Local teen harpist wins international competition

Nippon International Harp Competition 2014 winner, Lee Yun Chai, started playing the harp when he was five.
Nippon International Harp Competition 2014 winner, Lee Yun Chai, started playing the harp when he was five.PHOTO: NIPPON HARP COMPETITION 2014

Parents of Nippon harp competition winner saw his passion and bought the instrument for him

At age seven, Lee Yun Chai was already playing a $45,000 Camac concert harp.

His parents used their savings to buy it to support their only child's dream to be a musician.

Their investment has paid off. Yun Chai, 17, topped the advanced division of the 26th Nippon International Harp Competition 2014 last month.

Held in Soka, Japan, the competition is one of the longest-running in the world, dating back to 1989, and is the only international harp competition organised in Asia.

Mr Lee Yue Yee and Mrs Linda Lee say that they were willing to spend money on the harp because they recognised their son's talent and passion when he started playing the string instrument at the age of five.

"When the teacher suggested getting him into competitions and buying a concert harp that costly, we were hesitant at first because we didn't know if he would be serious since he was so young," says Mr Lee, 61, who runs The Life Skills Reading Centre, a private English tuition centre in Upper Bukit Timah, with his wife, who is in her 50s.

"But he told us not to crush his dreams. And even though he got blisters from the strings of the concert harp, he persevered and just kept putting bandage after bandage on his fingers. And that's when we knew that he was really passionate about playing the harp."

In a telephone interview with Life! from New York, where he is studying at the Juilliard School, Yun Chai says of taking part in the competition: "It's very easy to get lost in the moment on stage and let your muscle memory take over when you're performing. That's when most mistakes happen.

"I knew that I made a few mistakes during the performance for the competition, but I tried to play the best I could with my heart and soul and I was very happy with my performance."

The confidence comes from 12 years of performing and competing.

At age 11, he was the youngest participant in the sixth Lily Laskine International Harp Competition 2008 in Paris.

He took third position in the junior division of the 16th Nippon International Harp Competition 2004 when he was seven, and came in first in the Singapore-Malaysia Harp Competition when he was 13.

He was also the first Singaporean to be selected to perform at the World Harp Congress 2012 in Vancouver, Canada, when he was 15.

The triennial event, which started in 1981, is a gathering of harpists and musicians worldwide and featured notable harpists such as Naoko Yoshino, Ina Zdorovetchi and Bernard Andres.

Yun Chai's love for the instrument started after a trial session with renowned local harpist Katryna Tan when he was five.

His mother says: "When he touched and felt the small harp, he told me that that was what he wanted to learn. And even when I told him that it is usually for girls, he was persistent and told me that was what he wanted."

A year later, Yun Chai enrolled in Rave Harps Academy, founded by Ms Tan.

Ms Tan, who is in her 30s and has more than 10 years of teaching experience in Singapore and Malaysia, says: "I remember Yun Chai to be very smart and attentive in class for such a young boy. Every week, he came to the lesson, practised and prepared, and was always ready to jump on the chair to play the harp.

"And when I started to go beyond the notes and into musicality, it was very natural for him and I could see him enjoying music very much from his heart. His music touches all who hear him play because it is as if he owns the music and can bring out its essence."

Since September last year, Yun Chai has been living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, with a guardian. He is taking the Pre-College programme at Juilliard, as well as the high school programme at the Professional Children's School, for young people working as or aspiring to be actors, dancers and musicians.

The former School of the Arts, Singapore student auditioned for the programme in Juilliard last year.

Not only was he accepted into the school, but he also won first place in the Pre-College Juilliard Open Concerto Competition six months after being enrolled there.

Open to all students across the Juilliard School pre-college division, the competition won him a waiver in school fees for 11/2 years in Juilliard, and one year at the Professional Children's School.

His win has helped to ease the burden of the hefty annual school fees of US$47,000 (S$62,200) that his parents have to pay. They sold their Honda Odyssey and withdrew money from Mr Lee's CPF account to pay for his education.

"But we have no regrets after seeing how hard he works and how dedicated he is," says Mrs Lee, who supports his decision to leave the School of the Arts to focus on music in the United States.

Yun Chai, who will return next year for National Service, plans to apply to conservatories in Europe or the US to continue pursuing a degree in harp performance after national service.

He says: "To me, music is an expression of emotion and intellect, as well as a source of pleasure and entertainment. I hope to be able to allow people to leave their worries or stress at the door, and really enjoy music as much as they possibly can during my performances.

"I hope that my music can not only express myself and move people, but also stay true to the origins and maintain the rich traditions that classical music comes from."

plow@sph.com.sg