GIC funds training for special-needs musicians

Inclusive orchestra Purple Symphony gets $450k for music lessons for members

One of the grant recipients, Ms Wan, with her busking partner, Mr Ivni, outside Holland Village MRT. The award programme will provide weekly music lessons for Purple Symphony members.
One of the grant recipients, Ms Wan, with her busking partner, Mr Ivni, outside Holland Village MRT. The award programme will provide weekly music lessons for Purple Symphony members.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

You can say it's music to the ears of the people behind the Purple Symphony, which is touted as Singapore's first inclusive orchestra and started just last year.

It has received $450,000 from sovereign wealth fund GIC to launch an award programme that will provide weekly music lessons for members with special needs. The sum will last three years and train at least 90 of these members.

Each musician's award can go up to $5,000 a year and will pay for up to 40 training sessions, with instructors picked by Central Community Development Council (CDC), which set up the orchestra last year.

To get the grant, applicants must show an aptitude for music and be willing to serve in the Purple Symphony. Beneficiaries may re-apply for the grant each year.

Ms Denise Phua, Mayor of Central Singapore District, said she discovered, through the Purple Symphony, that many people with disabilities had musical talent but lacked formal training.

She said the CDC hoped to target Singaporeans with disabilities but would also consider those without special needs from low-income families.

"We want to do several things - train them so they can eventually carve a livelihood; so they can also contribute and perform at national level; and so they can help us spread the message of inclusion and celebrating abilities by being part of the largest inclusive orchestra in Singapore," she said.

The 90-member orchestra consists of members with and without special needs, with two-thirds of them being Singaporeans with disabilities such as autism.

Since it made its debut in July last year, the Purple Symphony has played in front of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong twice, once at the closing ceremony of the 8th Asean Para Games last year.

Ms Phua, also an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, said: "The Purple Symphony ushers a unique sound and spirit to our nation. Almost everyone who watched them perform were in awe and focused on their abilities and talents, not their disabilities."

Busker Wan Wai Yee, 44, a member of the orchestra and recipient of the training grant, is a regular sight at MRT stations, belting out crowd favourites with her busking partner Ivni Yaakub, 36.

Ms Wan, who became blind after developing a condition called retinopathy of prematurity as an infant, has no formal music training.

She was excited to start lessons. "I want to learn different styles of singing. I like to be versatile. I want to improve my vocal range, my tone and my expression."

She hoped the training would lead to more paid work. "It would be nice to get some regular gigs. And, hopefully, get to do musicals," she said.

Another grant recipient is Ms Huang Li Zhen, 28, who was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic auto-immune disease, at 14. The disease attacked her spinal cord and she became unable to walk.

She stopped violin lessons and discontinued her studies after completing Secondary 3 at 18.

Her father died from a heart disease when she was just 12. She was 23 when she lost her mother to cancer.

Ms Huang uses a wheelchair and often stays at home as her illness flares up when she gets stressed.

But she found herself picking up the violin again last year after a friend introduced her to the Purple Symphony, which also found a volunteer instructor to guide her.

"I love playing and it has given me a sense of satisfaction," she said.

Ms Huang said she hopes to learn music therapy. "I'm happy to be able to play and show the public that this is what we can do although we are disabled," she said.

"It's a very rare opportunity and a very great experience for me to be able to perform in public."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'GIC funds training for special-needs musicians'. Subscribe