For the love of conducting
An 80-year-old keeps on doing what he loves to do.
BY: Ong Su Min
Do you know the Japanese song ‘Hana’? It means flower. A gentleman with a humble disposition started humming the song, his leather shoes tapping against the floor as his fingers swung gracefully in the air. Having had three children and eight grandchildren, Yeow Chee Hong, has been a piano accompanist and conductor to many choirs for more than 50 years.
But one thing that is sure, he is still going strong at the age of 80. He now conducts the choir of the Institute of the Elders called the Joyful Singers. With many pieces of classical music at his fingertips, the amiable Yeow is always able to perform a mini concert for you. Not forgetting his specialty, he can sing in the Hokkien dialect if you wish to listen. Agelessonline finds out what keeps Yeow coming back:
You have been a piano accompanist and conductor for almost your entire life. How did you get interested in music? Does it run in your family in the past and/or present?
My interest in music grew over my secondary school years and piano was the first instrument that I have learnt to play. My family couldn’t afford the piano so I often travelled to my uncle’s house for practice. I learnt to play the piano myself and eventually, obtained a diploma certificate in it.
Becoming a choir conductor was rather coincidental. At that point of time, the Ministry of Education needed music teachers so I took the LRSM (Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music) examination and went to Dunman High School Choir (formerly known as Dunman Government Chinese Middle School) as a relief teacher. That was how I started my conducting career.
Till now, I have conducted for many other organisations such as Tiong Bahru Arts Centre Choir, Yun Li Choir, Joyful Singers and the Seniors’ Choir of the Jubille Presbyterian Church. I believe the love for music has run in the family from the past till now. My family and I are Christians, and singing religious songs is part of our culture and we enjoy it. Almost all of my children and grandchildren can play an instrument, or two.
Could you share about your first time conducting? Could you also share some milestones or achievements in your conducting career?
I first conducted at Dunman High School in 1968. There are no particular milestones that I can think of because I don’t see myself as an expert in conducting. I learnt a bit of everything so I am more of a ‘general practitioner’ rather than a specialist in my career. I continued as a conductor because of my passion for music.
Can you share with us one important lesson in your career as a conductor?
Throughout my career, I have conducted quite a number of choir performances, from school choirs such as Nanyang Junior College Choir to Joyful Singers; the ages of the choir members vary. For example, most members of Joyful Singers do not have a musical background so conducting the choir might be difficult. I learnt to observe their reactions and teach them according to their aptitude.
If you weren’t conducting, what would have been your second career choice?
I like my job and have never considered a second career. Also, I was in my mid-30s when I worked as a conductor. Changing career paths may not always be the best choice; therefore this thought has never crossed my mind.
In 2006, you suffered a stroke but that hasn’t kept you from conducting. What motivates you to continue doing it? Do you think you will ever stop?
I guess the most important reason would have to be the satisfaction that music brings to me. Listening to music and conducting are different in the sense that conducting enables me to stay in touch with music. I feel that I am still learning and honing my skills even as I grow older. In 1994, I brought the NTUC Comfort choir to China on a cultural exchange. One of the choirs we met consisted of school lecturers, some aged 80 to 90 years old. I was envious of their spirit and hoped to continue conducting as well. As long as I am able to, there is no putting a full stop to what I am doing.
How long have you been conducting at the Institute of Elders’ choral singing? Is there anywhere else you conduct? How many hours a week?
I have been conducting since 2004, when the Joyful Singers first started. Besides that, I am conducting the seniors’ choir of Jubilee Presbyterian Church. I spend about four hours a week rehearsing with both choirs.
What is your favourite piece to conduct and why?
To be honest, there are too many pieces to choose from. However, I prefer to conduct classical music. These songs can help shape a person’s character positively.
If you could name the people who have been instrumental in your life, who would they be and why?
I think it would be my grandmother and my mother. Now that you have asked, I realise that I have missed my grandmother a lot. She was a pastor and I was greatly influenced by her beliefs. I remember my grandmother used to sing to us before we had our meal or went to bed. The short prayer was sung in the Hokkien dialect in a simple but rhythmic tune, and till now, it has stayed in my mind. I would say she had influenced me to love music.
The second person would be my mother. Even though my family wasn’t really well off, she insisted that her children got their education and became someone useful in society. I guess this is what has made me who I am today.
What else keeps you busy beyond conducting?
I listen to music, read books or play with my grandchildren.
** There will be an upcoming Choral Festival on October 22, 2012, at Kallang Theatre. Yeow will be leading the Joyful Singers in their performance at this festival. Choirs from Bangkok, Jakarta, Melbourne and China will be participating too.