“I think the series of events leading up to what I am doing now is an amazing journey of experiencing all the dots connecting. Steve Jobs was right! Looking back, literally all the experiences I have had made sense. They seemed like separate incidents at first, but towards the end of my university years I felt as if all these incidents connected themselves together and has led to the reality of where I am today. It’s still happening now! It feels like a miracle, it is unbelievable and I am very thankful.”
Oh Xuemin, a Singaporean who is currently a musical educator in Tokyo has come a long way from when she was a 16-year-old doing poorly in school. While her grades were bad, her friends were doing well academically. At the same time, she felt the urge to be different and to stand out from them, in order to feel wanted.
“I told my friends I was going to Japan, and then I felt that they took notice of me, because I was different. That became motivation for me to actually go. Now, at that time I didn’t know anyone who had made it to Japan without studying Japanese, so what I would do from time to time was go online and research universities. One day, my school had a collaboration with Waseda University, and had a talk about studying in Japan. It was called the school of International Liberal Studies, and it was all in English! And being that it was Liberal Studies, it meant the range of courses were very flexible, and you could pick from a wide range of subjects, like law, or business, or music. I applied for it, and the rest was history!
Because I hadn’t gotten good grades in Singapore, I vowed to myself that I would not repeat this when I came to Japan. I would do well in school, and it would be the start of a new life for me.”
The main reason Xuemin didn’t do well in school back in Singapore was because all her energy was in music. She’d spend all her free time giving private lessons to her friends, and would constantly think about how to teach better
“I didn’t really pay attention in class so my grades suffered, but the choir did well. It was something I could go to bed with without having regrets.”
Xuemin’s love for music was apparent, but it had never crossed her mind to do it as a full time job, until she was in Beijing, where she was doing an exchange programme.
“I was in three choirs in Beijing, including one that I had started up myself. That choir even appeared on the news! It was my legacy! But then, my grades plummeted really badly. I was in three choirs, coming home at 1am every night because I was singing, which was pretty ridiculous. Looking back, I realized what happened when I was in Singapore happened again in Beijing.
One day I was crying and crying, and I told my boyfriend Linus how horrible my life was. I didn’t find any meaning in life, because I wasn’t doing well at school, and I was just wasting time. One day, after attending one of the choirs I was conducting, he came to me after the session and asked me why didn’t I just do music? I told him he was crazy, that I couldn’t do music because I didn’t have a music degree and it was way too late for that. But he persisted, and said he thought I was really good. I told him it was rubbish, and was in this period of denial for about two months. I would have days where I told myself, okay, I’m going to do this. Then I’d think, this is ridiculous, no. But after a period of time, I told myself, I want to do music, I am going to make it and do it for the rest of my life. Just like that, everything started making sense. All the choirs I had joined were now an addition to my portfolio. The studies became a sideline. I didn’t have to worry about my grades, because all I needed to do was pass, and then I could pour my whole heart into choir and all the other music activities I really enjoyed. I felt like I was worth something again. I felt like I could actually contribute something to the world and not mess up.”
Given her passion for music, why didn’t she pursue being a singer instead?
“That’s a question I ask myself every day. I wanted to be a performer, but then I realized that everyone is different. I believe that everyone has something they’re born to do. For me, I’m not born to be a performer, because every time I perform, I feel horrible about myself. I think about all the things I didn’t do well. Before I perform, I become very competitive, and analyze all the other performers and figure how to stand out. And after a performance, I’ll beat myself up for all the mistakes I made. Even if people said I did well, I wouldn’t feel like I did a good job. I’d feel stupid, horrible, like I could have done better. But teaching students is very different, because every student is at his or her own pace, and when I finish a session with them, and they have improved, I feel like I have done my job. It’s interesting, finding ways to help people improve their lives, while at the same time improving mine. That’s why education is my path. Also, teaching is a skill. With teaching, you need to teach a lot in order to learn how to teach. Some people can be really good teachers but not as good performers, and vice versa. But what’s really inspired me to teach and learn more is that I’ve encountered some people that can teach really, really well.”
Xuemin believes that music education in early childhood makes a really big impact in their later lives. I’m going to agree to this! When I was seven, I was in a school choir, but my teacher didn’t like me for some reason. I was pulled out of class one day, where she asked three other girls from higher grades (I think they must have been 10 or 12, which in my opinion were such big girls at that point of time) to listen to me sing. She asked me to sing, while gazing at me with a gimlet stare. The three girls also looked curiously at me. I was completely intimidated, and sang everything out of tune. Needless to say, I was kicked out of the choir, and I’ve never liked singing since that. Puan Aida, I don’t know if you’re reading this, but if you are, you are one mean woman!
“What you said really hits a chord, because I’ve experienced certain things like that. I had a piano teacher. I like her, don’t get me wrong, she helped me make all my grades and because of her I could pass my Grade 8 exams without any trouble at all. But I remember hating piano lessons at one point, because all I had to do was play these same three bloody songs for the whole year, and after that the next year, another three songs. Every day I would be just practicing my scales and doing things I needed to do for exams. There was a period of time where I just rebelled. I didn’t want to go anymore. So being a teacher, I don’t want that to happen to my students. That’s basically what drives me. I want to make music fun! It’s how you approach it. When you come in for a class, whether it’s a class of eight-year-olds or two-year-olds, you have to listen to them. Are they tired, energetic, wanting more, or feeling shy? If it’s one year olds who are just staring at you, all you need to be is really, really energetic throughout the lessons and fill it with songs they love. Give them instruments. They love banging on it. It’s all about the vibration, the music and movement. Or, if you come across a group of energetic five-year-olds who just want to run around, let them run. After singing good morning songs, we play the dance and freeze game. Music then becomes about stopping, resting, and going again.”
Hanging out with kids all day sounds so fun!
“Music is fun! I teach kids how to play the piano and ukulele. You might think, how can a three-year-old play or care enough to play a piano? I start of by linking the piano notes to fruits. I give them flashcards, with a fruit on one side and a musical note on the other side. So for example, a pear on one side, and at the back, a crochet note. At the beginning of the class, I make a big show of taking out a box, and shaking it, and asking them what it’s in. They all get very excited and want to know what’s in the box. So then I tell them if they all sit down nicely, I’ll open it up and let them know what it is. Then I open the box, and it’s the flashcards. Then I get the children to pick out flashcards. So first, it’s a surprise element for the kids of knowing what’s in the box, and when they finally find out what’s inside it, they somehow really love the cards already. It’s a bit of psychology, because when they start to really love these cards, they want to use all of them and know all of them.”
It sounds like as a teacher, you need to be intuitive and very sensitive to what your class wants and needs.
“In order to know what children want to know, you have to listen. I don’t think I’m very good at this yet, but I’m working on it every day. It’s about always having ideas in my head, and at the same time, coming to the classroom with a blank slate. I have to be prepared to listen, instead of just turning up and sharing knowledge with children, because that’s not effective. That’s not inspiring.”
What I find best about being a teacher is that it makes a huge difference in the life of a child.
“Yeah! That’s really comforting, especially since it’s a tiring job, and sometimes children get sick, and they all have lots of tantrums and needs. But at the end of the day, you’re improving someone’s life, and it’s all about perspective. It’s how you look at things.”
Xuemin is currently a music specialist in an International Preschool in Tokyo. She teaches piano and voice and is also the creator of the Sing, Read, Play program in T-kids school at Kashiwanoha T-site. If you would like to connect, you can drop her an email at email@example.com.