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Hitting the High Notes Together

25 Aug 2017

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Lim Hwee Sian, Cedar Girls’ Secondary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2017 Recipient

Lim Hwee Sian’s enthusiasm for the arts has been sweeping through Cedar Girls’ Secondary School, infecting staff and students alike.

For an entire month in 2014, students at Cedar Girls’ Secondary School were hopping with delight on their school’s central staircase.

A section of it had been rigged to play musical notes when stepped on, and they loved it.

It was an idea that their music teacher, Hwee Sian, had been toying with for some time. Students were motivated to cooperate: “if you want to play a decent tune, you need help.”

Although she did not possess sufficient technical knowledge, Hwee Sian was determined to make this a reality. She did research and found a chip that could generate a current when pressed. She rallied the Art teachers in school to design and cut material to cover the existing steps. She tapped on the school’s IT technician’s and School Programme Executive’s expertise to build and assemble the circuits, and she consulted the Science teachers for troubleshooting.

Once the steps were set up, Hwee Sian encouraged students to send her videos of their fancy footwork, and they indulged her.

The following year, she upped the ante, working with her Aesthetics Department colleagues to design and fabricate a bona fide escape room on campus, to coincide with Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.

In teams of 5 to 7, students had to solve puzzles relating to Singapore’s tumultuous early years of independence by using colour theory, musical pitch, and even their sense of smell. “I wanted the students to use all the skills that they have acquired through their exposure to the Aesthetics – observation, listening, inference, and making connections,” says Hwee Sian.

It was another runaway smash, with students jostling to use the room during recess and after school.

Bringing the Arts to All, and All to the Arts

Whimsical as these projects may seem, they characterise the exuberance with which Hwee Sian tries to reach out to everyone through the arts.

When she joined Cedar Girls’ Secondary School in 2009, it had long been a powerhouse in track and field. While it had several performing arts CCA groups, it did not have an annual arts festival – a typical feature in many secondary schools.

However, Hwee Sian believes that the Arts should be brought to everyone. Hence, she initiated one in 2010, programming the CCA groups’ concerts over a few weeks, raising their visibility and generating buzz among students. For Hwee Sian, who is also the school’s Arts Director, the arts are not merely to entertain. They are also to educate.

This is why she has made sure that Cedar’s students do not only attend performances. Over their four years in the school, all of them will also get to play in a music ensemble, visit a museum, critique a play and even try their hand at cartooning, among other things. These experiences have enabled the students to have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the arts.

The Big League

Hwee Sian’s impact has reached far beyond her school. She has been in demand as a choir conductor, taking charge of the National Day Parade combined schools’ choir an incredible four times, and the Singapore Youth Festival mass choir three times.

But she never forgets her own students. Whenever she is invited to these national events, she finds ways for Cedarians to participate.

The clincher? She actively sources for those with no formal training in music or performing. Most of them are from other CCAs such as the uniformed groups as well as clubs and society.

“Other schools might send their choirs,” she says. “But we already have a lot of platforms for our performing arts groups. I want other students to have the chance to take the role of performers.”

Those that end up under Hwee Sian’s baton are never coerced. “I have to sell the idea to them,” she explains. “During the gruelling preparations, they will grumble. But the moment they hit the first dress rehearsal, everything changes. They become so excited. After the show itself, they will ask me, ‘so what do we do next week’?”

Hwee Sian is gratified by their transformation, and glad to have contributed to a truly special moment in their lives.

Some of these students may never have thought they could sing, but Hwee Sian did not accept that. She says: “Every child in kindergarten can sing, and they will sing loudly. They may not be very good at it, but they all firmly believe they can sing.”

“It is only when we grow older that some of us lose our voices because we become more self-conscious. It’s more an issue of confidence and encouragement. Everyone has a voice. My aim is to help each of my students find hers.”

“Through art and drama, she has helped me express myself better and it has made me more confident to step out of my comfort zone.’’  – Cao Ying Ying, Secondary 3