{Interview #3} Elaine Yeo – SSO Musician

Elaine Yeo is a Musician with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). She is the Associate Principal Cor Anglais cum Second Oboe, and has been with the SSO for over 20 years. She is married to a real estate manager and they have 2 children.

This initiative is part of our 101 Paths to Success series of interviews to gain insight into how successful people came to do what they are doing, and enlighten parents that there is a vast array of occupations for our children to discover. Hopefully it might spark an interest in our children and youths to start their journey of discerning their life’s path.

Your qualifications

BMus (Hons)

Exclusive photo: SSO rehearsal

Describe your job

As a performing musician with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), we perform in public concerts every week, usually at the Esplanade Concert Hall or the Victoria Concert Hall. We also perform at outdoor venues such as the Botanic Gardens or Gardens by the Bay. The concerts are held mostly on Friday or Saturday evenings. We start our work week on Tuesday mornings to rehearse for the coming weekend’s concert. We would typically have 4 rehearsals for each concert, with each session lasting between 4 to 6 hours.

Unlike most jobs, we don’t sit behind a desk. We bring our instrument and sit on stage with our own music stand. No reports to make, no computer work, and we don’t even use pens! But we do use a pencil to make markings on our music scores.

I take the music scores home to practice at least a week or two before, sometimes earlier, if the piece is challenging. Each musician has the responsibility to come very well prepared for the rehearsals. This means that we have to know our parts perfectly, and when we meet, the conductor’s job is to combine 95 musicians to play as one.

Tell us about your career path

Unlike many students, I knew I wanted to become a professional musician quite early on. By the time I was 16 years old, I knew I wanted to make music my career. I took Music as a subject at O Levels and then chose a JC that offered Music at A Levels, despite most of my friends going to another JC.

I wanted to be a professional oboe player. Whether I could obtain my dream at that time, I was not sure. But I practiced as hard as I could, every single day, for at least 1.5 hours, and tried to expose myself to as much music as I could.

My parents were very supportive of me, and decided to let me study oboe performance in the UK. It helped enormously that I already had an older sister studying music at that time. My parents decided that I would go to the same school so that she could ‘look after’ me in my first year. In university, I would practice for a minimum of 3 hours every day.

I was very lucky to have landed an orchestral job in my home country. There are many musicians who have to travel to foreign countries to find a job. In our orchestra, we have about 20 different countries represented. There are always more musicians looking for jobs than vacancies available.

After I graduated from the Royal Northern College in Manchester (RNCM), there was a vacancy in the oboe section in the SSO. It was perfect timing. I auditioned for the position and was accepted.

How did you find your passion?

I started music lessons at the age of 7. Like most children, I started by learning to play on the piano. In those days, opportunities to learn other instruments were few and far between. I did not enjoy playing the piano. My mother had to nag at me everyday to keep up the practice. However, if not for my mother, I believe I would have quit the piano much earlier and I really don’t know what else I would be doing today!

I believe my choice of instrument was purely by chance. When I was 13 years old, I auditioned to join the Singapore Youth Orchestra with my piano background. After I was accepted, I took up a second instrument. I wanted to play a double reed woodwind instrument as I wanted to be ‘different’. The people I knew played more common instruments like violin, flute, clarinet or trumpet and trombone. So I opted for the bassoon. But I was quite small sized at 13 years old, and you need big hands to play on the bassoon. So they told me to learn the oboe instead.

I had no idea what an oboe was or even what it sounded like! I started lessons and a year and a half later, I joined the ensemble. I even remember the day I attended the first rehearsal. I had no idea that we had specific places to sit. As I was new, I wanted to ‘hide’ and sit at the back. Unfortunately, I was told I had to sit on the first row, right in front where the woodwinds sit!

From that day on, there was no turning back. I enjoyed playing on the oboe very much, and making good music with my friends. Unlike the piano, playing the oboe in the youth orchestra gave me ample opportunity to share my interest amongst friends. Within the orchestra, we formed small ensemble groups and played in recitals and small concerts. We had so much fun. The interest in music grew from there.

Which aspect of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

We perform many concerts a year, but the performances that give me the most satisfaction are not very many. You tend to set high standards for yourself and want to get everything right. Like any piece of art form, it can always be improved upon, and success is very subjective.

When I personally feel that I have played my best in a solo, and I know the audience appreciates this, it gives me the most satisfaction. I suppose it’s like a cook – they are happiest if you enjoy eating the food they have created after hours of work in the kitchen.

What does success mean to you?

Success means that I have conveyed my love of music to others. Whether it is through performance in concerts or teaching my students. I always tell my students that I teach them to teach themselves. I try to reflect my love of music to them, and it is always a sense of achievement when you see students develop into professional musicians in their own right.

How do you balance your time between work and family?

With 2 very young children (aged 3 and 1), it can be quite difficult. Concerts are almost always on weekends. On concert nights, I have a supportive husband who helps to put the children to bed, and a capable helper who knows my kids well. Rehearsals are on weekday mornings, and I try to spend time with the children in the afternoons and evenings.

One advice to parents

Develop a love of music in children. Life would be much richer. Sometimes the instrument you have chosen for them might not be the right one. As was my case, I really did not enjoy the piano at all. But I was fortunate that my mother persevered and didn’t allow me to give it up at an early stage. I later found an instrument I enjoyed playing on and my love of music developed from there.

One advice to teens

There is a reason for learning responsibility and discipline when you are young. If you are late for rehearsals or recordings, your salary will be docked accordingly! During every performance, we have to be fully focused as there is no room for mistakes. Teamwork is crucial as every single person has their part to play in making each concert a success.

{Interviews} 101 Paths to Success

#1 – Dr Karen Crasta Scientist Associate Prof at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine

#2 – Jeremiah Choy Creative Director Sing50 Concert at the National Stadium

~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~

2 Replies to “{Interview #3} Elaine Yeo – SSO Musician”

  1. Such an interesting journey! Rare elements that all fit in nicely, supportive parents (financially and in-principle), and the fact that she was so sure from such a young age. Encouraging!

  2. Yes, it was rather eye-opening for me to discover Elaine's journey. We see the musicians on stage during the SSO concerts but have no idea how they got there. I wonder even in this day and age, how many parents would be that supportive if their child wanted to walk this path, and we might think they are young and might change their mind. The role of parents is so important.

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