MUSIC IN MY LIFE AND MY FAMILY
GRANDMA WAS A PIANIST. BORN in the 1890s, she was of high society and was privileged enough to have studied music in Singapore. My working-class parents, believing that their daughter should know music, bought me a very old piano which I fell in love with. These were the first seed of real interest and passion.
Fascinated by Strauss waltzes and showy piano pieces, I explored the world-famous pieces with whatever books I could find. I would save up pocket money to buy them, getting them secondhand from my teacher’s advanced students and from friends. Very quickly, I could read many things on my own and explored many genres.
Music, all kinds of music, excited my soul. At 11 years old, my first music anchor outside of lessons and small concerts was in the church choir. In the Roman Catholic Church of St Joseph’s, we sang church music and Latin masses – such amazing heavenly melodies and harmonies. I was mesmerised by the compositions and started exploring the yellow pages of many old manuscripts left in the cathedral.
To this day, I believe God had a mighty plan for me. It was only years later, when I was fully in Ministry and service, that I realised music was His purpose for me. God also found me a husband who loves and appreciates music and is always my greatest supporter.
As a school pianist at St Teresa’s, I was introduced to so many musicals, thanks to my Canadian music teacher, Mrs Victoria Apau. The huge variety of musical pieces that I got to play opened a door… and my heart.
My then piano teacher Datin Julia Chong kept the scales rolling with her many musical evenings and by encouraging me to see as many visiting artistes as possible whenever British Council brought them in. When she retired, it was Londontrained soprano Mrs Chan Hui Ling who exposed me to musical evenings and operettas.
About to leave for further studies, I was at a crossroads: my genuine interest – Education, or Medicine, which also inspired me. I thought about how being in school never fed the creative part of me, and about how my artiste friends who were gifted outside the academic structure never received any recognition.
My father brought me to speak with a lady doctor after my Victorian High School Certificate and I made my decision that same night. I would pursue music and do it well. My parents were disappointed but still supported me. Looking back, God had placed the right people there for me at that point of decision.
I started taking students as soon as I got my Diploma in Music at 15. Teaching came naturally to me. I often assisted my teachers in helping younger music students. To excel as a musician, one needs to be an educator at some point of the journey. Teaching accelerated my creative thinking, causing me to think of pedagogical concepts and helping me understand that not everybody.
When I was the Music Director of the Sarawak Music Society, I realised that I needed further education. Even as a young teacher, my thirst for knowledge and advancement was not easily satisfied despite being packed to the brim with students and despite being able to put up big and successful concerts.
But God had a mighty plan for me. I was offered a British Council scholarship to study music in London at Trinity College of Music and later at the Royal Academy of Music. I worked hard and completed my Fellowship and Bachelor’s degree. I wanted to perform more instead of being stuck in teaching, so I began taking master classes from international educators and invested all I had in learning better skills in playing, theory and music education.
My father and I started International Music House (IMH) and my diploma students became my earliest staff. The very first music specialist school in Kuching was off to a start! I took care in the education and musical excellence side. Dad ran the business side of it until my sister returned from Singapore to take over the reins, leading it into the limited company we are today. Whilst in UK, I was inspired by nationalistic composers who wrote music of their homeland. I too dreamt about writing and composing music for Sarawak and Malaysia.
My big break came in 1993 when IMH was appointed the main facilitator of the National Day Symphonic Band and Night Concert for Sarawak’s 30th Anniversary National Day held in Kuching. It took all my creative powers and abilities to pull off managing compositions, junior choirs, a combined symphonic band formation and national concert … although there are moments when I wished I listened to dad and became a medical doctor or lecturer instead. As Conductor of Sarawak State Symphony Orchestra (SONS) for seven years, I’ve single-handedly trained the choir and orchestra from scratch, bringing them to international shores. I’ve produced musicals and dance dramas, including The Sarawak Dream, which gained outstanding reviews.
This opened my heart to search for and compile ethnic compositions, to arrange them for orchestra or choir and to compose new pieces based on the cultures and villages I visited. In Sarawak, it is music that gave each ethnic group its identity, placing it on the world map. Its songs, dances, instrumental sounds and rhythms signified identity, fame and fortune for Sarawak and Malaysia.
When I started the IMH Academy for higher learning in Music, it was because our many talents couldn’t afford to go overseas. The cost of running a higher learning institution was too much to bear, but all that we gained from it was worth the price.
In my journey, I am thankful that God has planted this rare seed in my heart and gave me this fulfilling life today. I do not teach anymore except for some exceptional talents, and autistic kids who come searching for the joy of music. But I continue writing and reaching out in many ways because there is still much to share about what music has to offer the world.
Dr Geraldine Law-Lee is theExecutive Director of the IMH Group of Companies. She is also National President of the Music and Medicine Society (MSMM) and President of Society of Professional Musicians Sarawak (SPM). This article is a tribute to all who have shaped my life in this journey with music.