Do chairs have superpowers? Lee-Chin Siow certainly thinks so.
When the associate professor of music at the College arrived at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio in 1995 on a full scholarship for the Artist Diploma Program, she had already launched her career as a violin soloist, but the quintessential perfectionist wanted to hone her skills further.
Her professor, renowned violin pedagogue Almita Vamos, says she didn’t really teach Siow. “I was more of a coach than a teacher. We discussed how to improve a performance and navigate a career in the music industry.”
As such, it only made sense that when Vamos and her husband, Roland, also a violin professor, decided to go on sabbatical, Siow was tapped to be a visiting professor for her classes at the Oberlin Conservatory. Siow felt like she was handed the keys to a Rolls-Royce.
“Lee knew my teaching style well, and she has a very strong character,” says Vamos. “I knew she would guide my students in the right direction.” She also wanted Siow to gather some teaching experience, as few soloists can make a living on performing alone.
“I always found teaching to be a noble calling, but until Mrs. Vamos presented this opportunity, I had completely focused on my solo career,” explains Siow. “Having a renowned professor believe in my teaching abilities helped a lot.”
When Siow taught her first class, she did it perched on Vamos’ nondescript gray office chair with rollers. “By sitting in her chair, I harbored the hope that the pearls of wisdom Mrs. Vamos doled out would come naturally to me, too. On that chair for a year, I learned how to encourage my students and win them over, just like Mrs. Vamos.”
Like Father, Like Daughter
The truth is, Siow doesn’t need a magical chair to win over students or audiences for that matter. She has been dazzling the latter since she was 11. As one of Singapore’s first violin soloists on the classical stage, she has performed in more than 20 countries, from Lincoln Center to the Vienna Konzert Haus. In 2015, she played for more than 50,000 at the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the same year she released her bestselling memoir, From Clementi to Carnegie.
“Everybody in Singapore knows Lee-Chin,” says Steve Litvin, professor of hospitality and tourism management, who lived in Singapore for eight years. “Every year on National Day, Singapore has the President’s Concert performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra [SSO]. That is where I saw Lee-Chin perform. She was the highlight of the show. She is so elegant when playing that she is a joy to watch. Her performance at the SEA Games was mesmerizing.”
Siow’s gift as an educator and performer is not surprising given her pedigree: Her father, Hee-Shun Siow, was a beloved and highly regarded violin instructor in Singapore and a member of the SSO.
He bought her a violin when she was only 3 months old and patiently waited until she was 7 years old and was finally ready to receive formal lessons.
“My love for music developed in a long, slow burn, cultivated through my dad,” she says. “He is my hero.”
Seeing her father transform his students’ lives also fed Siow’s passion for teaching. With Vamos’ encouragement, she decided to combine her solo career with teaching and received several good university offers, including from CofC.
“I wanted to be in a school where I could see things take root, watch them grow and develop into something significant,” says Siow. It also helped that Charleston reminded her of Singapore, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
When Vamos asked what Siow would like as a going-away present, her immediate response was “your chair.” The chair came down and served as a reminder of her mentor for much of Siow’s teaching career.
Siow’s talent was apparent from an early age. She frequently accompanied her father to his practices with the SSO and would play along with him. She first performed with the SSO at age 11, making her the youngest member of the orchestra. Her fate was sealed at 15 when a visiting violin virtuoso recruited her for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Siow became the first Singaporean to be accepted to Curtis. Although she received a scholarship, she still had the hurdle of covering her travel and living expenses. Fortunately, Lady Yuen Peng McNeice, a renowned philanthropist in Singapore, stepped in and sponsored Siow through her foundation.
McNeice took the time to get to know Siow, sharing her passion for gardening and photography. For Siow, McNeice became the grandmother she never had.
“Lady McNeice shared with me how important it is to give a plant the right environment to take root and grow, but, most importantly, she taught me the value of patience,” says Siow. McNeice’s guidance permeated all aspects of Siow’s life – from gardening to teaching and paying it forward.
“Lady McNeice was a wonderful mentor,” says Siow. “When I would ask what I could do for her, she would always say I should do something for someone else. She was a wonderful inspiration and a generous soul.” In fact, McNeice bequeathed Siow a 1750 Deconet violin, which has been her constant companion for more than 25 years.
The Way to Carnegie Hall
When Siow arrived in Philadelphia, she was comforted by the knowledge that her father truly believed in and supported her. She needed that comfort since Carnegie Hall would be the site of her debut performance as a member of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the Romanian maestro Sergiu Celibidache. The maestro demanded 18 rehearsals before a performance, which is five times more than the average. “The better you are, the more you need to practice,” he told his young protégés.
Their practice paid off. Under Celibidache, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra received nonstop applause and multiple curtain calls, as well as a glowing review in The New York Times.
Celibidache’s teachings fed Siow’s perfectionist soul.
“It was life changing to see a maestro in his 70s still striving for perfection,” she says. “He taught me to hold myself to the highest standards and to realize that there are no shortcuts, only practice, practice, practice.”
Siow constantly practiced, and, upon graduation from Curtis in 1990, performed again at Carnegie Hall, but this time as a soloist. As a relative unknown, Siow worried about filling the hall. Then she remembered a story her father told about a performer calling his country’s embassy to get people in seats. Siow mustered the courage to visit Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who agreed to make some introductions. As a result, Singapore Airlines promoted the concert to their special guests, including an open bar reception at the famed Russian Tea Room. Siow ended up with a packed house.
Driven to perfect her skill, Siow went on to Mannes College of Music in New York City for her master’s degree. She wanted to continue to study under Felix Galimir, considered one of the New York giants by The Strad, despite his small stature. She appreciated the octogenarian’s no-nonsense approach to teaching when he taught her at Curtis and knew she would push herself to live up to his expectations at Mannes as well.
“Mr. Galimir told me that, while my vibrato was beautiful, there was not enough contrast,” says Siow of the rich tones one achieves using the left hand. “He said that your vibrato is your lipstick, and you cannot have the same lipstick for every occasion.”
Upon graduation, Siow received the acknowledgement she so craved from Galimir when he told her, “I believe in you.”
Even when you are at the top of your game, there is someone right ahead of you. Siow won some competitions and lost others. After her second loss in a row, Siow became disillusioned. She didn’t take her violin out of its case for three months, but being apart from the instrument proved to be too much. She realized she couldn’t stay away and decided to prepare for her next competition. After her hiatus, the more Siow practiced, the more she realized she needed to step up her game.
“I never worked so hard in my life,” she says. “It was the first time I practiced 10 hours a day.”
Her hard work paid off: She won the gold medal at the 1994 Henryk Szeryng International Violin Competition.
Since that time, Siow has performed as a soloist all around the world – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Ludwisburger Festival Orchestra, the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra and the Avignon Symphony Orchestra, to name a few.
She put out an album, Songs My Father Taught Me, which spent six months on the top of the classical chart at Singapore’s HMV store, a UK-based music and retail business. Her fame as a soloist led to her being memorialized on a Singapore aerogramme.
Now celebrating her 20th anniversary at the College, Siow feels teaching makes her a better musician. Her solo performances with more than 40 orchestras around the world serve as a testament to the voice she evokes from her violin.
“For me, performing and teaching go hand in hand,” she says. “When I perform, I become a better teacher, and teaching makes me a better performer.”
In return, Siow’s students benefit from her drive and desire to pass on her love of music and the violin. She trains them like they are training for the Olympics, and, just as she had, Siow tries her best to provide her students with opportunities to perform and take part in competitions.
“My students inspire me,” she says. “Their energy and youthfulness keep me young. I have to keep up!”
Seeing her students succeed in whatever career they choose is her reward. Since the College is not a conservatory, she teaches students with a variety of majors and interests.
“Being schooled in music helps you understand the struggle to succeed; it carries you through to every aspect of living,” says Siow, whose students have gone on to be soloists and orchestra musicians, professors at universities, neurosurgeons and business owners. “It will make you a better professional in any field because you have creativity, team spirit, resilience and discipline.
“I love to mentor budding musicians to achieve their dreams and goals,” she adds, noting what an honor it is to be following in her father’s footsteps. “To be instrumental in the growth of a young mind is such a privilege and honor. That’s why I wrote my book – to inspire my students to strive for the stars and overcome setbacks.”
In 2011, Siow experienced a series of tragedies that tested her limits physically and emotionally.
First, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Then she seriously broke her left arm in a car accident on her way to speak on behalf of the College at the Music Teachers National Association conference. So, on top of cancer treatments, she began the arduous process of physiotherapy one week after the accident. She was determined to play her violin again, but initially she was so weak that even a simple scale proved too much.
Whenever she began to despair of ever playing again, she recalled her father’s words: “There is beauty in the mundane.” With that mantra in her head, three weeks after the accident, Siow returned to teaching and worked on playing her violin, note by note, scale by scale.
Then Siow received a call that her beloved mentor Lady McNeice was critically ill. For the woman who had done so much for her, Siow put everything aside and took the first flight home. She and her brother, Yew Nam, played the Bach Double Violin Concerto at her bedside. Lady McNeice was the first to hear Siow play again. The philanthropist passed away a few days later, and Siow and her brother played the concerto again at her funeral.
Soon after, Siow’s father was hospitalized with pneumonia. Again, she dropped everything to return to Singapore. At the hospital, Siow found her father unresponsive. She used her violin to speak to him, playing his much-loved piece, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Tears streamed down his face. The nurse told her to continue as the reaction was a positive step. The nurses restarted her father’s therapy and, within a few days, he was able to sit up.
Siow became the ward’s unofficial resident violinist, which all the patients appreciated. “The experience reaffirmed my conviction that there is a certain intangible healing and restorative power about music,” she says. “It certainly had a way of banishing the gloom of sickness and despair.”
As Siow continued to play for her father, she decided to play the Mendelssohn Concerto that her father taught her when she was little. At one point she fumbled with the fingering and heard her father agree with her, “Yes, you must practice more.”
Sadly, those were his last words. In her grief, she found solace in knowing that her father’s gift of music is what brought them together in his final days. His love of music and teaching continues to inspire Siow and spurs her on to keep growing and learning.
In 2013, Soochow University in Suzhou, China, invited Siow to teach at its new school of music. The College granted her a sabbatical, and she seized the opportunity for a new adventure, teaching for two years while performing as a soloist around China. Like she did at CofC, Siow created opportunities for her students, including a performance at the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan on the Fourth of July.
When Siow informed her students that she was returning to the College, Jin Hui ’19 was devastated.
“I felt I lost my life direction,” she says. “Professor Siow is my hero. The arm and hand are extremely important for violinists. After her accident, she patiently retrained her arm by playing scales every day. I wanted to learn that spirit of never giving up when you meet difficulties.”
Siow asked Hui if she would like to come with her to the U.S. to study, and, with her parents’ support, she jumped at the opportunity. Transferring to the College meant that Hui would extend her date of graduation by a year and a half, but she decided it was worth it.
“Professor Siow is a great professor and a mentor for my life,” says Hui, who is currently pursuing her doctorate in musical arts at the University of Kansas City, where she received a full scholarship and a concertmaster fellowship. “She is the best professor I ever met.
“Some professors focus on technique, others on music,” explains Hui, one of four Chinese students to follow Siow when she returned to CofC. “Professor Siow focuses on both, which is why she is so great. She taught me how to bring a piece to life by exploring all aspects of a piece, including the composer’s background and context of the composition. She taught me to play beyond notes – it’s about communication and awakening the senses.”
With Siow, Hui practiced diligently so she could take advantage of performing and taking part in competitions. As a result she got into Siow’s alma mater, the Mannes School of Music, studying under a Mannes classmate of Siow’s.
When Hui finishes her doctorate, she plans to return to China to play and teach, following the path of her mentor.
For Siow, that is the ultimate compliment, but no way is she giving Hui her chair.