His oeuvre is Western classical music, but just before his performance, you will hear piano virtuoso Clarence Lee quietly chant a Buddhist mantra in his dressing room. Says Lee of his ritual: “It calms me from the pressure of performing and keeps my mind clear of distractions and negative thoughts.”
It works. The 29-year-old’s performances of Rachmaninov and Liszt’s pieces in the Piano Extravaganza at the Esplanade in June blew away reviewers, with one calling his playing “dramatic, truly spectacular”.
For someone who excels in conveying passion on stage, Lee is surprisingly imperturbable and calm in person. He takes the praise in stride, his equanimity a result of years of practising Tibetan Buddhism. “As young performers, we are often afraid of making mistakes, of bad reviews, of not living up to expectations,” he says. “Praise or criticism, I cannot control how the audience reacts to my performance. Once I realised that the only thing I can control is my playing, I became free to be who I am on stage.”
Last year, Lee cast aside his suit for monk robes at Palchen Choling Monastery in Sikkim, India. There, he found that the source of true happiness lies in simplicity, starting with his shaved head. “The first thing I noticed about being a monk was not having to worry about messy hair in the morning. Life became simpler. A lot of sorrows are ‘self-caused’ by our cares and desires – I had nothing in that one week and I felt peace. That, is true happiness.”
Lee’s spirituality and background also shaped his belief that music is not a end in itself. Growing up, he had watched his mother, a club singer, bring joy to her audience with songs and small talk. “From her, I learnt that music is a means to connect with people,” he says. “The piano is my instrument to do just that.”
To this end, Lee recounts his experience in the war-torn region of Nagorno Karabakh, where he performed as part of the 2013 “Tnjre” International Festival of Young Musicians. “Music was the only way I could reach out to the locals, since they spoke mainly Armenian and Russian,” he says. “On one of the days, we travelled about four hours to perform at an elementary school in a secluded village. The locals took eight hours to transport an upright piano there,” Lee remembers. “Everyone in the village turned up, and even children stood still to listen, as I played pieces such as Rachmaninov’s piano sonata. After the concert, many of them hugged me with tears in their eyes. My playing in a way had resonated with their passions and struggles.”
These days, the part-time lecturer at Lasalle College of the Arts is also dedicating time to nurture the next generation of musicians. He says: “I’ve gone through a circuitous route trying to please critics, to sustain a living while keeping my integrity, and struggling with organisers who want young artists to perform for free in the name of exposure. These lessons can help younger artists. More importantly, I want them to understand that if your talent and success serves nobody else but you, it is meaningless. It is something only if our talents are used to reach out to others.”
Lee will perform a piano concerto with Orchestra of the Music Makers at School of the Arts concert hall on Dec 14 , at 7.30pm.