Extraordinary Women: Ms Yap Shu Mei – My Happiness Is Playing My Violin

I met Ms Yap Shu Mei when my first son, Caden, was playing violin with an ensemble of young children. I saw how Ms Yap was teaching the class effectively and everyone in her class seemed to enjoy her lessons. With a very strong and graceful presence, Ms Yap caught my attention immediately. In fact, my son, Caden, was vehement about changing to Ms Yap’s solo class. He said that he wanted to be taught by a pretty teacher. Unfortunately, Ms Yap’s teaching time was limited and she was not able to teach Caden. Caden was a little sad for a while but now he enjoys playing violin with his current teacher, Ana Maria.

In all seriousness, Ms Yap made teaching a class of at least 15 young children look so simple. As I relish in interviewing women from different backgrounds for my website and for my book, Extraordinary Women, Ms Yap seems to shine through. I emailed her and asked her if I was able to interview her and she was quick to respond positively. I was elated that she could do the interview. Hence, I drafted the questions and emailed it to her and the rest was history.

“Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” said Samuel Butler.


1) Why did you choose music as a career?

Since I was in secondary school, I decided that I wanted to do Music or Medicine. My intention to do medicine was because I wanted to be a missionary doctor like Dr Albert Schweitzer. As a matter of fact, I thought I could be a good gynaecologist. My love for music is pure and untainted. 

I attended my Cambridge “A” Level classes at Raffles Junior College. I did biology as part of my curriculum. One serene afternoon, when we were all dissecting a rat in the biology lab, I looked around me and saw that all my classmates were so absorbed in the dissection of their rats and looking attentively into their microscope. All at once, it dawned onto me that there were so many of them who wanted to be doctors but there were not many who crave the career of being a professional violinist.

I thought deeply about being a physician and being a violinist. I discussed intensively with my then violin teacher, Ms Vivien Goh on the prospects of being a violinist. I also asked her if Singapore needed more violin teachers. Her answer was a clear YES. It was then and there that I decided to pursue my music degree overseas. I sought her help to recommend me to the best tertiary music schools in the United States of America (USA). Ms Goh also helped me to prepare for the entrance audition. 

 2) Did your parents encourage you to pursue music as your career?

No. Like most parents of my generation, my parents wanted their children to do medicine or law. For my parents, they hoped that I would become a doctor because of our church influence. They like my sisters and me to play music but not to make a career out of it. 

3) Why did you become to become a violinist when you can pursue other music vocations?

 Violin was the only instrument I took lessons in and was proficient at it. Furthermore, Singapore indeed needed more violin teachers as confirmed by my violin teacher, Ms Vivien Goh. 

4) When did you start your formal music education?

 I started formal violin lessons when I was eight years old. Before that, I was fiddling with whatever instruments there were such as the piano, pianica, guitar and harmonica. In fact, I performed quite a bit on the harmonica for the church as a child and my performances were always well-received. One day, I had a chance to watch the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”.  I was captivated by the Orchestra, mainly the string instruments. I could not get enough of it and when I got home, I used a stick and started bowing on the guitar and pretended that the guitar was my cello. My eldest sister was so fascinated and amused that she encouraged my mother to let me learn the violin.

 5) Besides violin, do you play many other instruments professionally?

 No. I could play the piano but I was not formally trained in it. I also tried playing the guitar and drums as an adult but again I am not good at those instruments. 

6) You are a highly sought-after performance violinist and masterclass clinician for violin studies. Do you prefer performing or teaching?

 I enjoy a good balance of both.

 7) Did you establish Mandeville Conservatory of Music?

 Yes. I established the Music Conservatory 19 years ago after I came back from my London post-graduate studies. I started the music school together with an ex-colleague Ken Tan from Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).

 8) Why did you decide to start a music school?

I was teaching privately from home and in La Salle College then. I wanted a place where I could run through my music curriculum and share ideas with many more colleagues. 

 9) I understand that Mandeville Conservatory of Music has been around for 19 years and produced many accredited and talented musicians. How do you feel achieving so much as a teacher, performer and jazz violinist besides being a very successful businesswoman with Mandevillle Conversatory of Music?

As a teacher, I am satisfied when my students continue to play music for life whether they make a career out of it or not. My teaching philosophy is to teach every child to love music and to use music to communicate in a useful way.

As a jazz violinist, I am proud to be one of very few here in Singapore who can improvise on the violin and playing in jazz clubs and concerts. In addition, I am absolutely honoured of having produced two CDs. My first CD called, “Jazz Canvas-Asian Memories”, was released in June 2000 with 5 original compositions and 5 re-arrangements of Asian children folk tunes.

My 2nd CD has just been released in September 2014 with 15 original Christian songs written by me. I produced it together with my jazz violin mentor Christian Howes. The CD was a compilation of a jazz gospel featuring jazz violin played Christian and myself. The lead singer for the CD was Ms Jenika Marion, a young, beautiful and versatile singer from the USA. Ms Marina Xavier, a renowned local pop and soul sensation also collaborated with us on the CD including two other American singers.”

As a businesswoman, I am proud that my school has become one of the most established music schools in Singapore and one with the most number of violin students. I am also very proud to be the Founder and Program Director of the Singapore International String Conference since 2002. 

 10) You also teach baby violin, how do you bond with the young children in your classes?

 I enjoy teaching kids 3-5 years old. This has become a passion for me because I will be their first teacher to introduce the wonderful instrument, violin, to them. For students from Baby Violin course, I have a clean piece of paper to start my drawing on. I am able to mould and influence younger children more ably and competently. On top of this, I also encourage and teach parents to bond with their kids through playing the violin together. In this way, parents and children are able to bond effectively and nurture their love for violin together. For young children, I teach them violin by using effectual games and with a lot of singing in class.

11) What advice would you give to parents who want their children to further their studies in music?

Parents should let their children do what they desire to do. Parents should love them deeply and encourage them to pursue their desires with passion. They should guide them in the right paths and help them focus on their paths. 

12) You encourage using technology to advance music teaching, why is this so?

 I have to use technology simply to keep up with times. 

 13) What is the peculiar difference between playing an acoustic violin versus an electric violin?

 The sound comes from different sources. For acoustic, it comes from the violin itself but for electric violin; the sound comes from a sound system which it is plug into such as an amplifier, a monitor or ear monitors. 

 14) Will you be performing with Singapore Symphony of Music in 2015? Do you have any performance dates planned?

I played with the SSO from 1990-1993 and have not played with them since then.  Now I prefer to play jazz violin because of the creative element it offers. I have just performed a few Christmas gigs. The next performance will be the 8th Feb 2015 for my CD launch at the Singapore Art Museum. 

14) Besides music, what are your other interests?

 I have been scuba diving since 1992. I take about three to four scuba diving trips a year. I enjoy cycling and walking my dog. I enjoy food, especially good authentic Japanese food. Like most women, I adore shopping and pampering myself in the spa. I have also become the ambassador of the ClearSK Aesthetic Clinics.

 15) Do you prefer to play the classical violin or the electric violin? And why?

I enjoy playing both. The situation calls for the right instrument.  If I play chamber music, classical music, in acoustic settings or recording studios that do not require amplification, then I prefer to play an acoustic violin. There are more colours and nuance that can be coaxed out of a good and responsive acoustic violin.  

I will use electric violin when I have to play contemporary music like jazz, pop and rock music with a band which uses instruments that are all amplified electronically.  The acoustic violin, when amplified, tend to sound shrill and could have feedback issues when the instrument is over-amplified.

 16) You are a prolific violinist, a much sought-after violin teacher, a jazz musician, businesswoman and a keen scuba diver, how do you balance and have it all? Do you have any personal time at all?

I have plenty of personal time and I plan it this way. I take short holidays almost every month to rejuvenate myself.  

The secret is that I do not require a lot of sleep. I can sleep 4-5 hours a day and that is quite enough for me. If I sleep too much, I will get a headache! I believe I manage my time well because every morning I pray and ask God to lengthen my days, to give me wisdom and to guide me in all that I do.

Ms Yap Shu Mei- One of Singapore's most prolific violinist
Ms Yap Shu Mei- One of Singapore’s most prolific violinist
Ms Yap Shu Mei teaching her violin students attentively
Ms Yap Shu Mei teaching her violin students attentively


Share Tweet Pin It +1
Previous PostExtraordinary Women: Xiang Yun – Singapore’s Evergreen Actress
Next PostExtraordinary Women: Ms Wong Li-Lin: The Dance of My Life