When Gabriel Lee, alumnus of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), decided to teach music at the Myanmar Music Festival in 2016, his students ended up teaching him a thing or two about dedication.
"I was very surprised to see that they had so much passion and desire. Some even travelled 48 hours by train so that they could take lessons," said 29-year-old Gabriel.
He was moved by the students’ fervent desire to make music, and their hunger for knowledge and learning.
"They took pictures and videos, and wrote down everything that I had taught them," he said with a tinge of a teacher's pride.
He has since made five trips to Myanmar, travelling to Kachin and Yangon to perform recitals, conduct workshops and masterclasses, and also coach the AOC Orchestra where another YSTCM alumnus, Saw James Sar Doe Soe, was directing.
It was the zeal of the musicians in Myanmar which led Gabriel to set up the inaugural Philharmonic Society of Myanmar's Festival and Competition in 2017 – a platform where everyone could meet and make music together.
While Gabriel’s work in Myanmar was significant and meaningful, he also has another minor claim to fame.
He is a founding member of The Lorong Boys, a local multi-genre instrumental band, who shot to fame after videos of them performing in an MRT train went viral in 2014.
Gabriel credits his achievements to date to his education. During his undergraduate days, he took at least one module outside of YSTCM every semester. Modules such as Marketing and Public Speaking have made him more well-rounded and prepared him for his work as a music festival director – in negotiating sponsorships, marketing the festival and speaking confidently to an audience.
“The great thing about NUS is that you get to choose what you want to do. Although YSTCM is a classical music conservatory, we were always taught that the modern day musician requires a much wider skillset than before,” said Gabriel. “YSTCM brings in many renowned professors from all over the world, and all undergraduates are given a scholarship, which is amazing,” he added.
Gabriel graduated from NUS in 2015 with a Bachelor of Music (Hon) degree, majoring in Violin Performance. He went on to the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore, USA for his postgraduate studies, and graduated in May 2017 with two Master of Music Degrees – in Violin Performance and Baroque Violin Performance.
With so many musicians trying to make a name for themselves as a soloist or even getting a place as an orchestral musician, Gabriel has adapted to the landscape by being more versatile, demonstrated by his ability to switch from pop to Bach. He is also as comfortable playing in a music festival as he is directing one.
Gabriel returned to Myanmar in January 2017, where he performed in a concert and conducted masterclasses with cellist Leslie Tan of the illustrious T'ang Quartet – his cello and chamber music professor at YSTCM.
However, it is in teaching that he has truly found his passion. Gabriel has returned to teach budding musicians at YSTCM and the School of the Arts Singapore. He also gives private lessons to a few students.
His talent for music was nurtured from the tender age of four, where he learnt to play the violin. It would soon become his passion, and though he was also academically inclined, he decided to make a path in music.
“When I made up my mind to craft a career in music, my parents were a little concerned, but I stuck with this decision and now I am very happy to be doing many exciting and meaningful things with my music,” said Gabriel. “I believe it all boils down to the desire. As long as you really want something, you will make it happen.”