21 March 2023
Eda Chua (SNYO cellist) speaks to Valarie Wilson-Koh (former SYO bassoonist, music educator) to find out more about her experience as a former member of the orchestra!
The Singapore Youth Orchestra and Western Australia Youth Orchestra (WAYO) played together in The Perth Concert Hall under Richard Gill in 1988. Mrs Wilson-Koh is pictured (bottom-right) playing the bassoon.
Eda (E): Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. This is part of the SNYO Spotlight series, where SYO/SNYO alumni share about their past experience in the orchestra and how that has impacted them. How did you come to join the SNYO?
Valarie (V): I came to join the Singapore Youth Orchestra (SYO), as it was then known as, when I was in Secondary 1. My father came home with a little newspaper cutting on which the SYO was inviting students to audition. So I went! The orchestra welcomed people who didn't play orchestral instruments, and they taught you a new instrument from scratch. Hence, I auditioned through the piano.
E: I understand that you were assigned the bassoon?
V: Yes, I was.
E: Did you enjoy learning this instrument from scratch?
V: When I was asked to learn the bassoon, I honestly didn't know what it was. So when I looked it up and saw a picture of the instrument, I thought, "That's huge!"
Many new things one learns aren’t always easy so I can tell you it certainly didn't sound very pretty when I started! I don't think my family or my neighbours appreciated those beginning days. But, I had a really good teacher then from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Mr Lee Chung Sing. He taught me good fundamentals from the onset. I enjoyed lessons, and was very inspired to learn quickly. This was so that I could play in the training orchestra and then on to the main orchestra. I came to love the bassoon - it's an instrument with a huge expressive range.
E: If you didn't play the bassoon, or if you were to play any instrument other than the piano or bassoon, what instrument would you play?
V: Actually, when I auditioned, I asked to learn the viola. I didn't know that they preferred to let those who already play the violin to convert to viola. Hence, maybe I would play the viola or the cello? As you can see, I have preference for lower sounding instruments, and instruments that provide foundational tones in harmonies but would also play melodic lines sometimes. I think that's why I like the bassoon. It can both set a foundational harmonic bass for the woodwind section, and yet play a wide range of melodies of varying character and emotions.
E: So you enjoy playing a versatile role in the orchestra?
V: I enjoy supporting and occasionally playing a melody or two. (laughs)
Mrs Wilson-Koh (second from right) playing the bassoon at a rehearsal.
E: Do you think that your experience in the orchestra has impacted your career or personality?
V: I think being in a youth orchestra teaches you a lot. In terms of playing in an ensemble or orchestra, you learn how to be fully ready and present. You have to know your part well and so you develop self-directed learning. You're expected to go into rehearsal ready to contribute to the whole ensemble, not to practise your part. Having learnt about this early on made me learn the importance of discipline and accountability.
“As you are part of a team, knowing your part alone is not good enough. Your part fits within a whole beautiful picture of sound, and you need to learn and contribute to that picture. So, as you play, you listen attentively and adjust. You learn a lot about being fully present as a member of a team. You learn when to take a step back, and when it is your turn to take a step forward. I think orchestra is a good place to develop collaborative skills. Every musician is different, every instrument is different, and every individual sound is different, but together, we work towards sounding as one. To sound as one, you need to value the collective over the individual, while always playing your part for the collective good.”
Lastly, being in SYO taught me better time management. You spend a significant time in orchestra rehearsals, doing your own practice, as well as going for lessons. As a student, you learn to manage your school work alongside orchestra commitments, always trying to do everything as best as you can.
E: Would it be fair to say that you learnt a lot about self-discipline and teamwork and time management from your orchestra experience?
V: Indeed, and practising self-discipline and self-directedness also helps to develop self-regulating skills. I have spoken about the importance of collaborating and listening. I think deep listening is an important life skill. When you step into the working phase in your life, as you continue to learn, work with others, and begin to lead people, being able to be fully present to listen deeply will be appreciated by your fellow colleagues.

E: I understand that you chose to pursue education as a career. When did you make this decision?
V: I've always loved music, and my time in SYO further fueled that passion. When I was in junior college, my passion for music became clear to me as I was pursuing the sciences while also doing quite a lot of music. I went on to study music at university and returned to serve in education. I found a lot of purpose in studying music, and I thought education was also a meaningful way to share this passion and purpose for learning music.
E: Do you think that your experience in the orchestra, learning so actively about music, has impacted the way that you teach?
V: Music is a very special art form. It connects your head, your heart, your hands. I don't see music education as a collection of learning different areas such as performing, aural, theory and composition. They are all important parts of a whole. Learning music is not just about playing your instrument or about theory as separate entities, they are intricately connected. You learn to make music, but through making music you also learn about the composer’s compositional techniques and style.
You listen to other music and learn about related historical context and other art forms - there is so, so much to learn and connect with that only improves your understanding. You will then be able to communicate convincingly through your playing. This I learnt through being in an orchestra. It was music education at its most authentic form - learning music by doing music. My experience in orchestra has also taught me the importance of making music with others. Piano playing can be quite lonely sometimes. My time in SYO opened up a whole new window of music-making for me. I experienced the joy of making music with others and in my teaching would try to create opportunities for students to make music with each other.
E: Would it be fair to say that because of your own personal experience in orchestra, you understand that music should not just be taught but also experienced?
V: Music has to be experienced holistically. It has to be felt, made, and thought about. It is a very powerful art form!
E: What's your fondest memory of SYO?
V: I enjoyed playing those wonderful works that you hear on recordings and in concerts. You find yourself in the middle of an orchestra, being a part of rehearsing and performing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The sound is all around you. You know the music intimately because suddenly you're literally in the heart of creating it. Whichever piece we were learning, this experience would always be very real to me.
Of course, I have fond memories of spending many Saturdays in the Victoria Concert Hall. I would hear music all around me - people having lessons, someone running through a part in a corner, chamber groups practising. After rehearsals, I would stay behind to attend SSO concerts. I used to have many such musical weekends growing up, and it was a wonderful way to spend my time. I was also blessed to have gone on tour to Perth with SYO in 1988. Every orchestra tour brings rich memories. We played with the Western Australia Youth Orchestra and met other like-minded peers from a different part of the world - it was all very exciting.
E: Speaking about peers, did you meet any lifelong friends in SYO?
V: Orchestra is a wonderful place to meet people who share the same love for music as you. We still meet up through SNYO Alumni events. The beautiful thing is that regardless of whether they were my seniors or juniors, when we meet, we all share a common experience of having made music together. It's therefore easy to connect with one another. We had a special reunion back in 2015 when we all came back to play together in SYO under our conductor, Ms Vivien Goh.
E: About playing good music with friends, do you have any memorable concert experiences to share?
V: I spoke previously about playing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony under Ms Vivien Goh. That experience is certainly seared very clearly in my mind. The piece was made more special as it was her final concert with us. Ms Goh used to give us gifts when we had full attendance - and I received a CD from her that season. That concert was significant for personal reasons too. It was my final concert before I left SYO for my overseas studies.
E: Do you still regularly practice piano or bassoon now, or are you more focused on your work?
V: I try to make time for music making and learning. I conduct the ACJC Alumni Choir and that is an important part of keeping up with my music practice and education. I serve in the music ministry in my church. As for bassoon, occasionally, I play in community orchestras when I can find the time.
Mrs Wilson-Koh in action as a choral conductor.
E: Have you ever struggled balancing music and academics when you were a student?
V: I cannot speak for students today. For me I had to develop good planning skills and manage my time optimally. Sometimes, the less you have, the more you value what you have.
You have to be really disciplined about when you're going to do what, in order to be fully present and give your best. I had to sacrifice some things, perhaps I had less social time although being in SYO alone provided its own “social” experience.  It's not always easy to manage everything. There are peaks of activity of course, such as when there are more school events or tests. But I think life is more than grades and tests. As I cherished my time in orchestra, I made it work for myself. I think everybody has it within them to manage themselves well.
E: Very wise. Do you have any words of wisdom for current SNYO members or young musicians in general?
V: As musicians, we want to practise of course. I think we need to practise more productively and thoughtfully. We know that quantity is not quality. I think that part of being a good musician, it's good to learn to “play”. “Play” as in, relax and have fun. Enjoy humour and laugh.
Musicians need to fully participate in life with great passion. The broader, more open-minded and curious you are, the more you will see, listen and learn. All these ideas and experiences will enrich your music-making - you will hear colours, see textures, paint tones. These will make music-making more exciting and engaging.
As young musicians, do take time to develop your own voice and your identity. In order to do that, you need to be courageous and dare to try new things. Stay humble. Don't just accept what people tell you. To learn more, ask questions, and ask with a spirit of curiosity, humility and hunger to learn.
Find your purpose in your music-making. Why are you doing music? In choir, our belief is that when we sing, our purpose is to “sing to bless and not to impress". When you make music to share stories and bring joy and comfort, you bring people into your space. I am very inspired by how Yo-Yo Ma views performance as hospitality. When you make music, you are giving it to somebody. You are not doing it for yourself - it's not prideful or egoistical. If you play music only for yourself, you will get in the way. Then, you'll get stressed and you won't enjoy the process. For me, having a self-centred approach is not very meaningful. Hopefully our music can help to make someone’s life a bit happier, or bring you somewhere more hopeful, even if only for a brief moment of time. The ability to make music is a great privilege.
I'm very grateful for SYO because it allowed me to learn music in a broader and deeper way. It supported me in terms of my instrumental learning with the provision of lessons, and opened another sound world.
We're still in the middle of the pandemic, so every time we come together as an orchestra, cherish that! Remember what not coming together felt like. Treasure each time you can play together, be fully present and take hold to make the most of every moment - your time in SNYO is precious.
E: So, you could say to count your blessings and express gratitude through music itself?
V: Well-put!
E: What you've shared is all very insightful, thank you! To end the interview on a lighter note, let's have a series of quick questions. Do you have a favourite composer or classical music period?
V: That's very difficult for me to answer. The person I admire the most is Bach, because he had a clear purpose for writing music - that of giving glory to God alone (Soli Deo Gloria).  This purpose is bigger than himself - that's something I hold very dear.
E: You've mentioned that you really like Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Would you say that that is your favourite work of music?
V: It's hard for a person to decide on one single favourite! We have different favourites at different points in time. Indeed, I like Tchaikovsky's Fifth a lot, I also like Beethoven's Fifth and many of Bach's works. As you can see it’s hard to say definitively which is my favourite - it's different on different days!
E: That's fair. Currently, are you listening to anything in particular?
V: Just trying to build up my choir's concert programme for the next season, so I'm listening to a lot of choir music.
E: Any recommendations?
V: For choir? Listen to Palestrina, he wrote wonderful music.
E: Let's do some "either or" questions! First: melody or accompaniment?
V: Accompaniment. Even as a pianist, I don't really like playing alone. I love supporting someone else.
E: I hate to put you on the spot, but: piano or bassoon?
V: Oh. I guess, piano? It can play both melody and accompaniment at the same time. (laughs) and I spend more time on that now.
E: Last question: conducting or playing?
V: I like playing. I see conducting as a part of playing, since it’s also a part of music-making. When I'm conducting a choir, we're all creating one sound together and making music collaboratively.
E: Any last words or wisdom or advice?
V: When you come to SNYO, get to know your fellow orchestra members. Don't just rehearse and go home. I think friendships strengthen music-making. The friends you're going to make, they're going to be your friends for life built upon shared memories. Hence make your best music alongside your best friends - that's meaningful and joyful.
E: That's it for today! Thank you so much for your time and wisdom!
V: You're welcome!

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