Singaporean piano prodigy Heegan Lee Shzen plays musical catch-up

Heegan Lee Shzen
Heegan Lee ShzenPHOTO: THE BEAUTYBOX STUDIO

Despite being gifted with the ability to play back music he hears, Heegan Lee Shzen had a late start learning the technical side of music

At just five years old, little-known Singaporean piano prodigy Heegan Lee Shzen, 26, could sit at the piano and play back any song he heard.

This came as a surprise to his parents who had signed him up for a basic piano course when he was four, but were unaware of their son's talent.

One evening, a Taiwanese guest who was staying at their house played Mariage d'Amour by French pianist Richard Clayderman on the piano.

"I remember thinking, 'How nice if my son could play like that,'" recalls his mother Yvonne Lee, 52, who is now Lee's manager.

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Her wish was granted the very next day. She woke up to the tune of the same song and was shocked to see a small pair of hands playing back the first half of Mariage d'Amour. It was her five-year-old son playing the song by ear, entirely from memory.

"We were so intrigued and very shocked because no one in our family had a musical background, and Heegan didn't even have proper piano exposure. All he learnt were the basics like music listening and singing the solfeges (using Do, Re, Mi etc, to sing)," says Mrs Lee.

The catching-up process certainly wasn't easy. What my friends could do at their own pace, I had to do 20 times faster. I just didn't have all that knowledge and exposure they had accumulated over the years and had a lot to catch up on.

HEEGAN LEE SHZEN, who dropped out of secondary school here to pursue a music education at the Manhattan School of Music

He will be performing in the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City in April and plans to hold another concert in Singapore in June.

While his musical talent was discovered early, it was only later that he developed a love of classical music.

At 14, he heard Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, Op. 23 on a DVD and fell in love with it.

He immediately took to the piano and played back the entire song by ear from memory.

From then, he began doing more research on classical music and started collecting CDs and DVDs on piano and violin works.

He even began composing his own songs, without having had any proper theory training.

A neighbour knocked on their door one evening while Lee was playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 In C Minor, Op. 18 on the piano.

"We thought that she was going to complain about the music being too loud," says Mrs Lee, with a laugh.

But it turned out that their neighbour was simply curious about where the beautiful music was coming from. She was surprised when she found out a teenager could play such virtuoso pieces without proper training.

She then linked the young pianist up with Dr Min Kwon, a renowned concert pianist and chair of keyboard and associate professor of piano at Rutgers University in the United States, who was in Singapore for a few days.

Dr Kwon was so impressed by Lee's talent that she spent six hours at his home teaching him technique and listening to his compositions.

She says: "His ability to compose with styles and techniques of various composers is nothing short of phenomenal. Heegan is a unique and highly gifted musician - a talent I have never encountered before."

She returned to New York and informed a piano faculty member of The Juilliard School of Lee's talent.

Much to the budding musician's surprise, he received an invitation a few weeks later to the coveted live audition at The Julliard School in New York even though he had never planned to apply.

The faculty members were impressed by his audition and his raw talent, but recognised that he had lots to catch up on technically due to his lack of training.

They suggested that he be mentored privately under a Julliard faculty member for a year before enrolling.

But instead of taking up that offer, Lee enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music as the only student accepted that academic year by Professor Phillip Kawin, head of piano and president of the College Faculty Council at the Manhattan School of Music.

Lee, who has two younger sisters, dropped out of Secondary 3 at Anglo-Chinese School International Singapore and finished his high school diploma at the Professional Children's School in New York City while attending weekly pre-college lessons at the Manhattan School of Music.

He says: "It was a huge step for me. Up till then, I didn't consider music as a career, just a hobby.

"Had I not gone into music, I probably would have been a food critic, or done something along the lines of design."

Professor Kawin, who mentored Lee for eight years, says: "Although he commenced later than most, Heegan possesses qualities that cannot be taught. His kind of passion, curiosity and enthusiasm are quite rare and his potential was enormous.

"His development has been quite extraordinary as a pianist and as a brilliant young artist."

Lee went on to complete his bachelor's of music degree followed by a master's of music before graduating in 2014 from the Manhattan School of Music.

He also received The President's Award at the school for his outstanding performance abilities and academic achievements.

But success did not come easy for Lee, who had to work much harder than his peers in school.

"The catching-up process certainly wasn't easy. What my friends could do at their own pace, I had to do 20 times faster. I just didn't have all that knowledge and exposure they had accumulated over the years and had a lot to catch up on," he says.

" I just tried not to think too much and did what I had to do. After all, music is my passion and I treated the work not as an obstacle, but as something enjoyable."

Since his return to Singapore in 2014, he has been giving back to society through masterclasses and talks to students at schools, such as Saint Joseph's Institution International School, in the hope of inspiring other young musicians to chase their passion for music.

He also performed for patients at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in 2015.

"I hope to bring music to the younger generation and a wider audience - to bridge the gap between classical music and the modern audience.

"I wish to share my music to benefit as many people as possible just as it has benefited me," he says.

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarifications and errors. We are sorry for the errors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Pianist plays musical catch-up'. Print Edition | Subscribe