Putting it back together; Violinist Lee-Chin Siow to perform 8 months after wreck that broke her arm

A broken arm was a big setback to Lee-Chin, who says she always is extremely careful with her hands. Buy this photo

On the face of it, the seventh Charleston Music Fest, a four-concert series organized by College of Charleston violinist Lee-Chin Siow and cellist Natalia Khoma, is a showcase for local and guest talent, a chance to shine a light on the chamber music repertoire and an opportunity for teachers, students and patrons to learn from one another.

If you go

WHAT: Charleston Music Fest, Curtis Night (Lee-Chin and Friends)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Nov. 30

WHERE: Simons Center Recital Hall, 54 St. Philip St.

COST: $25

MORE INFO: Curtis Night is one of four Charleston Music Fest concerts. Others are scheduled Feb. 22, March 30 and April 14. A four-concert package costs $90. For tickets, call 953-0935 or visit www.Charleston MusicFest.com.

But this year is a little different.

On Nov. 30, Lee-Chin will take the stage for the first time since a car accident eight months ago that banged her up and badly broke her arm — her violin arm.

In the intervening months of surgery, recuperation and intense physical therapy, Lee-Chin has regained her abilities. She is at nearly 100 percent, she said, and ready to perform again.

“Nothing about this process has been easy, but I’m optimistic for a full recovery,” she said.

Singers are always worried about the slightest draft for fear of catching a cold; many instrumentalists likewise exercise great caution, protecting their fingers and limbs from danger. Their livelihood depends on it.

“I am so careful with my hands,” Lee-Chin said. “No risky business!”

Imagine, then, the psychological trauma she endured when first scrutinizing her maimed arm in the aftermath of the crash.

Both the radius and ulna were fractured, and the bone penetrated the skin, she said.

It was the morning of March 20, and she was on the way to Atlanta to give a lecture at the American String Teachers Association conference. A collision sent her into the guardrail, she said. She broke her nose and blackened her eye. Bruises and scrapes marked her face.

But it was the arm that caused her the most distress.

She had the presence of mind at the scene of the accident to tell the responders to rescue her violin from the damaged car, and she grilled her attending doctors in Orangeburg, where she was first taken, then in Charleston, where she received most of her treatment.

“I’m a violinist! I’m a violinist!” she declared. “Please be careful!”

Her colleague, Blake Stevens, a music history professor at the College of Charleston, visited her in the hospital.

“What was interesting was the presence of her mind at that moment,” Stevens said. “She was very critical and clear-thinking to make sure the doctor did a good job.”

Thankfully, it was a clean break, and the surgeon had little difficulty setting it and screwing metal plates to each of the bones, she said. A long scar is clearly visible on the underside of her forearm, along with a small round scar on top, where the bone broke through.

For weeks, she couldn’t touch the fiddle. When she first picked it up again, she could barely play a scale. Each note was shaky. She struggled with intonation.

It hurt terribly, she said. She was sore not only in her hands and arm, but in her shoulder. Lifting her left arm was a struggle. Holding her hands out like a pianist pained her. Turning a steering wheel ached.

But twisting her arm counterclockwise, bringing her turned left hand to shoulder height and positioning her fingers on the strings of her violin strangely felt OK. Little by little, one note at a time — slowly, carefully played — she regained her strength and her confidence.

Homecoming
In 2008, Lee-Chin returned to her native Singapore on sabbatical from her teaching position at the college, where she also serves as director of strings. She taught at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, part of the National University of Singapore, and recorded a CD over three days in September that year, accompanied by pianist Albert Tiu.

The CD, called “Songs my Father Taught Me,” is a collection of 13 short works for solo violin, show pieces both lyrical and flashy, that she selected to pay tribute to her father and first violin teacher, Siow Hee-Shun.

By the time she was 3, her father knew he would teach her to play the violin. She resisted, preferring to play outdoors. She saw a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and was mesmerized by the death scene and cello solo. So she tried to convince her father that she should be a dancer.

“No, you can’t eat sweets,” he responded.

Well, then, how about playing the cello?

“No, it’s too big,” he retorted.

It was a losing battle. By age 7, she was dutifully learning the instrument destined for her.

Hee-Shun, who played in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, taught his daughter to make her instrument sound like a voice. It’s never enough to master the technique; a player must be able to express feelings and ideas, to open her heart and sing.

One of the pieces she selected for her CD is the Intermezzo by Heinz Provost, with which her father wooed her mother. Other pieces, such as the slow movement of Richard Strauss’ E-flat major sonata, are favorites of Hee-Shun.

Recording the music began tentatively. The recording facility at the conservatory was state-of-the-art, but playing there left her cold, she said. So she insisted her father and one of her two brothers (a doctor and violinist) sit and be her audience.

The result is a quirky and enchanting collection of beautifully played favorites, a homecoming of sorts and heartfelt gesture of love.

Adversity is not entirely new to Lee-Chin. She came to the U.S. when she was just 15 to study at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1994, she won the gold medal at the Henryk Szeryng International Violin Competition. Her career took off.

Now 43, she has performed in more than 20 countries, with numerous orchestras and in many of the world’s great concert halls.

Stevens said he was thrilled to witness his colleague’s recovery.

“She’s bounced back really quickly,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to hearing her. I hope she shines; I think she’s going to.”

Already, she’s back in the swing of things inside the classroom. Robert Dickson, a retired restaurateur and music enthusiast, is taking her music appreciation class and sponsoring the reception that follows the Nov. 30 recital.

“We’re studying all the eras, from the Middle Ages to the post-modern,” he said. “For each one, she brings the pieces that were popular, or have become popular, by better-known composers.”

And she plays. It’s a show-and-tell, Dickson said. All the better to facilitate an appreciation of the repertoire.

The upcoming concert is much more than a musical presentation, he noted. It’s a rebirth.

“Lee felt she wanted to come back with a flash,” Dickson said.

Flexibility and guts
Not long after settling in Charleston, Khoma and Lee-Chin started the Music Fest, inviting distinguished colleagues to join them on stage.

Previous guest artists, all teachers at important music schools, have included cellist Richard Aaron, pianist Matti Raekallio, violinists Almita and Roland Vamos and the late Eugene Fodor.

For the Nov. 30 concert, Lee-Chin teams with Peter Stumpf, former principal cellist of the L.A. Philharmonic and a teacher at Indiana University. Beatrice Long will accompany them on piano.

Stumpf, who plays a 370-year-old instrument made by the celebrated luthier Nicolo Amati (teacher of Stradivari and Guarneri), is appearing in Charleston for the first time. He will play Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 69. Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Paul Schoenfield also will be featured.

Lee-Chin said she will tackle the Violin Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 18, by Richard Strauss, which features a flurry of notes and late Romantic expressivity. It will require full flexibility and guts.

Today, flexibility doesn’t seem to be the problem. Endurance is the challenge. Lee-Chin gets tired after a while, she said. So she measures her time carefully, taking plenty of breaks during her practice routines.

She’s also learned the importance of stretching, she said. A musician is like an athlete; the physical demands are large, and a violinist’s muscles require the same incremental warm-up and warm-down as a gymnast or shot-putter.

At least the numbness in her left hand has subsided.

Her concern now is not dexterity but those intangible qualities that transform a set of notes into music.

“Will I recover the color, the voice, the beauty of the sound?” she asked.

“There are no guarantees,” Lee-Chin said.

This is the lesson she’s learned. Only time, discipline and determination and faith can provide the answers.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.

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