Pei Ann Yeoh: a female musician in the male-dominated art form of jazz

Kourosh Ziabari
Mar 26, 2018 · 10 min read
Pei Ann Yeoh is a young violinist and Ph.D. candidate with King’s College London. She started her artistic journey at the age of four and has since received her Fellowship Diploma from Trinity College London, pursued a Bachelor of Music at Queensland Conservatorium, Australia and Masters of Music at Birmingham Conservatoire, UK. Courtesy of

Pei Ann Yeo is a young violinist from Malaysia, currently doing a Ph.D. in Music at King’s College London. She is also doing research on “how gender and race are treated in jazz performance.”

She was born in Kuala Lumpur and has received her Fellowship Diploma from Trinity College London in both Solo Piano and Violin Performance. Following that, she pursued a Bachelor of Music at Queensland Conservatorium, Australia and Masters of Music at Birmingham Conservatoire, majoring in jazz violin performance. She is comfortable in Classical and Jazz styles.

Between 2011 and 2015, she held Visiting Tutor posts at several local universities in Malaysia. Pei Ann considers herself a minority in the sense that she is “a female musician in the male-dominated art form of jazz.”

However, although Pei’s being a minority gender-wise might be considered a disadvantage, her academic and artistic achievements demonstrate otherwise. She has given performances internationally and also been a member of the Organising Committee of TedxGoodEnoughCollege 2017.

I talked to Pei about her journey and the efforts she has put into securing this prestigious fellowship, which she says is something that gave her opportunities and entitlements that she has been envisioning and looking forward to for a long time.

Q: You started your musical endeavours at the age of four. Was it a motivation or encouragement from your parents? Were you provided with the facilities you needed to develop your interests and pursue your ambitions?

A: I had an older sister who was already doing music, and doing it very well. So in a sense, I didn’t need any motivation or encouragement but rather direction from my family. I never really questioned learning music — I just assumed it was something that I had to do. I had all the appropriate hand-me-downs from the small violins all the way up. I still use a violin that used to belong to my sister.

Q: A young talent who sets off an artistic career at the age of four is normally considered a child prodigy. Wouldn’t you face issues with your immediate friends or your primary and high school classmates who considered you to be an unusual rival or because you appeared to be over-qualified?

A: Not at all. I would not consider myself a ‘threat’ to any classmate, just one that had lesser time to have a childhood. Practicing an instrument or two takes up a lot of time, and going for classes fill up the rest of the time. Artistic career is a long-shot and I was never considered a prodigy in any way. My peers in music class were the prodigies and I fall more in the mid-category of things. My schoolmates are fascinated by someone who plays music even until high school. In Malaysia, the music curriculum ends at primary level.

My schoolmates and music peers are two very different groups that I grow up with, so this question can take on different directions.

Q: What was the main reason you made the decision to do a fellowship at the Trinity College London in 2004 and then pursue your Ph.D. at King’s College? Was there something particularly attractive about studying in the United Kingdom that brought you over here?

A: Here I have to give you additional info about my music background: The fellowship awarded by Trinity College London is different from an academic award. It is very much like a graded music exam that you hear of children taking for each level. There are several awarding bodies around the world but the most popular and enduring examination boards are Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) and Trinity College London. The ‘Fellowship’ is the highest possible award for that sort of qualification, but it is a non-academic award. So, I did have to do a Bachelor of Music and Masters of Music, before applying for a PhD.

I did my undergraduate studies at Queensland Conservatorium in Australia which I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt from a great deal. After that, I had the opportunity to continue on with my postgraduate studies but I was persistent on the idea of learning in a different country as it would offer me new creative perspectives to work with. Also, being an international student everywhere costs a great deal so I wanted to be absolutely sure that I would be getting great education value, something that I was not sure I would get had I continued studying in the same school.

In our interview, Pei Ann, the brilliant Goodenough College researcher and Ph.D. candidate gave reference to a June 2016 performance by the noted American singer and actress Selena Gomez in Malaysia, which turned out to be contentious and controversial because of what some local authorities said was her “sexy” and inappropriate outfit. Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, in which Islamic dress code is not mandatory for the women and the constitution doesn’t impose harsh restrictions on minorities as compared to what happens in countries as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. However, the controversy surrounding the performance of Selena Gomez underlines the magnitude of socio-political divides in a country ranked the 38th biggest economy of the world according to the International Monetary Fund in 2016. The irony is that she was granted the permission to sing and dance for a big, enthusiastic Malaysian audience and then chastised for her choice of dress on stage — Kourosh Ziabari

Q: Have the facilities, hardware and educational frameworks at the King’s College Department of Music met your expectations? How do you balance your career ambitions and professional expectations against the realities of the school where you study and research?

A: The Department of Music at King’s College London is a fantastic institution for academic and research excellence. It is exactly the sort of institution I needed at this point of my education. I have been trained in music conservatoires which have been deeply practice-based with little or no academic work involved, much less research exposure. Most musicians just want to play music, and perform at the very highest level. I received that training in my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. The next step for me now is a very logical Ph.D. degree and King’s College London has the best music researchers with a broad range of specialisations.

My career and professional expectations have changed slightly since taking up the Ph.D. I remain as motivated to perform and be creative in my music but I am also held back by academic workload and intellectual preparation for my dissertation. Bear in mind, I had no exposure to most of the musicological theories that are being discussed very skilfully and competitively at King’s and therefore, the music feels like it has taken a back seat over the imminent importance of having a solid theoretical background for music research. Still, I try to balance the whole prospect as it is not often that one gets the opportunity to study as I have had in my life.

Q: Are you happy to talk about the possible challenges and difficulties a young musician might face in certain developing countries, including Malaysia, where you were born and have spent most of your life? Have you faced comparable obstacles in developing your educational goals or career in the United Kingdom?

A: I think the biggest problem Malaysia faces, and this might ring true for most developing countries, is not having enough awareness for cultural investment. Most of the country’s budget goes into areas of development such as science and technology which does not include performing arts or creative work. That being said, I find that there is an overall increase in artistic investment in recent years. There are some government-led projects that offer young Malaysian talent the opportunity to perform and learn from international experts.

However, the next issue that comes from an increase in musical facility is the question of identity. This is an issue that I am grappling with in my research, but also as a Malaysian. What does it mean to express ‘Malaysianess’? When we perform Beethoven or do covers of Ed Sheeran, are we expressing a Malaysian sound or culture? How do we express a Malaysian identity, and what are we doing to promote and preserve our music and culture?

We have local artists and local music but it is generally divided by race and the obvious linguistic difference. Malaysia is a unique country to express identity as we are a multi-racial nation with very diverse expressions of collective identity. There is not one dimension as to how Malaysians can be identified and this sometimes complicates collective expression, even if homogeneity is not the goal of any creative work.

The UK presents different sets of complications in establishing a musical career, all of which are natural in any musicians’ life.

Q: Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country. However, Sharia law is not practiced, and no strict interpretation of Islam is imposed on the Constitution. As a result, even though there’s a reference to Islam being the ‘religion of the Federation’, I’ve got this feeling that artistic and cultural endeavours are not subject to religious barriers, the same way they are in certain Persian Gulf countries, including to some extent, Iran. Has Islam being the state religion in Malaysia been a major obstacle to the development of arts and music?

A: This is a tricky subject to respond to. I cannot speak for what religion control is like in Persian Gulf countries and therefore cannot make a suitable comparison. The practice of Islam in Malaysia is based on a dynamic interpretation of Sharia law because of our multi-racial society which is reflected in our Constitution. Everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, has different opinions on religious freedom and Islamic practices and it requires a very deft and sensible hand to accommodate it in law, in social policies, and in cultural practices. Ultimately, what we are most proud of as Malaysians, is the diversity in our culture and how we manage it together.

‘Together’ is key in answering your question.

Occasionally, this is subjected to religious interpretation and it becomes complicated to have inter-cultural forms of expression.

Another way state religion controls the development of arts and music is in the exposure to other forms of creative work from around the world. This is a very contentious issue as it infringes on the choices of non-Muslims to have access to other forms of creative processes. For example, most recently, a huge discussion erupted about Selena Gomez’s impending performance in Malaysia as she was deemed too ‘sexy’ to be allowed to perform to the Malaysian public. This brings up several issues at once between religion and state, between freedom of self to practice any faith and respect of other faiths, between artistic practice and religious practice, and countless other debates. It is a fractured landscape at the moment, especially when the boundaries are slowly eroding through a more vertical mode of communication. Independent thought and a maturing sense of democracy is seeping into a generation of leaders and thinkers in Malaysia, and I am assured that if we love our nation we will grow old together.

Pei Ann kindly played something for me off-hand… That evening in Cumberland Lodge, she had played a piece of Persian music for me titled “The second love” after reading through the notation for thirty seconds. I don’t exaggerate by saying that she is a “genius”

Q: I’ve noticed that you’re doing a practice-based research on the effects of identity in the creative process with a focus on jazz performance. What are the scopes of your definition of identity in this research you’ll be doing? Does it have anything to do with the individuals’ national, faith or other personal and background-related belongings?

A: I’m a big music lover, apart from being a musician — and the two things are very different aspects of music-making, and sometimes they converge in my research. I recognise that we like music for very specific reasons and it is more often than not, a social reason. This is where my research becomes interesting. Why one musician collaborates with another is rarely to do with how good they are on the instrument, or what kind of instrument, though there are elements of that. It is also to do with how musicians interact with one another outside the musical sphere.

The reason I am asking these questions is that I am, for the most part, a female jazz violinist. I am a minority for the fact that I am a female musician in the male-dominated art form of jazz. I am a minority because I am ethnically Chinese in an art form that is mostly formed of the binary racial discussion of black and white musicians. I am a minority because of my instrumentation where the violin is not a typical jazz instrument.

What draws me to jazz? What draws other people to play with me? What draws an audience to listen to someone like me? How much do I reflect of myself, and more crucially, how much do I reflect of what is expected of me (as a violinist, as an ethnic minority, or as a jazz musician)? Should I? These are very pertinent questions of identity that indirectly affects my creative process and how I approach certain things. It definitely has to do with my musical background and training but also, it has to do with the environment that I am thrust in, and all the circumstances that I have to face. There is no quantifiable answer to your question (or mine!) but the creative process and the choices we make is based on our identity, inasmuch as we construct the identity also.

Q: Have you ever had a chance to look into the positive impacts of music and performance on the physical and mental health of the audience? How have those whom you’ve been working with as students or tutees been impacted by your jazz and piano performance in reasonably positive and constructive ways?

A: The short answer is: No. I am not an expert in this field but by virtue of being a musician for most of my life, I recognise that music has an emotional and psychological power over the listener that is beyond the control of the musician. We are trained to reach into our own resources of personal emotion and skill to draw out the interpreted expression of the piece/ performance — but what the audience makes of it is something that is never fully ours to control. We may provide an avenue for reflection and expression, but that ‘decision’ to be affected by music remains personal. Have I been affected by music as a listener? Yes.

Has music affected my physical health — Yes. I speak as someone who does experience some niggling injuries playing an instrument for hours and then having to be on the laptop for hours doing research. The combination of many different lifestyles puts a toll on the body. There is relatively little awareness about how musicians manage physical aspects of playing an instrument and this has caused a great deal of performance injuries which can be debilitating to their career and mental health.

Kourosh Ziabari

Written by

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award and an East-West Center Senior Journalists Seminar alumnus.

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