High and Low Notes: The Lives of Professional Musicians

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By Mirella Ang (22A01C) 

The last concert I played with the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO) was with a soloist whom the management was incredibly excited about. The SNYO head even told us that “[watching him play] has been one of [her] life’s dreams”. But judging by the politely blank expressions of some fellow musicians, I wasn’t the only one who had no idea how big a deal he was. 

That is, until I talked to him just before the concert. Mr Kailin Yong, an ex-Rafflesian, is in fact a big deal. 

From a rather condensed perspective, he is an international musician who has won numerous global awards. His biography describes him as a “global citizen”—he studied at the prestigious Musikhochschule Wien in Vienna, performed in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and has continued making music upon his return to Singapore. 

His résumé is far more impressive than that, though. He was part of the Asian Youth Orchestra from 1991-1993. And the very first award he won was the National Music Competition in 1985 when he was just thirteen years old, a fresh-faced RI boy. 

However, Mr Yong’s career hasn’t been restricted to concert hall performances. Although initially forced to play music on the streets to survive when his employment attachment fell through in 2000, he now makes it a point to busk in every city he visits (as long as it isn’t illegal). 

More importantly, he is known as a “fiddler for peace”. He was the recipient of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin in 2004, an award that celebrates a young fiddler every year who actively uses their art form to promote peace. 

Music can be a potent medicine for healing our broken world… Over the years, this inner voice [about the power of music] became louder and helped me understand my calling of using music to promote peace.

Mr Kailin Yong

It was for this reason that he founded the Kailin Yong Peace Project, a world jazz orchestra. He wanted to “[bring] joy, peace, and hope through [his] world-inspired original music”. 

After returning to Singapore a decade ago, he has performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), as well as collaborated with a myriad of local artists like Maya Dance Theatre.

Mr Yong with his SSO-commissioned composition, Raising The Life”.
Picture taken from SSO‘s Facebook page

Perhaps the most striking people he collaborates with are special needs artists. He has directed for ART:DIS, a charity that aims to empower disabled people through the arts.

Since the beginning of his journey as a musician, Mr Yong has never stopped creating meaning in life. “As artists, it’s our sacred duty to grow and outgrow, to live and let live, to love freely, to constantly seek to deepen and strengthen our roots within ourselves and with the world,” he said. 

Mr Yong rehearsing at Victoria Concert Hall. 
Picture taken from SNYO‘s Facebook page

I only spoke to him for a little while. Even then, his conviction in his vocation was crystal clear. He quickly took over the interview and started interrogating me back. 

When I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in the future, he was completely unsurprised. The annoying thing about being in an arts-or-science type of curriculum, he said, was that it makes you feel like you only have two paths you can take in life. It convinces you that if you’re in science, you have to then do a science-related job. 

That isn’t true at all, and that’s the reason why he turned down an offer to study Engineering to pursue his passion in music instead. 

Nevertheless, he became intensely serious when asked for advice he’d give to prospective music students. 

“Don’t do it if you are in it for the vanity of it. Do it because you want to heal yourself and therefore bring more healing to the world.” 

Talking to Mr Yong reminded me of another local musician I’ve worked with. While they both share the same love for music, Mr Lee Jinjun is definitely more of a realist when compared to Mr Yong’s passionate idealism. 

Most (in)famous for his 2019 Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) Arts Presentation set piece Festival On Earth, Mr Lee said his MOE Arts Education Branch commission was his ”least favourite composition”. But that aside, he wanted to go into composing because he loved “manipulating and combining vastly different sounds into a harmonious mix in his head”. He also just really loved music. 

Consequently, he studied at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. Afterwards, he finished his Masters in Composition at the Royal Northern College of Music in the UK. 

But even before studying music in university, he cited his Raffles Junior College music teachers Dr Gooi Tah Hoe and Mrs Chee-Tan Ee Sin as the ones who inspired him to embark on a career in music. “[They] really developed me as a thinking musician.” 

In fact, RJC back then was a seemingly fertile ground with an abundance of musical opportunities. The annual inter-house Musicfeste (the precursor to today’s Raffles Got Talent) gave him the chance to arrange medlies, and he got his first conducting gig as the student conductor of Raffles Symphonic Band (RSB). He even premiered his very first band composition as a JC student. 

Since then, Mr Lee has naturally established himself as an impressive award-winning composer. His compositions have won first prize at international competitions, and one was even premiered at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. 

Sadly, even as composing plays a big part in his life, Mr Lee is still a realist about what it’s like to be a composer in Singapore. “No [local] composer composes for a living. Sane composers have proper stable jobs.” That’s why (even after thinking for quite a while) he couldn’t name a single local composer whose full-time job was composing.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when he composed the satirical jingle, A Non-E Sensual Tune, after John Lui doubled down on the moral rightness of that controversial Sunday Times graphic

A Non-E Sensual Tune.
Picture taken from Mr Lee’s Instagram page

Even so, he thoroughly enjoys his teaching job at the School of the Arts (SOTA). Describing his students as “overly-energetic teenagers”, he often posts about their anonymous antics on his Instagram story. 

My own personal experience of being conducted by him a few years back is just fun—he just has this quirky way of getting you to feel comfortable playing with strangers really quickly. (He will never, however, let me forget about the time I flipped a cymbal inside out.) 

It’s thus unsurprising that he is also very involved with the local music community, performing regularly with ensembles like Orchestra of the Music Makers and Lion City Brass Band. 

Apart from making music with fellow musicians, Mr Lee also brings music to others who might not have pursued it professionally. During the Circuit Breaker, he frequently hosted online Composition Parties. Anyone could attend and brainstorm ideas together, after which he would arrange the ideas into a new composition. 

Most of these compositions were pretty ebullient, like his Studying For Finals piece. But when I asked him for his favourite “troll” composition, he touted the “Trololo” song sung by Edward Khil, saying it was “musically rich and fun!!!!” 

Studying for Finals, the result of Composition Party #2.
Picture taken from Mr Lee’s Instagram page

Like he tells his students, open-mindedness is the key to creating better and better music. “Don’t tunnel-vision yourself into doing things you only know how to do.” 

Truly embracing the educator’s motto of teaching through actions, Mr Lee (a trumpet player) can be found practising the cornett, a mediaeval woodwind similar to the recorder. 

But, as with all strings bright and beautiful, making a career out of passion too can get tremendously difficult. Mr Lee immediately replied,”persevere!”, when I asked him about advice he’d give to his prospective students

“There’ll be times we want to give up, but we have to look back and remind ourselves why we fell in love with music in the first place.”

Mr Lee Jinjun

Looking back on my vastly different but equally trilling performances with these ex-Rafflesian musicians, I know I’ve been incredibly lucky. Looking forward, I can only wonder what the future has in store for them.

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