Chasing a pipe dream

Chasing a pipe dream
(left) Dr Lim is the Head of Piano & Organ at MSM (top right) A nativity scene in her studio office displayed during the Advent season (bottom right) One of the many cross sculptures Dr Lim collects on her travels

Organists are a rare breed in Singapore. Find out how the Head of Piano & Organ at the Methodist School of Music found her calling.

Stepping into Dr Evelyn Lim’s studio at the Methodist School of Music (MSM), one gets the impression that there is something church-like about the room. The door faces a large window covered with a “stained glass” transparent sticker that gives the room a soft, multi-coloured glow. In front of this is a wooden stand that holds a nativity scene because this interview took place during Advent. “I change the display according to the church calendar. This acts as a teaching aid for students who are here to learn about the Church,” says Dr Lim, 58.

The room holds a piano and an organ that comes with three manuals—another term for keyboards played with the hands, as opposed to those played with the feet—and an impressive complement of pedals and stops.

Dr Lim is an educator at heart. “I enjoy teaching and seeing the light in my students’ eyes. When they understand what is being taught, I can hear it in their playing and that makes my day.”

According to the Singapore chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the organ population in Singapore is small by any measure. There are 10 pipe organs and a few portative (portable) ones, the majority of which are used in religious buildings and concert halls. Given this low statistic, how did she join this rare breed of musicians?

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Dr Lim playing the organ at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, the only Methodist church in Singapore to have a pipe organ

An uphill task to find an organ instructor

Dr Lim’s ears were opened when, as a teenaged student, she attended an organ recital by Dr Margaret Chen, whom she describes as the Grande Dame of the organ scene in Singapore. “I was wowed. She planted the organ bug in my ear. I had never heard the organ play such colours,” says Dr Lim. She looked for an organ instructor but was unsuccessful.

Around that time, she started to serve as a piano accompanist for the choir at Wesley Methodist Church, where she still worships today. When the church needed an organist, Dr Lim stepped forward. Another church member who played the organ briefed her on how to play the instrument. One step closer to realising her dream of playing the organ, Dr Lim was all the more determined to find a proper instructor. She says jokingly, “I chose the loneliest and loudest instrument,” but she was set on learning it despite the difficulties in finding a teacher.

In the mid-1980s, Yamaha Music School in Singapore began a joint piano diploma programme with Boston University. Dr Lim enrolled in it and, although she did not know it at that time, that marked the start of her path towards formal training in the organ. “I realised I was good at music and loved it. I decided I wanted to do music for the rest of my life,” she says. At the recommendation of her lecturer after she completed the diploma course, she went to the University of Houston where she did a Bachelor of Music in performance for piano and organ, and graduated summa cum laude. She describes how she literally pursued her organ education in her first week there. “I chased the organ teacher at the university and begged him to teach me. He agreed and took me to buy my first pair of organ shoes.”

It was a struggle at first because Dr Lim had to undo what she describes as bad habits developed from attempting to learn the organ on her own in Singapore. Nevertheless, she persevered and later did a Master’s degree in the organ.

“When I look back, I see a divine hand in my organ journey. God knew I needed these teachers,” reflects Dr Lim. After graduation, her lecturer referred her to his own organ teacher, the late Dr Marilyn Mason, who was a noted concert organist and teacher. Dr Lim went to the University of Michigan where she was immersed in a world of organ music. She laughingly describes how she cooked for Dr Mason and her guests. “This is how I met famous organists from Europe. Madam Duruflé (a famous organist and guest of Dr Mason) ate my noodles. Then we watched her recital at school. I really wanted to be in that environment.”

As much as she enjoyed herself learning the organ in the United States, Dr Lim responded to the call and returned to Singapore in 1997 after she earned her Doctor of Music. She joined the newly established MSM as a piano and organ instructor in the same year. She says, “I returned so that I could teach music, bearing in mind how I was unable to find a teacher when I was younger.”

In addition to teaching at MSM, at various times she also taught at Singapore Bible College and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Presently, she teaches at Dulwich College as well. Periodically, she also conducts organ workshops in hymn playing for churches in Malaysia.

Dr Lim with MSM organ teachers Angela (front row, first from left) and Chet Wei (2nd from right) at organ workshop at St Simon Catholic Church Likas, Kota Kinabalu
Dr Lim with MSM organ teachers Angela (front row, first from left) and Chet Wei (2nd from right) at an organ workshop at St Simon Catholic Church Likas, Kota Kinabalu

Shaping the next generation of organists

According to Dr Lim, music education is not just about learning a musical instrument. She says, “In a concert, the musician acts as the conduit for the composer to bring his music to the listener. In church, the musician interprets music to interact with the congregation and guide them to worship. My crusade is to create organists who know how to play the organ at the right time and with the right feel. It may not be perfect, but you need to know what you are doing.”

Figurines of crusader knights on display in Dr Lim’s office remind her of this mission. She adds, “To me, the organ belongs in the Church first. Three quarters of good organ music was written for the Church.” As such, analysing the lyrics of a hymn is critical to helping the organist understand the music and communicate the intention of the hymn writer.

To be Dr Lim’s student is to align yourself with her beliefs in serving the Church. “Put equal effort in your church music ministry, as you would do in your day job,” she says firmly.

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Dr Lim in her office studio where pictures of organs from around the world fill her walls

On one wall of her office, posters of ornate pipe organs in the grand cathedrals of Europe serve as teaching resources. What makes this display particularly significant is that Dr Lim has played on most of these organs.

Teaching is just one part of Dr Lim’s passion for the organ. Having performed as an organist with various local ensembles, orchestras and choirs, including the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Singapore Symphony Chorus and the Malaysian Philharmonic, she is deeply integrated with the local music community. As the Pipe Organ Master at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay since they opened in 2002, Dr Lim orientates visiting artistes to the organ, conducts educational tours and even performs on the 3-storey-high organ, which is Singapore’s largest. Moreover, she is also the founder and current Dean of the Singapore chapter of the American Guild of Organists, which provides support for organists and organ music locally.

During her tenure at MSM, Dr Lim stepped up as Director of Music when the need arose, to fulfil a broader scope of duties. In this position, she oversaw the General Music department (see sidebar) which is the only school in Singapore that provides classes in ballet, singing and musical instruments such as the piano, violin, flute and of course, the organ. “Our students come from any background, regardless of religion and denomination. From children to seniors, we conduct lessons in the performing arts to suit their needs.” She adds, “We give our students the foundation in music which form the tools for future ministry, if they are led in that direction.” All the teachers are Christians, which supports MSM’s vision to nurture not just the individual, but also the future church musician.

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(left) Dr Lim speaking at a Methodist Festival Choir Christmas event in Esplanade Dec 2018 (right) Dr Lim playing the organ in her office hat has two manuals (or keyboards) that are operated by hands

Dr Lim’s first love remains music instruction and starting 1 January 2024, she was able to return to what she does best in her new role as Head of Piano and Organ at MSM.

Having encountered obstacles in finding suitable organ teachers for herself previously, Dr Lim’s role at MSM appears to be an apt development in her music career now that she is in the position of enabling people to have access to music lessons. From chasing a pipe dream that was seemingly unattainable when she first heard what an organ could do, Dr Evelyn Lim has, by God’s grace and her own single-minded focus, turned that initial fascination with the organ into a lifelong passion and ministry for music.

The Methodist School of Music
offers a comprehensive range of programmes for individuals of all ages and skill levels. Whether you desire to learn the piano, organ or violin, unlock your vocal talent, or gracefully master the art of ballet, MSM’s experienced faculty can guide you on your artistic journey. Beyond technical proficiency, MSM fosters well-rounded musicianship through music theory, hymn playing and worship music classes. Discover the programme that resonates with your aspirations and embark on a fulfilling musical or dance experience at MSM.

Visit www.msmusic.edu.sg or scan the QR code for more information and take the first step towards unleashing your artistic potential.

Janice Khoo serves in the Choir and Media & Comms Ministry at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. / Photos courtesy of Evelyn Lim and Memphis West Pictures