Woman On Fire: Joanne Yeoh

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Joanne Yeoh is a world-renowned violinist from Malaysia.

 

Rosie On Fire spoke to her about her journey and found out how she went from a ballet dropout to a globally recognised violinist.

 


What do you do?

I wear three different hats. The first is my full-time job is an academician at a university (UPM). The second is a music examiner for Trinity College London, by which I get to travel around the world for free! The third hat is of course performing.

Performing on stage is definitely my favourite hat to wear; it’s always exciting and different. There’s always a sense of incredible energy and vibrancy.

Performing on stage is definitely my favourite hat to wear; it’s always exciting and different. There’s always a sense of incredible energy and vibrancy.

 

How did it all begin?

When I was young, I did ballet. A few years later, I told my mum that I didn’t enjoy it and I wanted to quit. I had to wear tight leotards, which I hated, and I had to practise a lot, but there was no space at home. So, I got scolded in class for not practising. I  begged my mum to allow me to quit. She said, “If you quit, you’ve got to pick up another instrument” and asked me, “Why don’t you give the violin a try?”. That was how it all started. If it weren’t for my very wise mum, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today.

 

Why is the violin so special to you?

When I decided to pursue my Master’s Degree, I made the decision to specialise in violin performance.  At that time, the decision was mainly driven by economic sense. There were so few violin teachers in Malaysia, so I knew I could definitely get some job offers.

I love the violin because it’s easily portable; you can bring it anywhere with you, and play it anytime. It is also a very flexible and versatile instrument, catering to different genres of music.

 

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

I was a fresh graduate in 2002, and I was asked by one of my friends in the industry if I would be interested in auditioning for Jacky Cheung’s (Hong Kong singer, songwriter and actor) tour around the world as a solo violinist. That was how it all started. I think that was the biggest stepping stone to where I am today. From that concert, David Tao (Taiwanese singer and songwriter) saw me and wanted me to play for him too in 2004. The producer who produced Jacky’s shows also recommended me for Alan Tam’s (Hong Kong singer and actor) concert in 2008.
 

What has been your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge for myself and other musicians is not being able to break out from the mould of being ‘just another musician’. The music industry all over the world gives recognition and acknowledgement to singers, while musicians get sidelined, especially orchestral players such as myself. I was blessed. The timing was right, doors opened for me, and things started to move.

 

How did you break out from that?

I think Jacky Cheung’s concert was a great stepping stone. In his concerts, he would acknowledge and give credit every time I had a solo. This drew lots of attention, and fans started taking note of me. The calls started to come in. While I was working at the university, I informed my boss that I wanted to buy an electric violin. She said, “If you want to buy it, you’d need to organise a solo concert at UPM”. That was how I got funding from the university to buy an electric violin, which cost about £1,800. I will always be grateful that they believed in me and allowed me the opportunity to be different.
 

Can you share how you overcame your failures?

I try to forget about my failures… Learning music has not always been easy. There were days I wanted to quit, hating the instrument because I had to practise long hours, waking up early before school started. When I was a teenager, I did not like the discipline that came with it. I’d definitely say if it were not for my mum who kept persisting and encouraging me not to give up, I would not be where I am today.

 

Any advice for aspiring professional musicians?

It’s not just about passion – it’s really not. Passion can die out. It’s about committing to practise even on the days you don’t feel like it. It’s the constant learning process and persistence that makes you better and sharper.

It’s not just about passion – it’s really not. Passion can die out. It’s about committing to practise even on the days you don’t feel like it. It’s the constant learning process and persistence that makes you better and sharper.

Don’t choose music because you think it’s a glamorous career because it’s not going to be an easy road. There are so many very good musicians in the world, and not many end up as performing artistes. My best advice is not to box yourself to be just a performing musician. There are many career paths in music, for example conducting, composing, educating, producing, and the latest buzzword now: music therapy.

It is also so important to have a formal education because you can understand and articulate what’s happening in music and you can explain to people, “I like this music because of the chordal progression or the use of instrumentation, etc.”. Formal education is also an added value to your career as a musician. There are many stories of musicians not being able to perform anymore due to age, or inability to adapt quickly enough as the industry is always evolving.
 

How would you describe your style?

I have two distinct styles. When I am on stage performing, I’m into bold, vibrant colours, and sexy, classy gowns. However, when I’m not on stage, comfort comes first, style second.

 

Why did you choose the kimonos?

I chose these two kimonos for their amazing colours. Rihanna was my first obvious choice. The bold, strong colours exuded so much energy and creativity. Willow was chosen to reflect my favourite colour, blue; it pretty much matches my violin too!

 

Photographs by Khairul Anuar

 

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