WHEN nine-year-old Lauren Yeo bursts out singing Ave Maria in class, her classmates shoot her puzzled stares.
Weaned on a diet of pop, many of them are not familiar with classical music. Lauren, on the other hand, finds it hard to understand why her friends are so crazy over pop singer Adele and boy band One Direction.
"The songs are so noisy that they give me a headache," said the petite Lauren, who is soothed by the mellow tunes of Sarah Brightman and Charlotte Church.
In two months' time, the Primary 4 pupil will also get a chance to be in the spotlight at New York's famed Carnegie Hall.
The invitation was extended to her after she recently won first place at the prestigious American Protege International Vocal competition.
Like her competitors worldwide, she had sent in an unedited 10-minute DVD demo tape.
Lauren will be singing Pie Jesu and Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro in New York as part of a programme involving other soloists. She has to make time now for practices but limits the duration to 20 minutes a day to prevent straining her voice.
It is a remarkable achievement for someone who started taking classical singing lessons only two years ago but its magnitude was initially lost on her.
"I had never heard of Carnegie Hall until I searched for it on Wikipedia after my win. After that, I couldn't sleep the whole night," said Lauren.
But she is no stranger to public attention, having performed at a variety of venues, from the Esplanade and The Arts House to Tiong Bahru hawker centre.
It is a deliberate decision on her parents' part to expose her beyond the established artistic arenas.
"We want her to use her voice to give back to the community at events where people don't need to buy tickets to enjoy the music," said her mother Sue Yeo, 43, a manager who has two older daughters.
These experiences have toughened up Lauren. Last September, she was singing at a community event organised by the People's Association in Bukit Merah Central when an agitated passer-by grabbed her mike stand and threw it at her.
Fortunately, it missed. But she also had the presence of mind to continue singing. The woman was eventually led away by the organisers.
Still, Lauren prefers the informality of heartland events. Concert hall performances can make her nervous because she feels that all eyes are on her.
While she can sing classical songs in Latin or Italian, she has also mastered Mandarin numbers, such as Zhou Xuan's Ye Lai Xiang, to reach out to the elderly when she performs at old folks' homes.
By all accounts, she cannot stop singing, even when she is in the toilet at home, doing homework or during car rides.
Her love for classical singing started when she chanced upon a YouTube video of Jackie Evancho, a 12-year-old American classical singer, singing Time To Say Goodbye.
Inspired by Evancho's powerhouse rendition, she badgered her parents to send her for vocal lessons. Though they are classical music lovers themselves, they turned her down as they thought that she was too young.
It was only when she took pains to memorise Latin or Italian lyrics that they took her seriously and sent her for classes once a week.
Then, her days were already packed with violin and piano lessons as well as mathematics and science tuition.
Every Saturday, she also goes for practices with the Singapore Lyric Opera Children's Choir.
"It can get overwhelming at times although I enjoy them. The melody of classical music relaxes me when I am stressed," said Lauren who also acts in theatre productions and dances.
Despite these demands on her time, she is doing well in school. After she was accepted into the Gifted Education Programme, she transferred from Methodist Girls' School to Nanyang Primary School this year.
In school, she gets time out to stretch her abilities. This week, for example, she skipped three days of classes to film her documentary for the Discovery Kids channel.
She dreams of becoming either an actress or singer. To protect her voice, she takes a honey water drink that her father, a lawyer, prepares every other morning.
But like any other nine-year- old, sometimes, she just wants to go to birthday parties instead of practices or performances.
"My friends are there," she said, "and there is candy."