Arts and Culture Are to Feed Your Soul: What Education Means to a Maestro

white cat on piano keys

July 28th 2020 | Expert Interview

 During our last discussion on Dialogue 4.0, educators and students from all over Asia shared each country’s situation regarding schooling under the pandemic, discussed and talked about the ongoing “Online or Offline” debate, positive and negative sides that new methods would have.

 In the end, the very definition of public education, originally structured with the rise of industrialization, came into question by the participants: Is it still relevant to the world we live in today? What is the essential role of public schools besides teaching math and English? How can schools assist kids to lead them to the life they desire?

 To give an answer to these open-questions, we conducted an interview with a Principal Conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and a dedicated Life Coach guiding people to find their own path in life.

 Jason Lai, with his rich life experiences shared with us the profound meaning of education and how life itself can also be a great teacher.

“I’d make the learning to be at anyone’s individual pace, abolish grades, and focus on ethics and morals just as much as learning math and English” 

Education is a key to brighter future, many people would say. However, the thought that learning Math and English at school will be endowing future success, is “very restrictive,” Jason explains, a deeper learning is required that has us focusing not just on the outside world but also the inner world, and is “the key to understanding yourself better, so you can begin to interact with the world”

  “Education can come in all forms. We all have different skill sets and different strengths. I think great schools would celebrate that, and not tie everyone to be at a certain standard at a certain age in their life, which actually destroys people.”

    He deeply sympathizes with the idea introduced by Dalai Lama, which emphasizes the importance of ethics and morals taught at schools. Concerning the current trend that the importance of morality is easily overlooked and kids are told life is all about hitting targets, getting somewhere, achieving something, Jason says what is more crucial for children at younger age is “the ability to explore things and to feel safe in that territory”.

   “Adults would say, ‘Oh it’s a jungle out there you gotta be strong, and if you can’t, you’re gonna fail in life’. I don’t consider this to be true. If you’re constantly threatened by your parents wanting you to have great grades, then, where are you? You’re just like a learning robot, only learning to regurgitate facts and not learning anything, really. ”

   Rather than being taught at school, Jason’s strong work ethics and willingness to help others seems to have deeper roots in the life lessons from his parents. They moved to the UK from Hong Kong not knowing the language very well. “I recognize how difficult that would be to build up something from scratch, to put food on the table. They had no choice. And maybe because they had such struggles, my parents were always helping others in need. I think I’ve never forgotten that.”

   His experiences and lessons are boiled down to this idea: “If I were reorganizing schools, I’d make the learning to be at anyone’s individual pace, abolish grades, and focus on ethics and morals just as much as learning math and English.” 

Ups and downs.
Inspiration of backstories to go beyond goals

Jason considers himself in early childhood as “really a normal kid,” not really knowing what to aim for in life, just as many others. However, discovering music at the age of 10 was the turning point of his life. “I knew from when I first started music, that this was going to be the thing I wanted to concentrate on in life.” 

   The 3 years he spent at a specialist music school were some of the best years of his life, the school “wasn’t about what background you’re from, just purely about if you could play an instrument, come and we will help you to develop your ability and inspire you to become a musician.” 

   On the contrary, the 4 years he subsequently spent at Oxford University turned out to be quite a tough time for him. “It wasn’t the university’s fault, but was my trying to find myself during an awkward time in my life.” He didn’t feel he was fitting in the environment, and he was seized by Imposter Syndrome which he says held him back throughout his life. Jason, an indisputably successful person to everyone’s eyes, told us a “backstory” from his childhood.

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   “When the first year of school started at the age of 6, everyone was equal. Then the second year I was selected to learn in the ‘top stream’, a group of kids considered intelligent or able. I felt good to be there.” In the third year, however, Jason was downgraded into B stream. 

“I still remember trying to read the letter sent to my parents, trying to understand why they felt I had to move down.” The school said Jason lacked a bit of confidence and he needed to build more skill sets. “I remember feeling ashamed, inadequate, and feeling as if I just wasn’t good enough. I think this was something that stayed in my mind as I’ve come through life -trying to prove to the world that I am good enough.” 

He was still in the B stream for the 4th year. But this time, Jason’s mindset was different. “I remember saying to myself; if I’m in the B stream, I’m going to be the best in the B stream and I’m going to help other people.” 

After that, Jason used to deliberately finish his work quickly, so he could help others. “That’s not always a good thing because I made mistakes in my work by doing things too quickly,” he laughs while remembering. “But I really wanted to reach out and help other classmates.”

   Despite this bittersweet memory which must have been very harsh for someone not even in his teenage years Jason does not interpret the experience too negatively. “When people have the ‘backstory’, they tend to push themselves a little bit more than believing themselves to be wonderful, intelligent, attractive and all that.” 

“Arts and culture are the poetry of life.” 

Last month, a striking result of a survey was revealed in Singapore showing ‘the most non-essential job in society’ was the artist, 70% of those polled agreed with this. Under the ongoing pandemic, however, the way people are spending their time facing the predicament of unknown duration of staying-home, is once again casting a doubt on this collective undervaluing of artists.

  The essential role of arts and culture is “to feed the soul of people,” Jason reminds us. “It’s quite interesting to see what people have been doing under Covid-19. They’ve been reading, watching movies, playing music. What are these all things? They are the arts.” 

    Jason explains how arts and culture affect our lives more than we give credits for. “In our busy life, we need to feed the kids, go for work to pay the gas bill. What else is remaining there? All these other spaces can be filled with arts, culture, and soul. In this world of rationality, hunger for power and money, it’s very easy to forget that we need to be sustained in a more important way with soul. You can access soul through arts and culture.” 

   What arts and culture provide go beyond additional, functional amusement for leisure. Although he has “never been a fan before,” he recently came to deeply understand the meaning, the incredible beauty and importance of poetry. “Poetry could say what is not being able to be said in the world. In one line, you can encompass a whole generation of thought. I think arts and culture are simply the poetry of life that we don’t see or we can’t see within us.” 

   Jason further points out a significant aspect of arts –the evocation of a sense of imagination which helps one’s growth. “As a kid, I  always loved stories. When a kid hears stories, they suddenly imagine themselves to be in that place. It’s a wonderful sense of departure from ‘real life’ into something that you can explore.” He sees this to be especially relevant today, “because of this ongoing, directional movement towards power, money, deadlines, and towards making the shareholders happy.” In addition to morals and ethics, Jason therefore proposes art education be “involved more in school, not less.” 

Do not hesitate to seek mentors 

As a young man who was already a widely-acknowledged talent, Jason didn’t seek a mentor but wished he did. “Unfortunately, I didn’t believe I needed a mentor throughout my life. Along the way, the sense of curiosity turned into something that fed my ego and narcissism.” Jason cites the book “Beginner’s Mind” to explain: the beginner’s mind has possibilities, and the expert-mind has less. “I, for the most of my life, pretended that I had an expert-mind. So I began to have less possibilities.” 

   Despite feeling he knew it all and did not specifically need mentors, however, Jason did receive some “soul advice” from renowned people full of wisdom, such as conductor Sir Colin Davis

   “He really was a wonderful, warm human being,” Jason reminiscences. “In 50s and 60s, there was a real totalitarian approach to conducting. You know, ‘What I say goes, don’t argue with me’ kind of approach. Sir Colin told me that he looked on his early years with horror, as he admitted to being a kind of tyrant.”

In one meeting, Jason was discussing a piece of music with the great maestro. “When he asked how I would conduct a certain part of a piece of music, I moved in a certain, in a very complicated way. I was trying to be a ‘leader’. Then he said; ‘Oh, my dear boy, why would you be so busy, why don’t you let it unfold, and let it move like this,’ and he showed me his gentle moves.” He still vividly remembers his response to this advice. “But you are Sir Colin Davis, they would do anything for you.” Sir Colin Davis looked at him startled, and didn’t say anything further. It was only many years later, that Jason realized what this meant and that Sir Colin was absolutely right. 

   “It was not that he was Sir Colin Davis, what mattered was that he was showing the soul of the music, demonstrating through his gestures. That’s what mattered. None of this business about trying to be someone important,  the most vital thing is to concentrate on the music. So he was a great mentor to me in that way.” 

“We easily forget that we all are value itself” 

Having realized the importance of mentors, he now leads a life as a life coach and conductor. “There’s an old wise saying that goes; if you don’t share your wisdom, then it rots. I really believe that. With the little wisdom I have now, I’m very happy to share because if I don’t share, it will disappear and rot.” 

    The types of coaching that Jason practice are  Developmental Coaching and Integral Coaching. “Coaches don’t give you an answer, they don’t try to fix solutions. We try to ask you to look at yourself deeply and see what may or may not be holding you back.” Often the issue that clients bring is not really the issue that is coached on, he says, because “it runs deeper”. Therefore, coaching helps clients to see deeper reasons underneath the issues, rather than providing solutions. 

     “The presenting issue is only scratching the surface. Say, the issue could be about not being promoted at their work and they feel frustrated about that. Through many conversations you may discover that the person has a need to demonstrate to the world that they’re successful. And you begin to actually explore why they feel they have this need.”

   Jason finds coaching to be “extremely rewarding,” because he thinks it’s a 2-way process: when clients ask him to see and hear them, it also allows him to see and hear himself as well, thinking deeply about his own life, failures, and success.

    “I find it extraordinary to sit in front of my client, I feel so honored that they share their very deep and personal stories with me. Some of them are very tragic, some really inspiring. But they all have inherent value and it’s about the value of the person sitting in front of me, which I find to be deeply amazing. We easily forget that we are all value itself, how our values are given to the world. Coaching can help you with this blind spot as much as anything.”  

Photo by Anni Roenkae on

“At the very minimum all you can do is to listen. Listen with an open heart, curiosity, 
and authenticity”

“The power of listening should not be overestimated,” Jason says, both in conducting and in coaching. “When an orchestra feels they’re listened to, not just by the audience but by the person who’s leading, they feel empowered. They feel that this conductor is trying to help them, trying to guide them. Because we’re professionals who know how to play instruments, all we need now is to have someone who inspires us, not to tell us what to do. I think that’s a key aspect to building trust as a conductor.”

   As a leader of the world where everyone holds different ideas and values, it’s impossible to please everyone. “The orchestra is a microcosm of the world, where some musicians would request to do something, other musicians would request the opposite. At the end of the day, if you’re in the position of leadership, you have to make a decision. But at the very minimum all you can do is to listen. Listen with an open heart, curiosity, and with authenticity.” 

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    Similarly, while coaching, one of his profound learning was about the art of listening. “A lot of coachees have simply never been listened to. So with this act of being listened to they are deeply moved. When I’m being heard, I feel moved as well. What seemingly is a simple act could actually heal the world, just by listening to someone, without preparing your answer while listening, without preparing a response, without knowing what you’re going to say.” 

    While allowing the client to be vulnerable is important, Jason also thinks that allowing himself to be vulnerable is equally as important. “Sometimes, there is nothing to say, all you can do is to listen as they pour out this life story to you. It’s harder when someone tells you something that is very very, very difficult for them and they haven’t told anyone else. You can just hold that space for them just to say what they need to say, and listen.” 

    However, Jason doesn’t think he was always successful in doing this. “I’m not perfect by any means,” he speaks in modesty, introducing a Buddhist teaching: one needs to see and accept the reality of their situation first. “Only when you can really see the reality of the situation, you can actually see what’s going on in the world. And in the past, I always refused to see the reality of the situation. So I fought back against what people have told me, and this was upsetting to me. ‘I, Me, My’ gets in the way. But I’ve learned a lot from those times, that’s when my ego and my narcissism got in the way.”

“You have to bring your own soul to that job,
filling the gap to make that your own”

In regards to his successful career as a conductor, Jason has conducted numerous prominent Orchestras in Europe and China, Japan and Hong Kong prior to his present position in Singapore, including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Orchestra of the Swan, and Podlasie Opera Philharmonic in Poland, just to name a few. He also frequently appears on BBC television to serve as a communicator bridging mass and music.

    How he has become Jason Lai today, a talented, compassionate, and a dedicated conductor, while being a humane, warm-hearted and sympathetic coach providing wisdom cannot be explained by a simple cause-and-effect of having rigorous education at school. The maestro dropped the following hint for blooming into who you are meant to be: “You can’t simply learn something by reading a book or being told what to do and then using them as tools. It’s the same as arts and culture, you have to bring your own soul to that job, filling the gap to make that your own.” 

 PROFILE | Jason Lai is a British orchestral conductor, integral coach, presenter & speaker, based in Singapore. He was assistant conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2002 to 2005. At present he is the Principal Conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music which is part of the National University of Singapore.

Story by Kaori Kohyama, Jin Sherab, Ayano Sasaki


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