Many assume that playing the violin comes easy for College of Charleston violin professor Lee-Chin Siow. An acclaimed soloist, the Singapore native performs with orchestras around the world and released a CD in 2009 that topped the classical music charts. To observe Siow working today, you’d never know that her long-sleeve blouses cover deep scars that tell of an accident that could have ended her career just eight months ago.
Last March, Siow was driving to Atlanta to lecture at a conference when she was in an accident that sent her car slamming into the guardrail. Her vehicle was totalled and her left arm — the arm she uses to play her violin — was broken in two places.
After enduring excruciating pain and an emergency surgery that set two plates in her arm, Siow spent the next eight months working to regain mobility. She’s now preparing to celebrate her recovery with her first performance since the crash. On Nov. 30, she’ll take to the stage with her two friends and fellow Curtis Institute of Music alumni to kick off the Charleston Music Fest’s seventh season with “Curtis Night: Lee-Chin and Friends.”
To hear her now, you’d never know that this spring Siow struggled to play even the most basic scales. After the accident, she had trouble vibrating and stretching her fingers across the chords, something she’s done every day since she learned to play at seven years old.
“An accident like this is traumatic for anybody, but for me especially as a violinist,” she says. “This is my livelihood. It’s not just a career. It’s my passion, it’s my life.”
Siow started physical therapy just one week after surgery and continues to see the therapist several times a week along with doing daily exercises at home. Her life as a soloist came to a halt as she worked her way back up from the basics on the violin.
“When I had the accident, the first thing that came to my mind when I talked to the doctor, I wanted to know, am I going to play again?” she says. “The doctor was great, he said, ‘You’re going to have a full recovery.’ But no matter what anybody tells you, until you are there, you don’t believe anything. I had to have faith. It was one day at a time, one note at a time, one lift at a time just to keep going.”
Although she wasn’t performing, Siow continued teaching just three weeks after the accident. Students came to her house for lessons because Siow couldn’t drive. Today, she still has flashbacks when she’s behind the wheel. Driving, typing, and showering were all simple things Siow could no longer do easily. But teaching students gave her a sense of purpose, she says, and required her to practice what she always preached.
“I call it my three Ps: passion, perseverance and patience,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always taught my students and I had to teach myself that. Passion I definitely have. I really had to work on patience and perseverance to do this. It’s a good lesson for me because I have to be a good example for my students. I can’t whine. I hate it when students whine. I allowed myself maybe a week to feel sorry for myself, and then it’s like, ‘Ok, let’s get cracking.'”
The Curtis Night concert was planned before the accident to kick off this year’s Charleston Music Fest, which Siow co-founded and co-directs. She’s scheduled to play with her two school friends, cellist Peter Stumpf, a professor at Indiana University, and pianist Beatrice Long, who was Siow’s roommate at Curtis. The trio will perform classic pieces by Beethoven and Strauss along with jazzy numbers by Paul Schoenfield.
“Moving forward with this concert, it’s for my own sanity, but it’s also a celebration,” Siow says. “You really can do anything. I totally believe the power of the mind is amazing. It’s a public concert, but it will be very intimate and meaningful for me. It would mean so much that people come out to cheer me on.”
Three other chamber music concerts in 2013 will continue this season of the Charleston Music Fest featuring acclaimed soloists such as Nazar Pylatyuk and many CofC faculty and students. Siow will play in both the February and April concerts, and she already has plans to continue traveling to perform as a soloist in the spring.
“Life goes on,” Siow says. “I’m a violinist first and foremost, so broken arm or not, I’m going to play the darn violin.”