Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by Singapore Tatler

Doctor Do-Much

by Low Yit Leng

Singapore Tatler July 1995

He is known in the community as the founder of the Margaret Drive Special School for handicapped and autistic children. This month, however, another side of Dr. Kenneth Lyen will emerge. Lyen’s passion for composing music bears fruit in the form of a new musical, Big Bang! which will open at Kallang Theatre on Saturday July 8 1995. To be directed by Broadway veteran Bob Turoff, who has steered more than 500 musicals, the lead role is based on the life of British physicist Stephen Hawking and will feature Reed Armstrong, who also starred in the 1992 production of Ken Hill’s Phantom of the Opera.

Lyen’s introduction to music started early - both his parents are musically inclined. His father Dr. David Lyen, a general practitioner, sings and plays the saxophone, and his mother not only sings but is also a pianist. Young Lyen began playing the piano when he was three and was instructed on the violin by one of Singapore’s best known music teachers, Goh Soon Tioe.

Born in Hong Kong, Lyen and his family emigrated to Singapore when he was seven. After his education at Anglo-Chinese School, Lyen studied medicine at Oxford University and did his specialist training in children’s diseases in London and Philadelphia. He then returned to Singapore to teach at the National University Hospital before starting his own practice.

During his first year in Oxford, one of his teachers influenced him profoundly. “My tutor in medicine, Dr. O’Brien, made my thinking more critical and analytical and certainly made me more aware of people and things around me,” says Lyen. “He was the type of tutor who didn’t just teach medicine, but a whole philosophical outlook - he taught me to think.”

Lyen rates being a caring person as one of the most important characteristics any individual can have. “While values such as integrity and honesty are important, I feel that if you don’t have a heart, then you don’t have the commitment to help your fellow man.”

Help can come in may forms. “When I was in the budget allocation committee of the Community Chest, we found that nearly every agency serving the handicapped wanted to implement an early intervention programme. We decided it was better to pull all the resources together to start an independent programme of early intervention for handicapped children with multiple disabilities.”

Lyen was made chairman of the pilot project in 1987 - the progenitor of the Margaret Drive Special School. “At first there was some reluctance to implement it in a big way as the staff to student ratio was very low - it started out one-to-one and so was a very expensive programme,” he says. “Fortunately, Dr. Ee Peng Liang, the late chairman of the Community Chest, was very supportive and helpful in this regard. The biggest struggle was sourcing staff. We couldn’t find any expertise in Singapore - there was no one who knew how to look after the very young with multiple handicaps. Finally, we got some overseas staff who later provided local training with the help of the National Institute of Education.”

Lyen is still chairman of the school. It started with about 20 children and today has an intake of 300. A second school using the former Balestier Primary School building opened in March 1995. “The best thing about being involved in this area is meeting other people. Most go into it because they want to help and are the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” says Lyen.

Interestingly, Lyen also looks after the other end of the spectrum - he is at the forefront in promoting Junior Mensa, a social club for children who have high IQs. “The club organises a series of programmes through which we try to stretch the imagination of these gifted children, some of whom can read from two years of age or are very talented in mathematics,” he says. The club counsels parents on how to enhance the talent of their gifted offspring while helping them adjust to the school system.

Lyen starts his daily routine at 7:30 a.m. and goes home when the hospital rounds are completed, usually after 7:00 p.m. “After playing with the kids and some recreational activities such as tennis or squash, which I try to play at least twice a week, I am usually off to attend meetings and rehearsals for the musical.” It is not unusual for Lyen to work until 2:00 a.m., often completing a musical score. Lyen has coauthored two books on childcare. A third book, specifically on childcare practices in Asia, will be published soon.

To truly relax, however, Lyen returns to his music. “It is very different from writing a book,” he says. “The tune comes to me at the most unexpected times. I cannot sit and say that I am going to write now. I have to be in the right frame of mind. The music or an idea strikes me suddenly - I could be doing anything, having a shower or walking along the road. After I get the idea, I orchestrate it in the evening when everyone is asleep.”

Lyen finds multimedia computers and music synthesizers a great boost. “Now I can get the whole orchestra - violin, cellos, trumpets, drums - and instantly find out whether I have written the right harmony and instrumentation. It makes a great difference because I can see the notes on the computer screen and change them - like a word processor, I can cut and paste, repeat segments and transpose the notes. It saves so much time.” Indeed, Lyen, who wrote musicals even during his school days, is quite prolific - he estimates that it takes him about three to five minutes to get a tune right and another hour to get the orchestration. He leaves the writing of lyrics to a colleague.

His future plans include several more musicals. “Writing a musical is different from just writing music. You need a story line and collaboration with others. It requires a lot of interaction with fellow composers and writers, and that is a great joy.

One of my secret aims is to modernize the traditional Chinese opera and giving them new rhythms, beats and harmonies. But I think a lot of old people will object to this.”

“The other day at my house there was a wayang. I saw only one lady who must be in her 80s or 90s watching it. The whole art will die unless the young get interested. Although I cannot follow the plot and have to read the synopsis, I like Chinese opera’s spectacle and movement. What I want is to convert it to an art form which will be more acceptable to young ears. Just like European opera, Chinese opera is no longer appealing to the very young. Something radical must be done, otherwise we will lose the entire art form and all the old stories will be forgotten.”

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