Music is ‘home’ for blind erhu player

Ms Parvinderjeet Kaur
Ms Stephanie Ow, 21, does not rely on musical scors to play her erhu. Instead, she familiarises herself with where to place her fingers and listens to an audio recording as a guide. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Unlike most musicians, Ms Stephanie Ow cannot rely on musical scores to play her erhu — she is blind, and sheet music in Braille is expensive and hard to come by.

Instead, the 21-year-old pursuing her diploma in music at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts relies on her hearing and memory to play the Chinese instrument.

To master a new song, her erhu teacher plays it for her a few times and teaches her where to place her fingers on the two-stringed instrument to hit the right notes.

Ms Ow’s teacher will also give her a recording of the piece, which she listens to as part of her daily hour to two-hourly practice sessions.

Despite all these challenges, her dream is to one day play the erhu around the world, and become a music teacher herself.

While she thinks her future students are likely going to be special needs people like herself, she said: “I will be honoured if able-bodied people want me to teach them too.”

Today, she plays with The Purple Symphony, which comprises talented musicians with and without special needs, and the Singapore National Youth Chinese Orchestra, where she is the only person with special needs.

Her paternal uncle, who loves Chinese music, inspired her to pick up the erhu when she was 14. Having been left by her parents in her uncle and aunt’s care at the age of five, he was the father figure in her life.

She does not know if being born blind was what led her mum to disappear from her life and her dad to visit occasionally.

Her uncle had told her: “There are not many blind people who play the erhu. Give it a try first, if you don’t like it, you can stop.”

He engaged a music teacher to teach her the erhu. But, it was not love on first play as Ms Ow did not like the awful screeching it made. Once she discovered the right places to place her fingers, she was able to produce music that resonated beautifully. With that, her passion for the erhu grew.

So while her peers were undecided on their post-secondary course of study, music was her first choice. But instead of giving encouragement, her teachers and friends poured cold water on her aspirations, telling her music is not a career that pays well, much less for someone who is blind.

She did not let the naysayers have the last say. Where a sighted person might take a day or two to learn a piece, she would take up to a month to learn the same piece as she has to break up it up into three to four sections, and learn only one section each week.

The longest she spent was five months to perfect an erhu duet with her instructor, accompanied by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

As the tempo of the piece was quite fast, there were multiple moments when she thought of giving up. But, she believed her conductor gave her the piece because he had faith that she could perfect it. So she pressed on.

In the end, during the actual performance, she exceeded the speed that she practised in. Today, her conductor continues to challenge her with harder and faster pieces. She believes all these help her to become a better musician and push her to accomplish what she might have thought was impossible.

When she plays, she immerses herself — heart and soul — into the story that each piece of music tells.

She said: “Music is a kind of language or something that portrays emotion ... I always feel at home when I play (the erhu). Music is my home because it gives me a lot of satisfaction, a lot of happiness.”

Ms Stephanie Ow will be performing at the Feb 28 charity dinner organised to raise funds for the TODAY Enable Fund held at Grand Mercure Roxy Singapore.

Support the TODAY Enable Fund for the special needs community. Find out more via www.todayonline.com/enable.

If you know of more stories of people with disabilities, email us at today@mediacorp.com.sg