Music mistress of discipline

Violin mentor Vivien Goh laments that young musicians now practise so much less than before

Cultural Medallion recipient Vivien Goh picked a career as a music teacher over one as a performer. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
Vivien Goh, with her parents, elder sister Sylvia and younger sister Patricia. -- PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES/GOH SOON TIOE COLLECTION
Vivien Goh and playing with her father Goh Soon Tioe and elder sister. PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES/GOH SOON TIOE COLLECTION
Goh (above) receiving the Cultural Medallion in 1984 with photographer Ang Chwee Chai and drama actor-director Christopher Allen, and conducting a rehearsal last month. PHOTO: ST FILE
Goh receiving the Cultural Medallion in 1984 with photographer Ang Chwee Chai and drama actor-director Christopher Allen, and conducting a rehearsal (above) last month. PHOTO: GILBERT CHAN/PIXELMUSICA PHOTO: GILBERT CHAN/PIXELMUSICA
  • Background Story

  • My life so far

    "I play on a 'workhorse violin'. It's a 1968 French instrument my father gave me, not so expensive."

    Vivien Goh, on her violin

    "I didn't want to be a conductor, it was always put upon me. When my father fell ill in the 1970s, I took over his string orchestra. Then when the Singapore Youth Orchestra was looking for a conductor, they asked me."

    On her career

    "The original idea of the Singapore Youth Orchestra was to get this orchestra together so we could send some local musicians to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. We didn't have local musicians of that standard then."

    On the origins of the youth orchestra

  • Book it


    Where: Victoria Concert Hall

    When: July 5, 7.30pm

    Admission: $20, $40 and $80 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

When Vivien Goh picks up her violin, she transforms instantly from the kindly woman-next-door into an imperious muse: back straight, head high, feet positioned in a graceful Y, her entire body perfectly poised to play.

Point this out during the photo shoot at her Housing Board flat in Bishan and she laughs. "That's good. Students always slouch. I have to keep reminding them to stand up straight."

At 67, she has mentored young musicians in Singapore for more than four decades and continues to teach, conduct and support them, most recently through various musical prizes set up in the name of her late father Goh Soon Tioe.

He was an impresario who shaped the classical music scene in post-war Singapore, organising concerts and producing local talent from violinist Kam Kee Yong to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's first conductor, Choo Hoey.

To keep his memory alive, Goh and her family, along with some of her father's former students, established the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Fund in 2011 to give an annual award of $4,000 to an accomplished violin or string player aged 16 to 25.

She also endowed the $10,000 Goh Soon Tioe Outstanding Performer Award for an exceptional violinist at the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition - the last such award will be bestowed this year - as well as a US$5,000 (S$6,670) Goh Soon Tioe Violin and Piano Recital Prize for five editions of the Singapore International Violin Competition, starting with the inaugural contest in January this year.

Goh taught students with her father, turning scrapers and fiddlers into a polished ensemble and, after her father's health deteriorated, taking over the conductorship of his Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra, as well as the post of music director of the Singapore Youth Orchestra from 1980 to 1990.

Many of the teenagers who learnt under her watchare now full-time professional musicians, including in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Dozens of them will reunite on July 5 for a concert at Victoria Concert Hall, under her baton.

"Write about the concert, don't write about me," she says. "Enough has been written about me."

She has been making headlines in her own right for 50 years. She obtained the qualification of Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music at age 15 and a year later, was Singapore's student of the year for scoring eight distinctions in the Cambridge Schools Certificate Examination.

At 17, she gave her first recital at the Kuala Lumpur Town Hall and soon after, received a full-tuition scholarship for her music degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Four years later, she gave up what could have been a promising career as a solo performer to return to Singapore and follow in her father's footsteps as a teacher and mentor.

For her services to music, she was awarded the Cultural Medallion, Singapore's highest arts honour, when she was only 34. Talk about this and she laughs, dismissing her achievements.

"It was all because of my father," she says. "My earliest memory is of him teaching in the bedroom next door. It was a house of scraping and fiddling."

A Methodist Girls' School alumna, she is the middle of three daughters born to Goh Soon Tioe and his wife Chang Lee Sieng, an English teacher.

The family, including Vivien's older sister Sylvia and the late Patricia, lived in a bungalow in Balmoral Crescent and turned bedrooms and outbuildings into studios for music lessons and rehearsals for the Goh Soon Tioe String Orchestra.

Goh describes this in a biography of her father's life, Goh Soon Tioe: One Great Symphony, published in 1992 by Landmark Books.

She was given a violin when she was six and promptly hid it under the bed. "I wouldn't practise," she recalls. "I think all of us rejected it. My older sister cried. My father said his jaw dropped."

He would not give up and for a while, tried giving Goh lessons after dinner. "I was tired, he was tired after a day of teaching, so it was more shouting than teaching."

But by the age of eight, she decided that hours of practice were worthwhile if it allowed her to be part of the junior section of the Goh Soon Tioe String Ensemble. "It was a social thing, all the children playing there - you wanted to join in."

By 12, she had impressed her father, who spent more time on her lessons so that within three years, she was an adept.

Often, the family would host visiting musicians whom Goh's father invited to headline the concerts he organised, and the sisters would be trotted out to perform for stars such as Tchaikovsky prize-winning violinist Valery Klimov.

The sisters were given piano lessons as well, but the omnipresent sounds of the string ensemble made Goh settle on the violin.

"All those years I played in the orchestra, from eight to 12 years old, my father didn't teach me much. If I hadn't been playing in the orchestra, I'd have lost all those early years. I'd have lost music."

Perhaps an echo of this thought shaped her decision to return to Singapore after completing her music degree in New York. "I came back because I was homesick and because I wanted to teach - like my father," she says.

She started a quartet with her older sister and two others, and this Temasek Quartet gave three concerts a year from 1972 to 1975, until one of the members moved.

After that, they played as a trio, Goh says with a laugh. "I envy the young people nowadays. In those days, there were no colleagues for you to play with."

Music and its makers are her life and for that reason she never married.

Most days were spent at the Balmoral Crescent bungalow teaching students.

Goh is praised by many of her former charges for her professionalism and dedication, but she gave slackers short shrift.

Sound engineer Bruno Luse, 39, is the older of her two nephews, the son of her sister Sylvia, and says his after-school visits to his grandparents' home were punctuated by the sound of Goh's voice.

"You could hear the ire of the teachers and of them, my aunt shouted the loudest," he says. "Usually along the lines of, 'F-sharp!' She's the one who takes the most after my grandfather."

That same uncompromising desire for perfection and professionalism was turned on the teenagers who joined the Singapore Youth Orchestra - Goh was its string coach in 1971, when her father was its conductor, and she later took the baton from 1980 to 1990.

One might imagine an after-school gathering of musically inclined teenagers to be a relaxed, social gathering of the sort that emphasises fun over pure sound. But in those days, the Singapore Youth Orchestra was an ensemble with a mission.

"Remember, we didn't have that many Singaporean musicians of that standard in those days," Goh says. "We were supposed to be a feeder for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, so the training had to be rigorous. Schools would send their best students to us."

Asked to describe the years under Goh, former Singapore Youth Orchestra members immediately talk about how strict she was, how her eagle eye would spot slackers who might not have practised their part or who were not paying attention, and single them out for a stomach- turning solo in the spotlight.

Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinist Karen Tan, now in her 40s, was a teenager in Cedar Girls' Secondary School when she auditioned for and got into the youth orchestra. She says: "Ms Goh was very, very strict and I'm terribly grateful for that because she instilled the discipline that this art form requires."

It was a game-changer for aspiring musicians like her because there was no other ensemble that gave young music- lovers a chance to play in a full orchestra and rehearse twice a week.

Ms Tan adds: "Without the youth orchestra, it would have been difficult for us who had never experienced professional orchestral training."

She played with the youth orchestra for more than three years, until leaving for the Royal College of Music in London under an SSO-PSA scholarship. She continues to play with Singapore Youth Orchestra alumni and will be concertmaster of the upcoming XYO - short for "ex-youth orchestra" - concert next month.

Viola player Yeo Jan Wea, 47, who teaches the instrument at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), says: "Ms Goh had very high expectations of us and expected us to come to rehearsals prepared." He was singled out in rehearsal once and asked to demonstrate that he knew his part.

"It was nerve-racking for sure," he recalls, but it resulted in lifelong bonds between him and other youth orchestra members - as well as Goh, who regularly hosts reunion gatherings for her former charges at her home.

By 1990, Goh felt schools were putting less emphasis on the youth orchestra and that its initial vision had been compromised. She says: "I was still getting the best and the brightest, but they weren't coming to rehearsals as seriously as they did in the beginning. I couldn't work in that environment."

She resigned and started a violin group for children aged eight to 10 for about a decade. She kept it going through breast cancer in her 40s - cured after surgery - and also began volunteering with a breast cancer clinic at Changi General Hospital. She currently also helps out at the hospital's geriatric care centre, keeping older patients company.

Her days are full: She wakes up by 6am; enjoys long walks, especially in the Botanic Gardens; teaches students; and always makes time to attend concerts featuring family or former students.

She says she would like to retire, except students keep coming to her, though she wishes they would practise more before their lessons.

"Students don't practise, so I can get through very few things in one hour because they're not prepared. You should practise one or two hours a day if you're in a youth orchestra. If you want to be a professional musician, practise six hours a day."

She laughs, thinking of all the reluctant students she has seen, especially in the youth orchestra. "I like the story of the young guy who told me, 'My father had to drag me there, but later, he had to drag me away to study for my exams.'

"You're not so lonely in an orchestra, there's that social aspect. You socialise with people your age. You make music together, struggle together. You make this nice sound together and you are part of a whole."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline The teens Vivien Goh taught are now SSO musicians. Subscribe