Singapore’s academic rigour.

However, even if Tan doesn’t reach the same heady musical peaks that Lee once scaled, she is still proud of her student. “We need lots of passionate people to support the arts and I hope and know that Samuel, along with the rest, will pass it on to the next generation.”

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