Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by Dawn Magazine

Multiple Personality

by Eng Xin Hui

Dawn February 2005

Seven months (and counting) of interviewing doctors and writing the Feature Story has led me to a few personal conclusions about doctors. I shall let out one breakthrough discovery from my bursting library.

I realize, all (Most / Some / 6 out of 7) doctors need more than one blank to fully answer the “Occupation” query. Considering the number of doctors we have, my statistics could very soon be representative. The dictionary will tell you that an occupation can either be a vocation - activity that serves one’s regular source of livelihood, or an avocation - activity engaged in especially as a means of passing time. Sure, at any point, we are at least five occupations rolled into one - doctor, insomniac, massage therapist, nappy changer and chauffeur. If you think that is interesting, I have met doctors who are simultaneously national sportsmen, avid watch collectors, photographers, entrepreneurs and painters. In many cases, considering the amount of time spent on the extra-doctor activities and the fulfilment to be gleaned from it, it is a wonder which the real sideline is.

Dr. Kenneth Lyen is a dedicated pediatrician, an accomplished composer of musicals, a distinguished screenplay writer, an online inspiration, the founder of two schools and a prolific author on creativity, education and parenting. His large involvement in the local theater scene composes (pun intended) a considerable percentage of my bold conclusion.

For Dr. Lyen, writing music and musicals is a hobby that has become his passion. This musical interest is hereditary as Dr. Lyen tells us his father played the saxophone, his mother played the piano, and both loved to sing. Dr. Lyen recalls his first music lesson was with his aunt at the piano. Subsequently, he took up formal piano and violin lessons. From playing in the orchestra to singing in the choir to directing musicals, Dr. Lyen soon did them all. At 10, he wrote his first piano piece. Nonetheless, he remembers he had little time to address this musical inclination for 15 years when he started his housejobs and postgraduate medical training. It was not until he moved into private practice that he found that he needed an outlet to express himself. This time, he did not just want to play music, he wanted to write music.

Most definitely, Dr. Lyen does not do it for the money. He gets paid little if at all as there are usually small budgets for such productions. Moreover, most of his projects are what he deems “his way of raising funds for charity”. According to him, it’s more than just a way to explore his artistic side. More so, this involvement in music is his way of “preserving and keeping a check on his sanity... Medicine can be very intense and at times very sad”, he says. Now he gives composing his full leisure-time attention. He goes on to elaborate on what writing music does for him. “Writing music allows me to relax, and it acts as a safety valve to release my emotional tensions. It also enables me to explore feelings that cannot be expressed by any other art form.”

When asked what inspires him, Dr. Lyen shrugs and tells us that his musical compositions are unpredictable. He draws motivation from the musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Hamlisch, and Stephen Schwartz. He admits to having a fondness for melodic music. So “rap music”, he says, is not in his blood even though he listens to music of all sorts. However, his inspirations come from nowhere at all. He could be walking along the streets, driving, taking a shower, or even dozing off. He jots his ideas down in a notebook lest they are lost forever. His creative process really begins after dark when his wife and kids are asleep. He can write an entire song in less than ten minutes although arranging it may take several hours more. Sometimes, the songs do not even “see the light of day” as his harshest critic, himself, puts it. Nevertheless, the lack of sleep does not bother this passionate composer. In his words, “the creative process is a passionate one. Creative activities can consume you entirely. It becomes an obsession. You need it to live and to breathe. Once I get started, I cannot stop.”

By day, he runs his practice. By night, he liberates his creativity. It will probably shock you that this doctor cum composer is also the founder fo the Margaret Drive and the Balestier Special Schools for disabled children. At the same time, he maintains an online blog (Weblog, a log of thoughts on a web page) that earned him the “Blog of the Day” status by BlogCritics, and the “Blog of the Week” title by the Straits Times in 2004. His blogs mostly document his thoughts on current affairs, arts and music and the idiosyncrasies of life. In them you will find perceptive book reviews, humorous anecdotes, and thought-provoking comments.

Dr. Lyen is also a prolific author, and has coauthored many books on education, creativity, and parenting. His major areas of interest are creativity and multiple intelligences. His unique brand of humor and perceptive outlook on life punctuate his writings. Dr. Lyen is the brain behind “Dat’s My Baby” - a wickedly funny comic book which pokes fun at the trials and tribulations of parenting.

To date, Dr. Lyen has written thirteen musicals which have been staged in Singapore, including Big Bang! (1995), Orchard Square (1995), the National Day Parade musical Chase the Rainbow (1997), Yum Sing! (1999), Temptations (2000), The Magic Paintbrush (2000), Sayang (2001), Song of the Whale (2001), Exodus (2003), Making the Grade (2004). In 1999 he won first prize for a United TV International screenwriting competition. He also wrote the screenplay for Love Poetry, a feature telemovie telecast in 2004.

At the end of the day, Dr. Lyen is sticking to his day job. He is a pediatrician and his practice is a delightful clinic whose efforts to look more like a playroom are noted with high marks. He uses the words “optimistic”, “lively”, and “encouraging” to describe his job. Jokingly, he tells us, “My parents had advised me that music should always remain a hobby. I think this is sound advice, because music remains a precarious profession in Singapore”. More importantly, Dr. Lyen feels that he can produce better work because it is a passion and not a livelihood. He composes when he wants to and not when he needs to. He loves his profession, citing it as a unique one. “As doctors, we have the opportunity to look into the lives of people. You become more sensitive to the needs of people and your willingness to help is not superficial. You have the ability to ‘heal’ a person not just physically, but also psychologically.” To him, writing music is an outlet that does not cause any detraction from his profession. Just like there are doctors who are painters or dancers or photographers at the same time, Dr. Lyen is a composer. He wholeheartedly encourages those who like music to try this form of creative writing. The only hazard he can forewarn is that it is highly addictive!

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