“The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” – Abraham Lincoln
Lee Guan Wei
Founding President, Orchestra of the Music Makers
On top of being an engineering undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, Lee Guan Wei pursued his passion for music as the founding President and violinist at the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM). His experience in leading the orchestra has spurred him on to help other non-profits as the Assistant Director (Projects) of Conjunct Consulting, a consulting group that helps non-profits maximise their social impact.
Under the baton of music director Prof. Chan Tze Law, OMM has shown tremendous growth in merely 3 years. Besides achieving musical excellence and garnering international accolades, their noble vision of pursuing philanthropy through music has seen them raise large sums of funds for charitable organisations each year.
Could you tell me how OMM came to be and what inspired you to set it up?
I’m hesitant to say that I set it up because it’s a collective effort. OMM is a people-driven organization rather than a personality-driven one. The idea came about around 2006 when a few of us discussed the possibility of setting up a symphony orchestra to provide an opportunity for people who were graduating from their school orchestras a channel to continue making music. The founding members mainly started out as members of their school string orchestra or symphonic band, yet we never got the chance to play symphony orchestra music.
We thought it was a shame all these people didn’t get to have that opportunity. But after we graduated, where could we go? Where else could we continue to make music? There were ideas to set up a school alumni orchestra, but we wanted it to be bigger than that. We wanted the orchestra to encompass musicians from all walks of life; whether you’ve graduated from ITE or Poly or JCs, or just a musician who’s interested. So we thought, “Why not form an independent orchestra?” We had talks with our current music director, Professor Chan Tze Law, who helped us develop the idea. One day in 2008, he linked us up with HSBC, which was then looking for an orchestra to perform at a concert featuring their past Youth Excellence Award winners. Having toyed with the idea for two years, we already knew musicians we could contact and just 2 days later, we managed to form a decent-sized orchestra of about 80 people.
OMM was something that was waiting to happen; it just needed some sort of catalyst to drive it forward and the HSBC concert was exactly what was needed to make it come true. After the concert, we decided to officially register the orchestra since we already found ourselves a group of passionate musicians. We initially wanted to just get together to read some music and have two to three performances a year, but we ended up doing an average of five to six concerts a year because the opportunities somehow kept coming.
We also wanted to do something meaningful with our music. One of the names originally thrown up was “Singapore Charity Orchestra”, because we wanted to do fundraising concerts to help the needy. While serving the community through music is still part of the orchestra’s charter and ideals, we found ourselves hard-pressed due to operational considerations. Nevertheless, we still try to incorporate outreach or fundraising as part of performances whenever possible.
How did you manage your time between university and the orchestra? Any difficulties along the way?
When we first started out I always found myself flying around doing orchestra work, and I used to joke with my friends that I’m a full time manager and a part-time university student. When you start something, you take it upon yourself to see things through and make things run smoothly, and sometimes you will find yourself working till 3 or 4am but you’ll do it because that’s essentially what you set out to do. Things have settled down a bit more now, but there’s still a lot more work to be done and opportunities to be explored.
I guess most organizations face monetary issues when they first start out. Where are we going to find the funds we need? Will people even support us? It’s a classic chicken-and-egg situation – if you don’t have the reputation, people won’t give you money; if you don’t have the money, you can’t build your reputation. But you have to start moving somewhere, and that’s what we did. We managed to get a little bit of funding from the National Arts Council, Tote Board and Lee Foundation though our first few performances were quite small-scale. We basically had to “beg-steal-borrow” instruments and facilities to minimise costs and somehow we managed to get through. We’re more established now and it amazes me as I look back on our progress over the last 3 years.
Sometimes, it is very tiring writing up grants, doing the finances, marketing and publicising our events and managing the musicians; there is so much to do. But I would say that OMM has a good team. We always try to get new people into the Management to even out the workload and give people a chance to lead the orchestra. Despite all the hard work and our anxiety, we’re thoroughly satisfied whenever we successfully complete an event.
How have these obstacles shaped your life?
OMM has turned out to be quite a large part of my life, which was something I hadn’t expected 3 years ago. When we started back then, it just seemed like a good thing to do. We didn’t think that far or expect such amazing progress within such a short period of time.
Setting up OMM for me turned out to be a form of parallel education to my university courses, perhaps what you could call “education-by-fire”. It forced me to learn things I’d not have otherwise been exposed to – marketing strategies, design, accounting procedures, legal matters, managing teams, making things happen, dealing with stakeholders and selling ideas to supporters and sponsors.
My team and I had to figure out these things in order to get the orchestra running. It also taught me that as long as you are driven to learn, there’s a vast amount of resources out there for you to tap on.
How can Singapore’s arts scene be developed further?
If you look at the statistics, the number of arts groups officially in existence just about doubled within the last 5 years. But the thing is, the support base hasn’t grown as much. Only 40% of Singaporeans attend at least one arts event each year (of which classical music is an even smaller proportion of the 40%), which means a large majority of Singaporeans do not have the arts as part of their lives at all. For classical music there are the usual barriers – the audience don’t find such music appealing to them, it doesn’t entertain them, it’s not like their happy Justin Bieber song and they’d rather not listen to it – but I feel that’s the kind of attitude that needs to be changed either through education or getting people to understand what music and art is all about. If you look at costs, tickets to classical music concerts are comparable or even cheaper than a night out to the movies. Analogous to a movie which is an artistic arrangement of moving visuals and sounds to tell a story, music is an artistic arrangement of tones and sound colours to tell its own story; it’s not that difficult to appreciate if some effort is put in to understand the thinking and structure behind the music.Unfortunately there is also the stereotype that the arts are only for the elite and educated. But when you get involved in arts and culture by doing and creating, it grows on you regardless of your background.
The government is trying quite hard to develop the arts, as you can see from the increase in funds, construction of new facilities and implementation of new initiatives. However the other side of the coin is that private giving and volunteering in the arts are not doing so well, making up 1-2% of all donations and volunteer man hours spent every year. If citizens and corporations don’t get involved in the arts, then they don’t really have a stake in the development of Singapore’s culture. There’s a limit to how far the government can push the arts; ultimately, culture is a ground-up initiative.
What are some future plans for OMM?
Our 2012 season has already been planned. We’re involved in the Singapore Arts Festival this year, which is great. We’re also looking forward to touring Prague, Bratislava and the UK in June/July. 2012 is more of a year of growth for the orchestra, and hopefully with an increased profile we can get a lot more mileage for future community projects. 2013 will be our 5th anniversary and we’re trying to plan more community and outreach events, such as educational concerts and maybe inviting people to sit in at our rehearsals and understand what goes on behind the music. In a sense, it pushes a more educational aspect which we think needs to be developed in Singapore.
The nature of the organization also means unexpected opportunities come along and you end up doing more things because people notice you. This is probably how we ended up doing 5 or 6 concerts although we started out planning only 2 or 3. So it’s hard to say for sure what OMM will be doing in the next 5 or even 10 years. We’re always open to collaborations and how we can work with different groups of people to deliver a good event and reach out to more people. It often results in a really busy concert season, but it also means we have more chances to make an impact.
Any advice for aspiring musicians?
At some point in time, every budding musician questions how they’re going to support their family or if they want to run the risk of becoming a starving artist, so there are a lot of people who graduate from school with a lot of musical training but end up in non-musical careers for the “stability”. That is the case for a lot of people and we accept that.
OMM was initially set up for these people who didn’t want to pursue music full-time. But we have also seen people who initially planned to pursue a non-music career but decided to take up music full-time after going through all the concerts and all the music. That may have been an unintended consequence, but perhaps it’s for the better! Whatever the case, I would say that once you’re a musician, you should always consider yourself a musician no matter where you are. That’s also why the orchestra is called what it is – you’ll always be a music maker and you’ll always dream of doing things with your music. That’s what OMM is about.
– Profiled by Amanda Chan