SHE had us at “hello”.
It’s a Monday morning, and the sun is on a mission to have us lose our cool. But not this time. We have just arrived at the door of Min Lee’s condo, where our photo shoot with the acclaimed violinist will take place. “Hello,” she says sotto voce. There is a soothing, mellifluous cadence to her voice that captivates you right away.
“Can I get you guys some water?”
“Do you want me to pose with my violin?”
“Did you watch Joseph Schooling’s win on Saturday?”
Everything she utters is music to the ears. And just like that, the bother of the heat is the furthest thing from our mind.
As we survey the apartment — a bright and airy sanctuary of white marble and wood — for a photogenic spot, we can’t help but notice quaint collections of art, coffee table books predominantly on interior design (her husband is hotelier Loh Lik Peng), antique fans as well as picture frames containing happy memories of her wedding and of family. They flank the
centrepiece, which is a grand piano. Random corners of the otherwise tidy home are claimed by toys and children’s books; there’s a miniature dining table here and a baby walker there. Can’t miss what’s on the big-screen TV, too — the mother-of-two is monitoring her seven-month-old daughter Cassidy while she works. The little darling is blissfully asleep in her room. “My daughter listens to me practise every day right now, so she’s hearing lots of music,” says the proud mummy.
Oh, and there it is — the “staccato” wall that features regularly as backdrop in her Instagram videos (go check them out, they’re quite a treat). She obliges us a little live solo performance of Paganini’s Caprice No 24 right there. Lucky us.
Even as the nation was celebrating with much pomp and circumstance the fresh victory of Schooling, our newly-minted Olympian and Singapore Pride, that Monday (Lee herself is very excited, and super proud of the swimmer), here standing before us is a great success story herself, poised to make a comeback to stage after a five-year hiatus (since she gave birth to her son, Connor) with The String Social concert, to take her brand of classical music from Gen Y to Gen IG.
Lee has been playing the violin since she was two years old. By the time she turned 17, she
had earned the “Best Performer” accolade at the National Music Competition of Singapore, travelled the world, enrolled at Yale (at 14!), trained under violin greats like Erick Friedman, and performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The 33-year-old also has two albums under her belt with a third one on the way, not to mention a Masters in Public Policy. These days, she’s also busy shaping young minds as program director at her music school, Wolfgang Violin Studio.
Despite all that she’s accomplished, Lee still hesitates to call hers a success story. “There’s always room to grow,” she says, as she looks forward to this Friday’s concert, where she’ll be sharing the stage with her 10-year-old protégé Samuel Tan and two musicians she reached out to via Instagram — Chloe Trevor from Dallas and Drew Alexander Forde from Juilliard. It will mark the first of a string of performances to come that embraces the digital age, using social media to reach a wider audience. To that end, The String Social will also be streamed live via Lee’s social media accounts which have a total of 130,000 followers.
“It’s going to be a blast!” she says.
I DON’T BELIEVE IN RESTING ON YOUR LAURELS.
THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM TO GROW.
How do you define success?
Min Lee: I think it’s pretty hard for me to define success now as I feel it’s something I should look back on when I’m much older. No matter where you are, I think you’ll always want to strive for more.
Would you say you’ve achieved success by your definition?
ML: I don’t believe in resting on your laurels. There’s always room to grow.
Behind the glamour of success is often a reality of sacrifices, immense hard work and very likely a lot of tears, failures and struggles that isn’t always discussed openly. You’ve been playing the violin since you were two — what have been some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make growing up in order to excel at what you do?
ML: I’ve been asked that a lot over the years — whether I feel I lost my childhood as I had to practise. The truth is I don’t feel that way. It wasn’t a normal childhood, and I did have less time to play with my friends than other kids.
Being on the road for concerts all the time can get pretty lonely, and it was hard for me to adjust to that.
But at the same time, I got to travel the world, meeting great musical minds and making friends all over the world, and I was exposed to different cultures. So to me, it was a pretty great childhood.
The phase I found more difficult was in my early 20s. Being on the road for concerts all the time can get pretty lonely, and it was hard for me to adjust to that. Maybe now it’s different with social media keeping everyone more connected.
ML: There was a concert that was quite important to me when I was in my late teens. My professor had flown over from the US to attend the concert and had invited a few of his musical contacts. I think the more I thought about trying to impress everyone the more nervous I got, and in the end I didn’t play as well as I knew I could. That was a huge disappointment for me as this concert was something I’d been preparing for months.
My mentor’s words to me after the performance are something I’ve never forgotten. He told me it doesn’t matter what happens today, the sun always rises in the morning. I’ve learned there’s no point moping about what might have been. You’ve just got to get up and continue.
How many hours do you practise a day?
ML: I’ve been practising around three to five hours every day since I was a little girl. Now
with two little ones of my own, it varies quite a bit as I don’t always have time to fit in everything.
Who would you say is your favourite audience, and biggest fan?
ML: I love performing in Singapore. Perhaps it’s because I started performing here when I was a little girl. There have always been many young people in my audiences here, and that’s great to see.
Has becoming a mother change how — and how much — you play?
ML: Haha yes. Much less time to practise!
What was the last piece of music you played for your son and daughter?
ML: My daughter listens to me practise every day right now, so she’s hearing lots of music! I put her in her bouncer and she can entertain herself for quite a while as I practise.
Do you prefer performing or teaching?
ML: A few years ago it would have been performing, hands down. But now I’d say it’s pretty even. I promised my professor when I was 14 that I would continue his legacy by teaching when I grew up. Back then, I didn’t think too much of it but now, it really is a privilege to be able to shape young minds and musicians, and be able to pass down a musical legacy.
You are perhaps one of the lucky ones who knew from an early age what your passion is, and you pursued it and created your own success around it. But there are many people out there who are still searching for their passion and purpose, and others who aren’t sure if they should go for it. Do you have any advice to give?
ML: I think they have to be passionate about what they’ve chosen, but also understand what they’re getting into. It won’t always be smooth sailing, a lot of risk and hard work involved, you may not see a payday for years. But if you believe the positives outweigh the negatives and it is your true passion, then you have to try!
… it doesn’t matter what happens today, the sun always rises in the morning. I’ve learned there’s no point moping about what might have been. You’ve just got to get up and continue.
How do you deal with self-doubt?
ML: Growing up as a young musician, I’ve had so many people trying to give me advice, much of it conflicting, and it was very confusing for a teenager. Now, I’ve learned to trust my own instinct and only listen to those who matter to me, whom I’m the closest to.
What is a sure way for you to get a quick boost of confidence?
ML: A good pair of heels and lipstick!
Do you have a ritual before you go out to perform?
ML: I have a lucky ring that I always wear, and I have a warm-up routine that I never change. If someone talks to me in the middle of my scale during my warm-up, I have to finish it first before I answer. My husband always laughs at my superstitions, haha.
To whom or where do you turn for inspiration?
ML: For musical inspiration, I love listening to great violin masters of the
Do you believe a woman can do it and have it all?
ML: I think it is how you define having it all. If by having it all means being content and happy with your life, how you balance your career and family, being the best mum you can be while pursuing your passion, then yes I do believe you can. If it means having a super successful career while being the “perfect” mum and wife and not having to sacrifice anything, that’s a tough one.
What is one quality you admire in a woman, and one trait you cannot tolerate?
ML: I admire integrity. Male or female. Someone who stands up for what they believe in. What annoys me is backstabbing.
“I’ve had so many people trying to give me advice, much of it conflicting… Now, I’ve learned to trust my own instinct.”
I ADMIRE INTEGRITY… SOMEONE WHO STANDS UP FOR WHAT THEY BELIEVE IN.
What’s the best piece advice anyone’s ever offered you?
ML: My professor at Yale, Erick Friedman, told me this quote by his teacher and eminent violinist, Jascha Heifetz: “A violinist should always be happy. He should be happy the performance is going well or if not, he should be happy it will soon be over.” That’s always stuck in my mind.
What are you currently reading?
ML: I’m re reading my favourite book right now, Ender’s Game.
What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure?
ML: Chocolate! It’s the first thing I eat when I wake up.
When are you happiest?
ML: I love bedtime with my kids. The stories and bedtime hugs and kisses. Eating dessert and chocolate comes a pretty close second though, haha.
And finally, who’s the WoW Woman of your life?
ML: That would have to be my mother. I admire her boldness, strength and resilience. She believed in me and my talent, and left Singapore with me when I was nine for violin training. Through the years we’ve had so many adventures together. I didn’t think much of it as a child, but now as a mother myself, I realise what a sacrifice it must have been for her to leave my father in Singapore to help me pursue my dreams.
The String Social is taking place on August 26 (Friday) at Victoria Concert Hall. Tickets are available at S$20, S$30, S$50 and S$85 from Sistic. See you there!