It Changed My Life

Natural-born erhu player

At 19, Miss Ow's list of achievements includes performing solos with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, joining its youth wing and becoming the first recipient of the Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship. One of her solo performances was at the Deutsche
At 19, Miss Ow's list of achievements includes performing solos with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, joining its youth wing and becoming the first recipient of the Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship. One of her solo performances was at the Deutsche Bank-Singapore Chinese Orchestra Dream Beyond concert held last September.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
At 19, Miss Ow's list of achievements includes performing solos with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, joining its youth wing and becoming the first recipient of the Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship. One of her solo performances was at the Deutsche
At 19, Miss Ow's list of achievements includes performing solos with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, joining its youth wing and becoming the first recipient of the Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship. One of her solo performances was at the Deutsche Bank-Singapore Chinese Orchestra Dream Beyond concert (above) held last September.PHOTO COURTESY OF DEUTSCHE BANK

Stephanie Ow, who is blind, had tried to join her school's Chinese Orchestra but failed

When Stephanie Ow was one month old, her father took her to visit his elder sister and her husband.

The infant bawled lustily at the couple's Sengkang flat but quietened and gurgled whenever her aunt's husband cradled her in his arms. "It was most strange," says Stephanie's uncle, Mr Lee Leong Seng, 60, who works as a Taoist priest.

Because of the special bond they share, he and his wife, Madam Ow Sau Sun, did not think twice about taking the child in a few years later when she was diagnosed with retinal dystrophy.

Stephanie's mother abandoned her and disappeared; her father, an odd job labourer, barely earned enough to feed himself, let alone take care of a blind child.

Fast forward 14 years.

Miss Ow is a well-spoken, self-assured and confident young woman of 19. Her parents may have given her short shrift, but her aunt and uncle have raised her with a lot of love and affection.

"I've not seen or heard from my mother since but my father pops by to visit me once in a while," she says. "My aunt and uncle take very good care of me; they're like my real parents. They know me so well. Just from my facial expression, they know exactly what I'm thinking," she adds with a laugh.

It was also Mr Lee who helped her discover her knack and gift for music by sending her for erhu - a two-stringed Chinese fiddle - lessons when she was 14.

  • For more of Wong Kim Hoh’s inspiring real life stories, get his new book It Changed My Life. Available for  $29.96 at all major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg

Within a year of picking up the instrument, she earned a grade 4 certificate of distinction, a feat that even her sighted peers would find hard to achieve. Her blindness means she cannot read scores so she has to commit each note to memory.

Serendipity introduced her to Mr Quek Ling Kiong, the conductor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO). That meeting changed her life and took her on a musical journey she never thought possible: performing solos with the SCO, joining its youth wing and becoming the first recipient of the Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship.

She has just finished her first year at Singapore Raffles Music College where she is studying for a diploma in music.

When she graduates, she wants to be a professional musician.

"I also want to teach music to other visually impaired students, and encourage them to pursue their dreams," she says.

Sitting in the living room of her guardians' spotless four-room flat in Sengkang, Miss Ow says she spent the first few years of her life in a rented flat in Beach Road.

Her parents and relatives were befuddled as to why the toddler kept knocking into things when she started walking.

Mr Lee recalls: "When she was three, one doctor said she was probably severely myopic and needed glasses which cost a few hundred dollars. They didn't help."

An eye specialist, he adds, later diagnosed her with retinal dystrophy with severely damaged optic nerves.

Miss Ow says: "I can see light and make out some shapes. If the distance is right, I can tell if a person is in front of me. If not, I will just run into that person."

One day, her mother asked her if she would like to be with her grandmother who lived with the Lees. The child said "yes" because she liked it there. And that was how she ended up with the Lees in Sengkang. Not long after, her mother disappeared and has not been heard from since. Her grandmother died last year.

Asked if she is resentful of her parents, she says: "I feel neutral. There are times when I question why they left but it's better not to dwell on that. No matter what, life has to go on."

The Lees, who have a 32-year-old son of their own, say she was a quiet and timid child when she first came to live with them, often staying in her room, listening to the radio or to audio books.

Over time, she began to open up.

Miss Ow completed her primary education at Lighthouse, a special school formerly known as the School For The Visually Handicapped.

By nine, she had mastered Braille and become a voracious reader, delighting in works by English children's writer Enid Blyton as well as C.S. Lewis, who authored several fantasy novels for children, including The Chronicles Of Narnia.

"There was a library in the school and I would borrow a couple of books every week," she says, adding that she loves stories about Greek and Egyptian gods.

She continued her secondary education at the mainstream Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary in Yishun.

It took her some time to get used to her new environment.

"In Lighthouse, we had at most six or seven students in one class. Here, we had a lot more and when everybody talked at the same time, it was very noisy."

A sighted classmate was always seated next to her to help her read what was written on the whiteboard or overhead projector. The school also provided lesson notes in Braille.

Her foray into music happened by accident. "I wanted to learn how to play an instrument - guitar, piano or violin - in primary school but my aunt and uncle could not afford lessons then," she recalls.

When she was 14, she tried to join the school's Chinese Orchestra but was told there were no openings.

When Mr Lee learnt about this, he decided to send her to a teacher in Chinatown for erhu lessons.

"I wanted to learn how to play the guzheng (a Chinese zither with 21 strings) but he suggested the erhu instead because he felt it might be easier for me to manage as it has only two strings," she says.

Initially, she was not too enamoured of the instrument.

"I found the sound annoying and screechy when I first started. But my uncle told me to persevere," she says.

Three months later, she got the hang of the instrument.

Learning to play pieces, however, was arduous.

"My teacher had to teach me the score. She would tell me the notes and I had to memorise them. She would break longer pieces into different sections so that it would be easier for me. I also recorded the lesson and would practise at home," says Ms Ow, who practised for an hour daily.

She was such a natural that her teacher suggested that she take her Grade 4 exam after six months of lessons.

She aced it, not a mean feat as sighted students can take up to three years to reach the same grade. The following year when she was 15, she took up the violin and scored a distinction for her Grade 2 exam within 10 months.

The turning point came three years ago when a social worker told her that the SCO was giving a performance at Lighthouse.

She attended the performance and met the SCO's conductor, Mr Quek.

"When he found out that I play the erhu, he was very happy," she says.

They started corresponding via e-mail. He would invite her to SCO performances and she would send him recordings of her playing and tell him about the progress she was making.

One day, he told her he was looking for someone to play an erhu solo for a Mother's Day concert.

Mr Quek asked if she was keen to try out for the gig.

She agreed, and three days later she took her instrument down to Tiong Bahru Park where the SCO was giving a performance and played for Mr Quek and the orchestra's principal erhu player.

The piece she prepared was Hong Hu Ren Min De Xin Yuan (The Hopes Of The Hong Hu People).

"I was very nervous. As I was playing, I could hear them whispering to each other," she says.

The duo were suitably impressed and offered her the gig which was just one month away. It was a big gamble, especially as Ms Ow had never performed in public before, let alone be accompanied by a full orchestra.

Mr Quek introduced her to an SCO member who helped her to familiarise herself with the score.

They met for three Saturdays before the actual show, and she rehearsed with the SCO, which has about 80 members, just four times during the week of the concert.

"I'm sure they must have been very nervous as I am visually impaired and had never performed with an orchestra. On the day of the performance, I just kept to myself and then played," says Ms Ow, who was a Secondary 4 student then.

She acquitted herself so well that Mr Quek asked her to join the SCO's youth orchestra so that she could receive more intensive and rigorous erhu training. She has performed solo with the SCO in three other concerts since.

For the last couple of years, she has been taught by the SCO's associate principal erhu player, Mr Ling Hock Siang.

"She can't see so that's a big hurdle but that's not her fault and she makes up for it by being very hardworking and industrious. She records everything and goes home to practise diligently, and her improvement is very obvious.

"She definitely has the talent and a very good ear. There is a lot of passion and she has her own interpretative style. Because she is so hardworking, she really motivates me and makes me want to teach her more," says Mr Ling, who sees his blind student twice a week.

Believing that she has what it takes to be a professional musician, both Mr Quek and Mr Ling felt that she needed a formal music education.

They encouraged her to apply for the inaugural Deutsche Bank-SCO Music Scholarship and helped her enrol in the Singapore Raffles Music College in March last year.

The scholarship pays for all her training with the SCO as well as all her school fees for her three-year diploma in music.

"It's challenging because I'm the college's blind student but the lecturers try their best to help me. They are also looking at how they can help me get resources and notes in Braille," says Miss Ow.

In the meantime, she has the help of an SCO percussionist who tutors her in music theory and helps to explain what she does not understand in class.

Since joining the college, she has also started taking piano lessons.

"They want to train me to read the Braille score and play the piano so that I can teach others later," she says.

Ms Ow is surprised by how her life has turned out but says she could not have done it without the help of those who believe in her, especially Mr Lee and Madam Ow.

Mr Lee ferries her to all her training sessions, while Madam Ow patiently takes her to school each day and waits for her until she finishes her lessons.

Asked why she is so devoted to Ms Ow, the latter just laughs and wipes away a stray tear.

"It's hard to explain but she is like my own daughter," says Madam Ow.

Her husband agrees.

"She has never given us any trouble or worries where her studies are concerned. She takes care of a lot of things herself and she has never asked for anything. We just want her to be able to make a living and take care of herself when we are gone."

When she is not busy with her studies or music, she hangs out with friends, goes to the shopping mall to enjoy the air-conditioning, buries herself in fantasy novels by the likes of Rick Riordan and watches movies on the Internet.

"There's a narrator narrating all the scenes. I've watched all the Narnia movies," she says.

Asked if she harbours hopes of settling down, she lets out a loud bellow.

"I don't know. Sure, I think about it sometimes but you can't force these things," she says.

She giggles when told she has a cheeriness that is quite infectious.

"I always try to be positive," she says. "Honestly, I don't see the point in blaming anyone for anything because I will only make myself more upset if I do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Natural-born erhu player'. Print Edition | Subscribe