Juliette Lai, a gifted musician

I met Juliette Lai, a music conductor, composer, arranger and pioneer in music education, at several fund-raiser events.

Juliette Lai at the 5th Singapore Lieder Festival
I remember an elegant evening where Lai, a member of the Johor Baru Speakers Club, presented a musical soiree dubbed JBSC Soiree Musicale, with the help of her musician friends from Singapore.  At another event, Lai was a volunteer who trained students from learning centres established by Soroptomists International Johor Baru (SIJB) in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Rohingya refugee children, to present songs in English and Malay.

The Rohingya Children’s Choir delighted the audience with their rendition of, “We Are the World” followed by local favourites, Lenggang Kangkong, Rasa Sayang and Geylang Sipaku Geylang.  It was the students’ first time performing to an audience and they were encouraged by the support of several teachers with then SIJB President, Soraya Alkaff-Gilmour.  

Juliette Lai, playing the keyboard for the Rohingya
Children's Choir who sang with teachers and then SIJB
president, Soraya Alkaff-Gilmour [standing 4th from Left]
The choir charmed the audience with their voices and I realised that Lai’s illustrious music career, developed in Johor and established in Singapore, was little known in her own country. It was only natural for Lai’s talent to be nurtured in Singapore, a city with a vibrant art scene that’s just a causeway away from JB.  

This year the city state celebrates its Golden Jubilee or SG50, with a series of events including those for art and music and Lai invited me to join her at the 5th Singapore Lieder Festival, Songs from Home, where some of her songs were performed.  Besides the Singapore premier of her arrangement of, Menceceh Bujang Lapuk, her arrangements of Getaran Jiwa, Potong Padi and Burung KakaTua, were performed as well as a new arrangement of her composition, Dreams.  

As we crawled across the causeway in weekend traffic, I got to know this prolific musician better.

Early Years

Lai, the seventh of eight siblings, had her first experience with the piano when she was just 5 years old.  She would stand and watch while her eldest sister, Pat, taught another sister, to play.  When the lesson was over, Lai sat down at the piano and played what Pat had taught her sister!

Newspaper cutting, NST dated Aug 27, 1988, headlined
Trainee teachers to sing patriotic songs on M-Day, with
photo of Juliette Lai [Right] conducting the choir in a
practice session in the Larkin Stadium
With her natural aptitude for music, Lai was encouraged to play the piano and she completed Grade 4 under Pat’s tutelage.  When Pat had a job transfer to Penang, Lai stayed with her to complete her Grade 7 exam.  

When Lai moved back to stay with her parents in Batu Pahat, they did not have a piano at home for her to practice but a friend, who held the keys to the church, would open the church for Lai to practice on the church piano.  This was how she practiced for one and a half months before her Grade 8 practical exam.

At 17, Lai embarked on her Music Diploma with the first UK trained music graduate in JB and she would travel by public bus from Batu Pahat for her music lesson every weekend.  Lai fondly recalls trundling along in the non-air-conditioned bus to JB, completing her lesson and having a noodle meal before catching a similar bus for her return journey.  While Lai was a trainee teacher with a college in Kuala Lumpur, she signed up to do her second Diploma in Music under a Scottish tutor and examiner.

The ABRSM scholarship, shared between Malaysia and Sri Lanka, was offered once in two years and when this was published in the newspapers, her father and best friend, applied on her behalf while she was teaching in Perlis.  Out of the 40 shortlisted candidates, she was invited for an interview and was selected based on merit.  Lai was recommended to receive the prestigious Federal Scholarship from the Malaysian Government to further her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama where she graduated, winning prizes for Harmony & Counterpoint and for Best All-Round Student.

Illustrious Career

While being Head of the Music Department at the Malaysian Teachers College (Maktab Perguruan Temenggong Ibrahim) in JB, Lai also served as Chairman of Committees for Curriculum Planning for Malaysian teachers colleges and Malaysian schools as well as Chief Examiner for the Malaysian O-level Music Examinations.  School and college choirs and recorder ensembles she directed, won top awards at all competitions in which they participated at national level.

Another newspaper cutting from The Star dated 1 Sept 1988,
headlined, Celebration in song, with a close-up photo of
Juliette Lai as she conducted the 150-strong joint choir
from two teachers training colleges in JB
While Lai lived and worked in JB, she joined the Singapore Chamber Ensemble where she sang and played the piano.  Her gift in music was acknowledged by her appointment as conductor of the National University of Singapore Choir (1985 – 1993) and then assistant conductor of the Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Singapore (1994 – 2001) which won top awards at international choral competitions.

Lai was pianist and assistant to the 500-strong Combined Singapore Choirs which performed in 1996 and again in 1999 on World Hospice Awareness Day, organized by the British Broadcasting Corporation, UK.  She was also the official pianist at the Singapore National Choral Symposium in 2000.

Her choir members work hard to learn the proper pronunciation and meanings of foreign words so that they can express the accurate emotions in song.  She can never forget how her choir beat the Hungarians in their performance of a compulsory song in the Bela Bartok International Choir Competition, held in Hungary in 2000.  This choir also won the special prize for interpretation.  A German newspaper commented, “It takes a foreign choir to teach us to sing our own songs,” after the event.

Vocaluptuous, one of Singapore’s top contemporary acapella groups, had one of its songs nominated for Best Holiday Song on album in 2002 by Contemporary Acapella Society of America, while Lai was their Music Director/Arranger (2000 – 2003).  The group’s CD entitled, All Wrapped Up, a charity project mooted by the Singapore Rotary Club, raised funds to purchase a Mercedes van for the Singapore Society for the Physically Disabled in 2003.

As conductor, pianist, accompanist and singer, she has directed and performed both locally and internationally in Malaysia, Singapore, America, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom.  Last year, Prof Dr Pearl Shangkuan, featured Lai among five others in a paper she presented entitled “Women Composers Around the World,” at the 10th Choral Composers Symposium in Seoul, Korea.

Malay Songs

"I love this song," said Lai when I asked her why she chose Getaran Jiwa, a popular melody by P. Ramlee.  Lai enjoys this song so much that she created eight different arrangements for voices, instruments and acapella performances.  An 8-part acapella performance of this song by Time Ensemble, a group comprising alumni of the World Youth Choir, is available on YouTube.

Juliette Lai with a young student during a piano lesson
As a composer, Lai had her choral arrangements commissioned, published and performed by numerous choirs in concerts and competitions.  Her 8-part acapella arrangement of the folk song, Potong Padi, published by American publisher, Earthsongs, was performed and used for Repertoire study at the Asia-Pacific Choral Symposium held in Singapore, National Choral Symposium in Australia and Germany, the American Choral Directors National Convention in San Antonio (2000) and at the Sixth World Choral Symposium in Minnesota (2002).

Her 8-part acapella arrangement of, Burung KakaTua, was performed by the Hwa Chong Junior College choir at the World (Olympics) Choir Games and won in the folklore category.  Lai recalls with pride that when the choir was invited to sing this song at the Champions Concert, they received a standing ovation from over 10,000 people in the audience!

“The combination of a good choir and a good song, always works,” were the comments from the event’s panel of judges.  Lai has a repertoire of arrangements for traditional Malay songs that remain popular with choirs and solo performers and in a SG50 show held at end Oct, a soloist performed her arrangement for, Sapu Tangan.

The sky is the limit for Lai who continues to receive commissioned work to compose and arrange music for performances.  While she is not conducting workshops and master classes, Lai is inspiring young students who are taught the finer points of piano playing through lessons with her.

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 22 Nov 2015

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